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.

What The H@#* Is A Team Player?

I almost always write a blog post on the Fourth of July. Today, however, I first thought that my topic had nothing to do with the day honoring our nation’s independence, but on further thought, I believe it does. I’ll let you be the judge after you read it.

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me “he’s not a team player” or “she needs to learn teamwork.” These are very easy statements to make, but a lot harder to substantiate. Usually I even think the person making the statement understands less about teamwork than the person he or she is making the comment about. When I hear this, I always like to ask “What do you mean?” Most is the time the response I get reveals a very limited view of what it means to contribute to a team. Generally, the person making the statement wants the other person to fully concede to another way of thinking. And, if you’re paying attention, they will also use language like “reaching common ground,” as if we are looking for the best campsite.

Recently, I had a friend posit the reason individuals refer to others as non-team players is because it’s the easiest statement to put someone on the defensive. When thinking about the times I have been called out as not being a team player, it has put me on the defensive. When examining this subject in that light it really does reveal the ignorance of the other person’s understanding of team effectiveness, compromise, and consensus building.

If team effectiveness is the capacity of a group of individuals has to accomplish their own and their shared goals and objectives, then we must acknowledge the dichotomy that exists. Teams are made up of individuals and those individuals come with their own values, experience, and goals. That’s what made the melding together of the group that we call our nation’s founding fathers so powerful.

“The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.” ~ Patrick Henry

I’ve studied many former leaders extensively and the greatest of those leaders understood the difference between teamwork and marching orders. Teamwork should allow for diversity of thought and allow exposing the best of each individual. Again, as I said earlier, teamwork relies on style and strength differences of all individuals. Right now I am reading The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of The Senate by Robert A. Caro. In this study of power one sees that Johnson’s use of power and definition of teamwork is that of being loyal to him (Johnson). Real teamwork does not involve loyalty to a person or “marching orders.” These “marching orders” shut down new ideas and results in only doing the bare minimum.

Caro also laid out for his readers the fact that sometimes consensus can be reached by compromise and other times it absolutely cannot. In those times when it can’t, there must be a consensus built from scratch. In reality, many times compromise becomes a power struggle where some have to give up to accommodate others to get what they want. If this happens enough, it becomes a power struggle, not teamwork or consensus building.

Finally, the Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 people. Those 56 people did not have the same views. We must remember that not any one of these could have successfully lead us through the revolution. It took a team!