Byron's Babbles

Leading Like A Murmuration

Posted in Adaptive Leadership, Communication, Consensus, Global Leadership, Leadership, murmuration by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on September 12, 2020

There is nothing better than seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling the farm wake up in the morning. This morning was awesome as a foggy mist gave way to a very cloudy dawn. There was first an owl letting everyone know she was awake. Then came the first sounds of other birds. A calf moo-d, letting me know I needed to tend to the breakfast needs of her and the others instead of enjoying the morning come to life. There are so many sights, sounds, smells, and things to feel. It’s almost overwhelming!

Well, I got all of the animals fed and cared for and went back to observing the cloud darkened misty morning. I was drinking some coffee from my Hong Kong coffee mug (you all know I collect coffee mugs from places I have gone and love to use them) and looking out over a field of Berseem Clover I mowed for hay a couple of days ago. Then the show began! A murmuration of birds was feeding in the field. Hundreds of them flying together in what looked like controlled chaos; or maybe it looked more like synchronized swimming. A murmuration, or bird dance, is basically an aerial ballet with hundreds or even thousands of black birds, starlings, grackles, cowbirds, or red-winged blackbirds flying together as if they had one mind or a choreographer conducting their every move. This eye-catching display reminded me of a computer generated effect from the movies. It was spectacular! I was spellbound by the murmuration’s twisting, swirling, morphing, shape-shifting animation.

While it is not known for sure why the murmuration happens, it is thought by ornithologists that the birds do the choreographed dance to avoid and confuse predators, like the owl I had heard earlier. Some also believe the murmurations are done as a cooperative effort for finding food. George F. Young studied starling murmurations and he described this synchronized aerobatic show as, “…remarkable ability to maintain cohesion as a group in highly uncertain environments and with limited, noisy information” (Young, Scardovi, Cavagna, Giardina, & Leonard, 2013). Basically, the research team found that the birds have the ability to manage uncertainty while maintaining consensus. To do this, each bird attends to seven others. By only attending and working with seven other birds, there are many dynamic parts that make up the entire group that then performs the murmuration.

So, what can leaders learn from these dazzling and beautiful illustrations of complex adaptive systems? In the context of this mixed flock of birds, the leadership is distributed, it is inclusive, and there must be effective, ongoing, and multi-directional communication. In other words, every bird needs to be a leader and follower. Because the birds, as the research found, are only tending to seven others, leadership is distributed for all. The prompt for a new direction (flight pattern) can come from anywhere. Just like in our organizations, leadership should be able to come from anywhere. This allows for quick real-time change in a complex adaptive system.

Think if our organizations were set up like a murmuration; anyone could discover and share good information. Then, seven others would be paying attention, so needed shifts could happen efficiently and effectively. Now, this culture is not without risk; distrust, the rumor mill, gossip, and false information could turn the murmuration into a crash site. Think about the trust that Blue Angel and Thunderbird pilots put in each other.

There is so much to learn from the striking murmuration display:

  1. We need to lead and follow at the same time
  2. There is no single leader
  3. There must be shared leadership
  4. There must be trust built so that every individual trusts each other implicitly, and are prepared to move in response to each other
  5. Sharing information must become a pervasive instinct

Watching a murmuration as the birds swoop, dive, and wheel through the sky is one of the greatest performances to watch in nature’s theater. While we not ever be able to reach the perfect synchrony of the birds, if we will but follow the principles that make the aerobatics possible we can become effective complex adaptive systems. Remember, everyone is a leader and everyone is a follower.

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