SupaThink: Birding & Leadership

Stephan going birding

I have always been fascinated by the connections and opportunities for learning between two completely different fields. Some of life's greatest lessons can be found in unexpected places. Like so many who have found new interests, hobbies, or passions over the last six months, to find better balance with the disruptions and changes as a result of COVID 19, my wife and I also found a new calling in the form of birding. While both of us have always profoundly cared about nature and the environment, we found birding to be extremely relaxing, refueling, and overall just a tremendous growth and connecting experience. To be clear, we are total newbies and rookies, but I have already made several observations, which I found can be directly linked to authentic leadership:

  • Curiosity. Birding has opened-up an entirely new world for us – filled with humility, wonder, and curiosity. It is amazingly energizing to spot that one rare bird you have been looking for or to visit a new place in beautiful surroundings and nature. Both of us have been fascinated with species' diversity and beauty and have learned a tremendous amount – especially from other "birders" from all walks of life. As I have gone through this journey, I kept thinking about how vital curiosity and humility are in leadership. Great leaders park their egos at the door and have this incredible level of energy and interest. They are humble enough to acknowledge what they don't know. They are unsatisfiable curious, and want to learn while caring deeply about the people they work with. Birding has reminded me about how critical being curious and humble are in leadership – especially given the difficult and challenging environment ahead of us.

Bird

  • Preparation. Louis Pasteur said that "in the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind." We found that to be so true for birding. You need to do your homework. Learn about different bird species, migratory patterns, or the range where different species can be found. You need to have the right gear, get up early, check weather conditions, and research observation sites. In short, you need to be prepared if you want to have any chance of spotting a new species. Unfortunately, too often, I observe a lack of preparation regarding leadership. Sometimes we simply defer to experience being the primary preparer for leadership. But, like birding, leadership demands preparation. We need to continuously learn how to become better leaders, assess what works and what does not, explore the unintended consequences of different actions, dive into the implications of biases, and research various leadership techniques suitable for different scenarios. Simply, as leaders, we have a responsibility to do our homework.
  • Patience. I admire my wife's patience. When we arrive at a good birding spot, and there are no birds to be seen, I tend to move on quickly. My wife, however, lingers a bit longer and sometimes ends up seeing a fantastic bird. This teaches me to slow down a bit and take more time to get a chance of an encounter. As leaders operating in a fast-paced world, which values speedy decision-making, we sometimes don't have the patience to ask another question or further explore the topic. This can lead to missing an opportunity, dire consequences, or errors. I think, as leaders, we must try to find a balance between patience and moving with speed. There is no silver bullet here, but lately, I find that as leaders, we have a responsibility to be a bit more patient, a bit more thoughtful, and a bit more deliberate when we deal with complex issues. As the saying goes: sometimes we need to slow down to be able to speed up.

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  • Skill Combination. One of my early learnings in our birding journey is that spotting birds based on movement or sight alone is significantly limiting. Listening has emerged as a critical success factor. Paying attention to the different bird calls and combining that with movement and sight have allowed me to capture a bird better and take a great photograph. As leaders, we sometimes limit success by only focusing on that one tool or that one skill. We shy away from combining or connecting skills and different tools to achieve better outcomes. The best leaders I have met over the years have this unwavering focus on bringing together the best tools, best skills, and best people to get a job done. They pay attention, are not afraid to explore their surroundings, and try different approaches or "combinations" to achieve exceptional results. Let's double down on skill combination; who knows what we will be able to spot?
  • Adversity. One of the most unique and fascinating birding-topic is migration. Bird migration is simply extraordinary. For example, in the Fall, the Artic Tern treks in zig-zags from Greenland to Antarctica, covering a mindboggling 44,000 miles – only to turn around in Spring and do it all over again the other way. I think there is a lot we can learn from migratory birds about dealing with adversity and resilience. As humans, in general, we shy away from adversity and favor ease and comfort. However, as leaders, we have a responsibility to face adversity and be comfortable with it. One way birds deal with adversity is teamwork. Many travel together in large flocks, and birds from different species team-up to make the long journey together. This reminds me of how essential teamwork is in dealing with challenging situations or difficult issues. Great leaders galvanize teams to face adversity together.
  • Ethics. The last connection point to birding I would like to share is about the impact we, humans, have on the environment. We are destroying bird habitats, polluting the oceans, cutting down rainforests, we are responsible for global warming and climate change – in short, our actions have enormous consequences. My new passion for birding has reemphasized my commitment to do more in protecting the environment. As leaders, we have an ethical responsibility to make the world a better place. My wife always reminds me to leave every place we go a bit better than we found it – even if that means just picking up one plastic bottle. What a wonderful world it could be if we all just did that…?

Curiosity, preparations, patience, skill combination, adversity, and ethics are key leadership aspects that have been reinforced by a new and unexpected passion called birding. I end this blog with one of my favorite quotes:

"What we are doing to the forests of the world – and to the environment at large – is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another."

This article was originally published on Stephan Schenk's personal blog.


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