For the Birds

Steve Wexler, Leadership Coach at Good Karma Brands, is our next guest author for Time to Win. He compares the flock of birds we often see in the sky to our business: our partners, our fans, and our teammates.

Read more below!

Have you ever seen those huge flocks of birds (turns out they are starlings) flying in formation, changing directions in the blink of an eye?  They look like giant clouds of birds moving in the same general direction before they inexplicably—and suddenly change course.  According to Smithsonian magazine, hundreds of starlings can change direction in half a second. Half. A. Second.

I saw one of these “starling clouds of birds” the other day on my way to the office and it got me thinking about us: our customers, our fans, and our teammates. Here are three takeaways to consider:

First, a few birds can make all the difference. Smithsonian captured these bird swarm “clouds” on video, then slowed down the footage to better understand what was really going on. It turns out that a small group of birds decide, in a nano-second, that it’s time to change direction; in an instant, the entire flock follows suit. These “lead birds” have no fancy titles or formal leadership roles. They’re not at the top of the bird management hierarchy. They sense opportunity (favorable wind drafts, insects for meals, for example) and decide it’s time to make a change. In our organizations, are there groups of people who see opportunity and are empowered to recommend and even make changes quickly? Teammates who sense this opportunity are not necessarily managers on paper, and once you as a leader identify those teammates, trust them to give their opinion and advice about what’s really going on.

Second, speed wins. It’s mind-blowing how quickly the birds change direction. They don’t stop down for analysis, committee meetings or data dumps. They don’t do a strategic analysis. Once they see the opportunity, they act. Are we built for speed, or are we bogged down in processes? Particularly in a time of uncharted waters, the ones who aren’t able to change quickly without fear of being wrong will drown.

Third, the birds are running simultaneously both a team sport and an individual sport. In slow-motion video, you can see that each starling is acting quite individually; that is, they are not all doing the same thing. They are literally “soaring with their strengths”.  So, while they are free to act pretty much on their own, for the team to succeed they must generally all go in the same direction. They are individuals and they are a team. What an amazing example of the “I” and the “we” working in harmony!

So, the next time you see one of those big clouds of darting, speeding starlings, ask yourself if our organization behaves like those winged creatures. Are we built for speed, full of influential team members, regardless of title, who can recognize and seize new opportunities? Do we encourage wild individualism even as we ask everyone to go the same direction as a team?

It seems we could learn a thing or two from these seemingly simple but in fact complex clouds of inspiring starlings who have built a culture of individual strengths and teamwork.