5 Things Geese Can Teach Us About Teamwork

The following is excerpted and re-formatted from a manuscript I am editing entitled Lead Like Butler: Six Principles For Values-Based Leaders, by Kent Millard and Judith Cebula (Abingdon, 2012). The book, to be published at the beginning of next fall’s college basketball campaign, looks at six principles that have driven the success of the Butler University Men’s Basketball team. This segment looks at the value of teamwork.

E  very fall thousands of geese fly from Canada to the southern part of the United States to escape the bitterly cold Canadian winter.  As soon as a flock of geese take flight from Canadian waters they quickly form a v-shape flying pattern, with one rotating goose in the center lead and all the other geese trailing behind in two close lines.

Wildlife scientists have conducted extensive studies to determine why geese and other migratory birds always fly in a distinctive v-formation.  They found some fascinating results:

1. When geese fly together, each goose provides additional lift and reduces air resistance for the goose flying behind it.  Consequently, by flying together in a v-formation, scientists estimate that the whole flock can fly about 70% farther with the same amount of energy than if each goose flew alone.  Geese have discovered that they can reach their destination more quickly and with less energy expended when they fly together in formation. When people work together harmoniously on teams, sharing common values and a common destination, they all arrive at the destination quicker and easier, because they are lifted up by the energy and enthusiasm of one another.

2. When a goose drops out of the v-formation it quickly discovers that it requires a great deal more effort and energy to fly.  Consequently, that goose will quickly return to the formation to take advantage of the lifting power that comes from flying together. Sometimes people playing on teams will drop out of the group and try to accomplish goals on their own.  However, like the geese, they usually discover that they miss the synergy and energy that comes when they are an active part of a cohesive team moving toward their destination, and want to return to the group.

3. Geese rotate leadership. When the goose flying in the front of the formation has to expend the most energy because it is the first to break up the flow of air that provides the additional lift for all of the geese who follow behind the leader.  Consequently, when the lead goose gets tired, it drops out of the front position and moves to the rear of the formation, where the resistance is lightest, and another goose moves to the leadership position.  This rotation of position happens many times in the course of the long journey to warmer climates.  When a team is functioning well, various members of the team may take the leadership role for a while because of a particular expertise or experience.  Consequently, on good teams, everyone has the opportunity to serve as a leader as well as a follower.

4. Geese honk at each other. They also frequently make loud honking sounds as they fly together.  Scientists speculate that this honking is their way of communicating with each other during their long flight. Similarly, when working on teams, it is exceedingly important for each team member to communicate regularly with all the other team members.  Teams frequently fall apart because of the lack of adequate communication among the various members of the team.  Perhaps human teams can learn from flying flocks of geese that constant communication among members is exceedingly important in moving effectively towards a common destination.

5. Geese help each other. Scientists also discovered that when one goose becomes ill, is shot or injured, and drops out of the formation, two other geese will fall out of formation and remain with the weakened goose.  They will stay with and protect the injured goose from predators until it is able to fly again or dies. Likewise, human teams work best when they do more than just work together, but care for the well being of each other.

Be on the lookout for Lead Like Butler, scheduled for release Nov 1, 2012.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).

23 Comments on “5 Things Geese Can Teach Us About Teamwork”

  1. I think you might be missing the message here. Go read “Gung Ho” and turn something around. The fact of the matter is that you are not a scientist to be able to determine what the Geese are doing unless you have studied them for years and you probably have not. The synergy with a team and communication is the message here and it is trully remarkable to see what teams of people can accomplish together.

    1. I am a scientist who has studied the results of 200 years research into goose behaviour. These sources may be viewed at the British Museum (Natural History) (by appointment only).. I have also studied reports on US and Canadian government sponsored research through the 20th century which shows that N. American geese behave in the same way as Euro-Asian species. The point is the quoted “facts” in The Flight of the Buffalo are the exact opposite of the truth.
      To find the truth you have to research print media, often as primary material. You won’t find it in Wikipedia yet.

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  6. I think the point is, is that there is far better teamwork and synergy in nature than there is in the human species and maybe instead of trying to always guess who is right and who is wrong, we need to learn from nature

    1. Thank you. As a storyteller, I am not uninterested in the science of goose flight but I am more interested in how the metaphor of goose flight might teach us something.

      1. Well said. I am an avid believer of science as well. It fascinates me and always has. But the truth is, is that after several centuries, we have only scratched the surface and began to understand how things in this Universe work. An example of that is a video I saw the other day where a teen discovered that trees branches all grow in a mathematical pattern using the fibonacci sequence so they can track the sun all day long, and he used that discovery as an idea to place solar panels in a structure that mimicked this sequence to collect the most energy possible. Sometimes, we just have to look at nature, and see what it is telling us, rather than get out the petri dishes and microscopes and spend billions of dollars on research.

        1. Great scientists have the ability to both see the minute details of the trees, as you say, and also the larger forest of which they are a part.

    2. Yeah, the border on theirs would be pretty distracting. A smaller boarder would be much better when working with the full video.P.S. It’s strange to find someone else named “Tycho”, even stranger to find out that they too use blender. Are you my doppelganger?

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  9. I like this speaks on how having a strong team is important, sometimes we have to lead and sometimes we have to let someone else share the lead and give each other a break, communication is important when working in a team, and we should have each other’s back which is also important

  10. This was originally published in 1993 “Do You Know Where Your Attitude Is?” by Barbara Russell RN in the American Nurse. I hope they credit the author in their book.

  11. It inspires me as a leader. Being in the lead is very tiresome when energy is in full force that you need to slow down and someone temporarily take charge.This is knowledge transfer and delegate to others who are able to lead. While in the distance, oversees the leader and sensitive to risk (to secure the entire team) and make strategy in advance to honk and change direction. During task milestone some may drop-out in the lane. Sending others to help, motivate, to be back on the track again..this is good.

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  15. This is a good start when helping small group see their stage of development at the same time helped them to realize that feeling hopeless and bored are part of the group process. However, if they have the chance to view the flying V formation in you tube, it can give them the energy to re-think and go back to the group to help and grow. Just a thought.

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