Leading Through Transition: Tips for Leaders in Times of Change

No, this is not another post about the seven leadership lessons we can learn from geese.  Yes, it does come from watching geese, but it’s something that others have overlooked, and it has to do with leading through transition.  And as usual, a simple demonstration by mother nature carries powerful lessons for us about how to lead in chaotic, unsettled times.

Leading Through Transition - Tips for Leaders in Times of Change

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Snow Geese Taking Wing

They heard them before they saw them.

My friends were out for a walk on a crisp fall afternoon in an Idaho field recently.  From just beyond a low rise, came the boisterous squawking of a flock of snow geese.  Looking towards the sound, they saw the first of the beautiful white birds appear over the grass, then hundreds more swirled chaotically behind them into the sky.

My friends stopped to watch.  As the geese took flight, one friend said that the squawking and honking became so loud that it was difficult to talk.  The other suggested that they just watch and listen, so they did. 

(According to The Cornell Lab, snow geese are possibly the noisiest of all water fowl.  Here’s an audio clip of a flock so you get a sense of what it was like; for best effect, set volume to maximum; credit: SoundBible)

Gradually, the cloud of geese began to resolve itself into smaller flocks, which then steadily formed into the familiar vee formations.  As this happened, the cacophony began to subside.  Soon, it was a more muted, rhythmic pulse.

As the geese headed off into the distance, my friends finished their walk, and then one texted me.  “I feel like this is something that you would write a leadership blog entry about!

They Missed One

At first I thought, “Thanks, but it’s been done before.”  Smart writers have long been pointing out how geese fly in formation in a way that provides direction, teamwork, and mutual support.  All good stuff.  I don’t know who thought of it first, but there is no shortage of blog posts that all essentially say the same thing.  

Yet in copying each other, they missed one of the biggest lessons of all, and it was what my friends observed out there in Idaho:  the transition to flight.

From scattered locations among the grass and weeds across a wide expanse, on unfamiliar terrain, somehow hundreds of birds have to rise into the air on cue, form into cohesive groups while aloft, and set off in a clear direction as a single unit to accomplish their thousand-miles migration. 

How do they bring order and direction out of that kind of confusion?  What can we learn from them about leading through transition?

Launching the Flock

It’s no great revelation to observe that we have to communicate a lot to get things organized and accomplished, but there may be two things worth noting about how the geese do it. 

First, the communication tempo varies.  As important moments like transition to flight approach, they increase the rate and volume of their squawking.  Second, as loud as snow geese are, the way they communicate is not purely auditory.  They don’t have the kind of vocal precision that we do, so the purpose of much of that noise is to get the attention of the others so they can then demonstrate their intent.  

Combining these ideas, the geese, (and we) lead more effectively in times of transition by being:

Visual.  The leading geese are first into the sky so the others can see them.  In the same way, in leading through transition we have to be willing to place ourselves where we can be seen by our teammates, making extra efforts to get out from behind the desk, down to the trenches, or wherever our teammates eyes will go.  When things are unsettled, people look for clues about what to do; we have to place ourselves where they look, or they’ll get their cues from someone else.

Exemplary.  In this visible position, the leading geese demonstrate what they want the other geese to do – take wing, and follow me.  When leaders go first, we set the example to emulate and the tone to follow.  In an Infantry squad, where violent change can erupt at any moment, the fire team leader goes first, and leads with the mantra, “Follow me and do as I do.” 

'Follow me and do as I do.' - Standing order of the Infantry Fire Team Leader Click To Tweet

Positive.  They focus on the “doing” not on the “not doing.”  If the leader spends all its time at the back of the flock nipping at the laggards, there is no one out front leading the rest of the birds.  Same for us.  Our best investment is in spending energy on what we want done.  Leading with positive action sets the tone for the team, and reduces the negatives we’ll have to deal with.  The flock understands:  fly along, or you’ll get left behind.

Leaders focus on the 'doing' not on the 'not doing.' Click To Tweet

Communicative.   This is where all that honking comes in.  A steady and consistent signal coming from the leader is reassuring in times of uncertainty.   The more confused the situation, the greater the need for us to communicate frequently and clearly.  

Bi-directional.  Feedback is critical.  Between his own honks, the leader is listening to the honking around him to understand what the rest of the team is doing.  Likewise, the more fluid the situation, the more important it is to have feedback loops to help us understand and adapt to what is happening around us.

Continuous.   Once formed up and moving, the geese don’t need to honk nearly so long and loud, but they don’t stop, either.  Regular interaction keeps the team connected and moving in the right direction.  It’s when the others stop honking that we should become concerned.

Leading Through Transition – The Takeaway

What can we learn from watching our feathered friends take flight? 

Leading Through TransitionIn leading through transition we have to make ourselves more visible, lead by positive example, increase the tempo of our messaging, match our words to our actions, and keep the feedback going in both directions continuously.

Sounds like a lot. 

But if hundreds of snow geese can do it just by honking, squawking, and flapping around, think what we could do with words.

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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