Sunday, March 3, 2024
Laugh a LittleOpinion/Column

Lessons from Geese: are you following the right leader?

Trucker/author Don Taylor (“Stories from the Road”) woke up May 17th to find he had picked up a hitchhiker: apparently this goose decided there are easier ways to get home to Canada than flying. Photo: Don Taylor

by Rita Smith

Some years ago, a delightful piece of prose on the leadership qualities of geese by Dr. Robert McNeish made the rounds.

I enjoy this piece; I’m just not sure it tell the whole “Leadership” story.

All my life I’ve watched the skies, marvelling as flocks of Canada Geese soared overhead on their way south in fall or north in spring.

During my years in Ottawa, when I ran to work along the Ottawa River, I loved having the chance to see these inspirational animals up close. Alas: geese, I discovered, have much in common with sausage and democracy. As Winston Churchill noted: “Democracy is like sausage. If you enjoy it, you should never watch it being made.”

Geese are like sausage and democracy: if you are inspired by them, you should not spend too much time observing them closely. Not in a shared urban environment, anyway.

It is not my intention to diminish the incredible abilities of geese. How anything which appears so ungainly on land yet can soar so gracefully in the air is one of life’s great mysteries; a creature that can fly for days and swim forever has to inspire awe.

Any parent that has ever protected children appreciates the vehemence with which geese of both sexes will protect a nest, an egg, or a gosling. You don’t want to mess with goose near a nest.

I did get a bit weary of being charged by aggressive geese which stood half my height on the Ottawa River trail during nesting season. In the beginning, I chuckled and mused, “My, what excellent protectors they are.”

By year three, I was shouting from 10 feet away, “GET OFF THE PATH! MOVE IT, FOR GOD’S SAKE! YOU HAVE THE WHOLE PARK, I ONLY NEED A ONE FOOT STRIP OF THE PATH! MOOOOOOVE!” Some days, the geese waddled away in a huff; others, they planted themselves, hissing at me, making me run around them.

Still, I witnessed enough goose behaviour to maintain my admiration. Watching a whole flock, wings outstretched like parachutes, webbed feet extended like brakes, as they drop from the sky and land simultaneously on the surface of the river has never ceased to enthrall me. I’ve seen 20, 30, or 40 geese touch down gracefully in the same fraction of a second in perfect “V” formation and every time, I had to stop running to watch in wonder.

Even more amazing is to watch a flock take off: the honking is louder and more urgent, as the group assembles itself and swims forward faster, faster, and faster. Then the flock – beginning with the leader and followed by each pair of geese that makes up the expanding “V”- skims the water in an astonishing surface run with wings flapping ferociously, powerfully rising in unison above the river to take to the sky in apparent defiance of the law of gravity.

One fall morning, I stopped to watch a large flock undertake exactly this exercise as each and every goose followed the team member ahead, lifting off the Ottawa River in a determined display of honking and flapping, mounting higher with each wing stroke.  Fearlessly they followed their courageous leader as he led the group south to warmer climes, there to survive the winter. “Wow,” I thought. “A miracle of nature!”

Half a mile further, I paused to watch another flock of geese perform the same astonishing feat. Geese assembled. Wings flapped. Honking echoed. Together, they rose above the river and together, following their leader, the flock took to the air and headed…straight NORTH.

I stood transfixed, mouth agape. Surely, one of those geese was going to figure out they were headed in the wrong direction. Somebody was going to honk the goose equivalent of “Turn around!” and they would. The leader would figure it out, eventually.

But no. Following their fearless leader, this flock continued on, straight north, until they were mere specks in the sky and then, they disappeared completely. Headed for Canada’s frigid north, in October. I wonder if anyone ever saw that particular flock again…

Those geese stayed in my mind for weeks afterward.

Maybe, I pondered, maybe being strong, fit, brave, loyal and talented does not guarantee success. Maybe, I guessed, the stronger and fitter you are, the faster you can move full speed in the wrong direction if you are following the wrong leader. Maybe having the wisdom to get on the right team and follow the right leader will have as much to do with your eventual success or demise as any other trait you possess. Maybe.

I don’t write this to deride the lessons we can glean from geese: indeed, this was one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. Since that day, I have been scrupulously careful to ensure that every project on which I work is one led by someone with a strong inner compass and keen intelligence – in addition to having the ability to inspire and motivate.

Because there is just no sense in following the wrong leader, full speed in the wrong direction.

Thanks, geese.

–Rita Smith