Like Geese in a Row – What We Forget About Leadership

How do you keep your geese in a row?

Leadership literature is full of positive, aspirational advice about how lead.  And I’m all on board for the humble, competent, positive approach to leadership. 

But something I saw this morning helped paint a fuller picture of what leadership is all about, and what is required to keep your waterfowl in proper alignment.  Here’s what I saw, and what it told me.  See if you agree.

Like Geese in a Row - What we Forget About Leadership

Geese in a Row

Check out the photo above – it came from a walk I took this morning.  Lately I try to make a habit of taking my camera along on my walks in case I see something interesting.  That new habit was rewarded with this scene at a nearby pond.  A proud mother Canadian Goose and her six baby offspring paddling peacefully along.  They took to the water as I approached.

It reminded me of our typical view of what leadership is, though I’ll say it now – it’s not the full picture:

The image shows our leader very visibly out front. She’s the first one into the water, leading the way.

Her eyes are forward – She has the vision and knows the way to get there. 

She is competent and capable of leading her followers to the goal.  She goes first, and leads by example.

All good.  The followers only need to go where she goes, do what she does and all will be well.  

We can talk all day about the many aspects of those ideas, the implications, and the application.  Yet there’s a piece missing.

Here’s a quick 16-second video that the photo came from – it shows the fuller picture.

The Second Goose

There was a second adult goose involved, and his role was just as clear and important as the first.

He was last into the water, making sure all the rest got started. 

His eyes are on the individual members of the team, making sure they are OK and moving in the right direction. 

He’s there to provide help if any of them get into trouble. 

He’s there to provide safety and protection from potential predators (notice he placed himself between me and his little ones). 

And he’s there to keep them in line and doing what little geese are supposed to do.  It takes an occasional honk, bob of the head, or flick of the beak, but most of the time his mere presence is sufficient.

Geese in a Row – The Takeaway

It’s the same way in leadership.  So often the attention goes to what is happening out front and in the spotlight, but what is going on in the background is just as important.

Even on the smallest of teams, as leaders we have to function as both lead goose and trail goose: 

  • Visionary looking forward; protector looking after the team.
  • Exemplar showing how it’s done; coach teaching them how to do it.
  • Cheerleader squawking encouragement; enforcer maintaining cultural and ethical standards.

It’s not enough to be one or the other.  Just like this family of geese, one dimension of leadership is not adequate for the job. 

And these adult geese recognize something else very important:  soon their goslings will be adults themselves, leading their own little ones across the pond.  

Wisely, the leader’s every action prepares their followers to do just that.

Lead On!


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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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