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Five Lessons from the Flying V

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Rebekah Dorn, Ph.D., Senior Director of Strategy & Outreach at Florida State University. She is a MOR program alum.  Rebekah may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

I am often fascinated with geese in their “Flying V” formation and how they manage to create such a flawless shape. It amazes me how effortless they seem as they do it! However, in my area, sometimes these same birds that I was in awe of 10 minutes before are now crossing the road so slowly and holding up the traffic flow. As I wait not-so-patiently during the delays, I try to take a deep breath and reflect on the lessons we can learn from these winged companions.

The phrase “ducks fly together,” popularized by Disney’s movie Mighty Ducks in the 90s, is a clear lesson we can observe as geese fly in a perfect V formation. Studies show that this way of teamwork helps them increase their flying range by more than 70% because the uplift reduces the air friction for the birds that follow the lead bird. When a goose leaves its formation and group, the geese behind it face more drag and resistance, which makes it harder for the group to maintain the same speed and effort.

We can also learn from the geese in other ways, apart from how they fly together to increase efficiency. Geese share roles so that the same goose is only sometimes the leader. Have you ever noticed that when the front goose gets tired, it will move to the back of the group and let another goose take charge? As the former leader joins the back of the formation, it immediately benefits from the birds ahead of it. The bird does not remain the leader because it was “the leader” but shares the responsibilities when someone else could benefit the flock. Similarly, studies show that members of the flock take the lead role under different situations and circumstances, suggesting that birds use their skills and experience to benefit the overall good of the group.

Geese are loud birds that make cackling and quacking sounds to identify and support each other. There are varied reasons why geese honk at each other, such as mating and defending their territory, but researchers believe the honking is a way of telling where they are in the formation during flight. They quack to coordinate their flight pattern, find their way, stay together, and use a specific honking pattern to communicate a change in speed or direction.

Finally, I admire these birds more when I consider their loyalty to their flock through thick and thin. When a goose is injured or ill, two other geese leave the formation to assist or guard it on the ground. They remain with the injured goose until it recovers or passes away, and then the two geese rejoin their flock. I appreciate that these geese take care of each other when they are soaring and struggling.

As we reflect on the actions of these birds, here are five leadership lessons we can learn from a gaggle of geese:

  1. Groups that work together can achieve their end goal faster and more efficiently because of the momentum of the group work.
  2. When we establish an effective team, it is essential that we stick together even when things get difficult. We create synergy not in isolation but through working together as a team.
  3. We can share the load among the team members. Different skills and capabilities can shine when we take turns leading and empowering those around us.
  4. Encouragement is needed among team members. Recognize each other’s contributions and motivate those who need extra encouragement to achieve shared goals.
  5. Stand by team members during the good and bad times. When someone is going through a challenging time, our key role is to support and protect them until they are ready to fly again.

Ask yourself these questions: Are you working together to be an efficient team?  Are you working together and letting people use their strengths to move the group forward?  How are you encouraged and stuck by your team members through thick and thin?  The next time you see a “Flying V,” I challenge you to reflect on how you can take these birds’ lessons and apply them to your own leadership.

Last week we asked what have you found most effective in using the idea of “so what?”

  • 33% said to emphasize the relevance of benefits and outcomes.
  • 27% said to deepen team understanding and sustainable focus.
  • 23% said strategic justification and alignment.
  • 17% said to sharpen proposals for deeper engagement and impactful outcomes.

Asking “so what?” as we did last week gets to one of the most fundamental forms of motivation: understanding why. If we can help others with this, it is a form of influence. Decades of research has found people are much more likely to do something if they understand why that something matters. What can you do to help others understand why?