Instinct and Shared Leadership

Paul Hoffman

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The natural world is an excellent classroom for the study of leadership and survival. How contemporary business leaders learn their lessons from the classroom of natures instinctual survival helps them learn how their business can survive threats both internal and external.

It is unlikely anyone will argue migration of geese is a natural instinct. On a bright spring or crisp fall day, looking into the sky one sees flocks of birds on their migration to summer or winter nesting grounds.

Looking at these flocks, one sees their V-shaped formation with one bird at the tip of the V. How do we define the front bird? We call it the lead bird – leader. How do we define other birds in the V? Is the word used, follower?

Nature, therefore, helps us define the relationship of follower to leader. However, that is only part of the lesson. Researchers studying bird migration tell us the lead bird moved to the front, not because of supremacy within the flock, but because it was rested from following in the less turbulent air behind the leader. The same aviary research teaches that the lead bird feels no shamed falling behind in the V. The goose flock multiplies its strength by sharing the lead among all birds.

Another example that nature research shares is the behavior of the common flickertail of the North American plains. These little animals poke their heads from their burrows and appear to scamper and frolic in their villages. However, upon close examination of these flickertail villages, one sees the playfulness of the animals and others set as sentinels ever alert to danger, ready to give the warning if danger approaches. These little animals share the role of sentinel among all adult members.

Are the flickertail’s sentinels group leaders or simply guards constantly scanning the horizon for danger? Long-term research of flickertail colonies tell of role changes, sentinel today, scampering and frolicking tomorrow. Here again, we observe shared leadership. When one sentinel sounds the alarm, other sentinels echo the alarm. The entire group quickly runs for the shelter of a burrow. They do not re-emerge until sentinels observe the area is clear of the threat. The village survives another day.

These two examples of animal behavior suggest it is instinctual in nature to maximize strengths, overcome weaknesses, capitalize on opportunities, and minimize threats. What does the animal kingdom know instinctively that in contemporary business becomes a strategic choice to align, fit, or match resources and capabilities to the demands of the business environment? Animal survival and business survival depend fitness matched with resources and capabilities – knowing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

The animal examples presented here do not support the leadership style referred to as heroic. One bird or a single flickertail does not lead the flock or village. Not one animal is the single charismatic leader that influences the entire group to self-sacrificing and performance at high levels. In these groups, it is a group effort to share leadership and through shared leadership, discover together their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Shared leadership in contemporary business recognizes that all members of the group have skills and abilities giving them collective expertise that they do not have individually, synergy.

Synergy offers the business group or team an opportunity to self-manage, share leadership. Decisions are collective with different members rotating in the role of providing direction or coordination based on the individual’s expertise. Team members naturally gravitate toward tasks they are good at and take the lead on those projects in which they are strongest.

Through synergy, self-management, shared leadership in teams and organizations, we begin to discover that teamwork provides business/community interaction that is instinctive to geese and flickertails. John Maxwell offers a view of membership on a team by saying, “I believe that people should strive for the top of their game, not the top of the organization" (pg. 17). The lead goose did not start there.

i. Hill, C. W. L. & Jones, G. R. (1998). Strategic Management: An Integrated Approach (4th Ed. ). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

ii. Yukl, G. (2006). Leadership in Organizations (6th Ed. ). Upper Saddle River: Pearson, Prentice Hall.

iii. Ibid.

iv. Maxwell, J. C. (2005). The 360° Leader: Developing your influence from anywhere in the organization. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.


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