…on geese, ganders and leadership through followship


“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander”.

This phrase has been going through my head a great deal recently as there are two small lakes in front of my home.  Filled.  With Geese.  Their migrational pattern has landed them, literally, in my front yard and I have begun watching them, intently, because I learn a great deal about human nature by observing what is instinctual in nature. We are led to believe that, as humans, we tend to mess things up by over-thinking or ego-based endeavors and geese are often pointed to as an ideal.  An ideal for teamwork, symbolized by their flight patterns, but also for equality and the lack of double standards in stating that what is good for one is good for another.  Sounds reasonable, right? On the surface, sure.  But, allow me, if I may, to dive in and, well, take a gander at it.

This was not my first time to turn my camera and thoughts to birds.  My fascination with geese began many years ago while driving to one of my son’t football games.  There was a flock of them, flying in formation, seemingly headed in the same direction as me.  I followed along, watching as they stayed in that “V” and marveled at the synchronized, almost mechanical, movements that formed the wedge behind their leader.  Hoping to inspire my son, I found a motivational ode to geese by Jim Tressel, the head football coach for Ohio State University, at the time.  In his book, Life Promises for Success, he states:

“When geese fly in formation, they travel 70 percent faster than when they fly alone.  Geese share leadership.  When the lead goose tires, he or she rotates back into the “V,” and another goose flies forward to become the leader.  Geese keep company with the fallen.  When a sick or weak goose drops out of flight formation, at least one other goose will leave the formation to help and protect the weaker goose.  By being part of a team, we, too, can accomplish much more, much faster.  Words of encouragement and support (honking from behind) inspire and energize those on the front lines and help them to keep pace in spite of day-to-day pressures and fatigue.  Finally, show compassion and active caring for your fellow man — a member of the ultimate team: humankind!  The next time you see a formation of geese, remember that it is a reward, a challenge, and a privilege to be a contributing member of a team.”

Gosh and golly.  Suit me up, coach.  Because being a member of a team like that sounds swell.  Except… I was on my way to watch my son play football.  And it wasn’t like this at all.  The pecking order and hierarchical abuse from the top down created a testosterone filled culture that was inhumane and more “survival of the fittest”, led by the honked-off that fueled only a “goose” of encouragement from the ranks.  What was good in the eyes of the gander in charge was not good, period and he was not about to share leadership with anyone.  The challenges were, indeed, evident but the rewards — and wins — from this leadership model were few and far between.

As a model for equality in relationships, whether they be romantic, platonic or professional, it most definitely has a “do unto others” ring to it.  Doing the right thing for ourselves should also be good for the other.  A win-win scenario.  Too often, it is used, though as a defense mechanism.  You hurt me and so I’m going to hurt you back.  You went out on the town, you bought a boat, you took time off or “if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”  But this flies in the face of this as a leadership model because it relies, heavily, on the decision of one of those parties to make a good choice.  It says that the geese are following the one at the helm on instinct, trusting that all will be well, they will get their turn and because of that trust, all IS well.  And so we, as humans, must’ve gotten our gaggle out of whack, because my son followed these leaders until we entered the scenario where mama wasn’t happy — but that was only because I trusted my instincts to follow my son’s.

IMG_7687It is human nature to be driven and competitive and to want to win, even when you know someone else will lose.  But when it comes to the relationship between the goose and the gander, the need to win means that love has lost and that only contributes to the team falling apart.  In the traditional hierarchical model of leadership, the leader makes decisions feeling that what is good for them will be accepted as good for all.  We are seeing in the current political and corporate arenas that that is rarely the case.  The collective good of humanity is hurt by corporate greed and political corruption.  Those wishing to change the system within the system must navigate through it to lead it and when push comes to shove, the system is designed to protect the system.  I have dealt with this in working to change policy and procedures for bullying interventions, watching school systems and family systems fall into a formation that only served to protect the system.

Early one morning, as the flock took flight from the pond to my right, I watched them fall into place, feeling comforted by this process that had always been their pattern.  But, all of a sudden, one of the birds at the back shifted into third and began to pass.  As he moved toward the tip of the V, through the center, another bird shifted slightly toward him and whacked him with his wing, knocking him off this course and back into the back of the pack.  Ha.  There it was.  It is natural to feel competitive.  It is in all of nature to want to “win”.  But, what will always win out is that the formation is designed to frame the flock — a system that protects the primitive system, no matter the win/loss record of the one in front or the changes suggested by the one in back.  Resistance to change is ingrained in us genetically and culturally, but that doesn’t mean its right.  If we want to change anything in the world we must be willing to start by examining our own belief system and patterns.

Because, what is good for the goose is good for the gander, especially if we turn the turn of phrase.  Gander has two meanings so what if we move the definition of gander as “to take a look at” ahead of the gander that is the “male goose” headliner.  Reframing the phrase to mean “what is good for the goose is good to take a look at.”  turns us toward following a core belief of collective good, governing through community.  No, it wouldn’t look like the geometry of a V or hierarchy or organizational chart.  It would look more like what my 10-year old calls a bird party.  The moving swirling, undulating swarms of starlings… doing the same instinctual, yet distinctive, dance of survival as the geese.  Singularly, starlings are rather small birds.  En masse, swooping in on a field, they appear as one unit and have been known to devastate crops or take down planes.  More powerful together, they seem to be choreographed to move as one but as I watched them descend on the field next to the lake one day, I could see the movement of each individual bird.  They moved independently of each other, simply taking the cues from their neighbor and following their own guidance toward their landing.  Called “Murmuration” — it is the epitome of leadership through followship.  Learning to navigate our choices not only based upon achieving the goal, but adjusting our own flight path based upon the impact of and on those alongside us.

Murmuration.  I love the sound of that as a leadership ideal.  It speaks of communication and connection from a heart felt place.  Of guidance and adjustment and allowance and response.  It sounds exactly like motherhood, to me.  My movements and moments, in following my children led to the faith and formations necessary for them to follow me through changes and challenges that were necessary for us to not just survive, but also to thrive.  It’s how I believe Congress should work, following constituents. It’s how education should work, following it’s students. It’s how athletic programs and houses of worship and family homes could work if they were building who is within the framework rather than the structure, itself. 

IMG_7626On the surface, these organizations will all say they do, but it’s worth more than a passing reflection. Whether personal or professional, diving beneath the surface to nourish growth is
profound, but isn’t pretty.  It is a bottom’s up process that may reveal a part of you that you may not want the world to see.   However, If we continue to only be willing to see what we’ve all always
seen, the only thing we will take a gander at is more of the same.

According to author and spiritual leader Anne LaMott, “the greatest gift a mother can give her children is her own healing”.  Since a mother is a leader, it stands to reason that great leadership comes from a healed sense of self.  It was obvious that my son’s team was led by regret and fear and failure, creating an unhealthy toxic culture.  And I could not lead him out of that mindset until I healed myself in order to model what everyday integrity and strength looked like, which I learned from following him.

IMG_7649Whether or not you are a mother, you are someone within a system, somewhere.  As a leader, an employer, a politician or teacher, I encourage you to challenge the formation and function of your system.  Be courageous enough to break ranks and break patterns that do not serve the whole.  Listen to the murmurs within your own heart and navigate by the rhythm of the hearts around you.  You may get whacked by a wing… but you may just get the chance to lead.  And, with a turn to a new phrase… lead, follow, and make a new way.