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What Leaders Can Learn From A Flock Of Birds

Updated: Feb 5, 2022

This article was recently posted on Forbes. It shows that the ideas of SWARM Organisation are catching on!


Have you ever seen a starling murmuration? This photo captured a beautiful one, where “hundreds, sometimes thousands, of starlings fly in swooping, intricately coordinated patterns through the sky.” Most people find murmurations absolutely dazzling to behold. Systems thinkers also love murmurations because they are beautiful illustrations of a complex adaptive system - a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey a perfect understanding of the whole system's behavior.

Human systems - like your organization - are always complex adaptive systems. And ironically, by forcing us apart, the pandemic is amplifying our ability to synchronize with each other, just like a flock of starlings. This isn’t just interesting to observe. It also offers a key insight into how leadership must include both leading and following.

Scientists have been studying murmurations in starlings for decades. In 1987, computer scientist Craig Reynolds created a simulation proving that complex flock behavior could be replicated through individuals following only three basic rules to create their different patterns of movement: nearby birds would move further apart, birds would align their direction and speed, and more distant birds would move closer. Later, in 2008, a group in Italy reconstructed starling positions in 3D, and showed that the birds sought to match the direction and speed of the nearest seven or so neighbors, not all of the nearby birds around them. In other words, each starling (individual part) is following simple rules, and the result is that the flock (system) exhibits a mesmerizing pattern of synchronization that can’t be easily explained or understood. Hence, a complex adaptive system.

We are seeing remarkable examples of starling-like murmurations in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s crucial for leaders to understand why and how this synchronization is happening, so they can use this force, as opposed to fighting it.


Our grocery stores went from business-as-usual to empty shelves almost overnight. One day, there was an ample supply of toilet paper and paper towels, the next day, they were gone. Then it was flour and yeast and oatmeal, and later, hair dyes and clippers. Nobody has been telling shoppers what to hoard and when, and yet hoarding has proceeded with amazing synchronicity, as if choreographed, like starling murmurations.


With social distancing measures sending most of us home and restricting our movements, our only way to get our “fingers on the pulse” of our local communities has been to consume local news or to talk with neighbors and friends on the phone, on social media or video. And yet, we’ve been observing that the mood within and across communities changes with remarkable speed and synchronization. From a sense of safety and calm one day (“at least it’s not here”), to panic the next (as exhibited in the grocery stores),

  • From feeling good about doing one’s civic duty by staying in and avoiding travel, to expressing anger at being unable to go to the park and anger that our political and community leaders didn’t act more quickly or more decisively to distance us,

  • From shunning masks and gloves and defiantly hanging out with people despite warnings from public health, to wearing masks and gloves and diligently avoiding people,

While some of these flip-flops are the direct result of people obediently following the instructions of authority figures or revered experts, the speed and coordination with which these changes ripple through the metaphorical flock has been astonishing.


Social distancing has kept us apart, locked away, only able to observe, understand, and draw conclusions about the world based on what we see on our screens. We’re exposed to a fraction of the high-variety individual experiences we’re used to under normal circumstances, and limited to the people in our immediate vicinity and to our work colleagues, family and friends on video conferencing screens. We are like a flock of starlings, each stimulated into coordinated motion only by our immediate neighbors.


As a leader, it’s incredibly important right now to make good, quick decisions and to send strong, clear, and consistent signals. Your “flock” is paying attention like never before, and it’s never been more imperative for you to lead them effectively.

At the same time, those good, quick decisions are directly dependent on the people around you. That’s because leadership means something very different in the context of a flock of starlings: it is distributed, it is inclusive, and it is completely reliant on effective, ongoing, and multi-directional communication. Every bird must be both a leader and a follower.


In the initial chaos of the pandemic, a command-and-control leadership style was a necessity. Now it’s time for distributed leadership and empowerment because navigating this crisis, you can’t centrally know everything that’s going on, you can’t decide everything for everybody, and your complex adaptive system needs to be able to quickly adapt. That means everyone must act as sensors and know how to alert the flock in real-time when they sense new threats and opportunities. The trigger for an important new direction could come from anywhere.


Each of your people - whether back-office or front-line, seasoned veteran or relative newbie, C-suite executive or individual contributor - is an essential part of your organization’s nervous system. A key signal may come from anywhere, and you can’t predetermine who will pick it up. Everyone in your organization needs to be on full alert and fully included in the task of detecting and communicating what’s going on around them.


Your communication channels must be always-on, transparent, and trustworthy. Rapid course-corrections are reliant on the effective and efficient transmission of reliable information from anywhere to anywhere. This goes well beyond your technological infrastructure, to the core of leadership and culture.


To be clear, your organization is not a flock of starlings. It shouldn’t be mindlessly shifting direction at the whims of any one individual. Right now, however, the conditions are ripe for murmurations.

Good information, discovered and shared by anyone, communicated efficiently and effectively, can enable the rapid shifts you need to make in a volatile environment (like sports leagues closing to protect players and fans). False information, gossip, rumor, distrust, and misdirection will also have an outsized impact and lead to rapidly executed bad decisions under these conditions (like grocery hoarding).

Watch how starlings lead and follow at the same time - you should be both amazed at the result and inspired to learn from it. These words, attributed to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollinof, express the takeaway well: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

Read the whole article on Forbes:

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