Leadership is for the Birds

Have a look at this thrilling U-tube video  Starlings on Otmor.  You won't be disappointed.  Harmony.  Beauty.  Inspiration.

No collisions, no bird in charge, each moving individually, yet achieving common objectives – warmth, safety and security.  How do hundreds of thousands of birds become a single moving entity?

Is this akin to today's new vision of leadership?  Commitment that ends our dependence on the person at the top of the heap, front of the room, head of the table.  Engagement that nurtures and relies on the inherent, untapped abilities of everyone.  Leadership that isn't delegated, relinquished or abdicated. 

The majesty of everyone a contributor may be hard to envisage until you watch birds flocking. 

What are their rules? Design principles?

Frances Westley suggests three simple principles for understanding their complex patterns of behaviour and by extension that of movements:

  • stay equi-distant to those on each side of you
  • keep moving
  • don't run into anything.

Can thousands or hundreds of thousands of us engage without traditional leaders?  Can we pull together, work together without someone in charge?  Can randomness become effectiveness?

The starlings on Otmor are behaving in a way that should be impossible.  For birds – clearly not. For humans – we've a lot to learn.

  • What two organizations could/should you keep pace with?
  • What characterizes momentum for you?
  • What successful strategies do you employ to avoid/surmount obstacles?

The dikes and channels of England's Otmoor are the inspiration for the chess board in Lewis Carroll's, Through the Looking Glass.  Perhaps they can also inspire the personal engagement, movement building and whole system change we all aspire to.


Read anything you can get your hands on by Dr. Frances Westley at SIG at Waterloo.  She is Canada's gift to understanding the theories behind social innovation.

For more on flocking behaviour see the work of Craig Reynolds and his boids (bird like objects).


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One Comment

  1. ian@inneractivist.com

    Hi Al, This couldn’t have come on a better day. I am still chuckling as I write this. And I am always startled and mesmerized by the birds that fly around our City Hall here in Victoria. It is an elaborate dance that takes my breath away as I stand transfixed watching their synchronicity. And the fact that they so often fly around our City’s decision makers’ offices is somewhat ironic. Perhaps they are humbly reminding us that if organizations ran like this, imagine what we could accomplish. Thanks for this refocus on a familiar and sometimes invisible phenomenon of life.

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