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What Geese Know About Teamwork

At a recent assembly for our Lower School pupils, I asked them to ponder a couple of questions.  I wanted to know who they consider the most important person in Lower School to be, and who the most important person in the whole school might be. 

As a school, St John’s is one large community, but it is made up of lots of smaller communities.  From Lower School to Sixth Form, to individual houses and forms, sports teams or musical ensembles, our pupils belong to any number of smaller groups within our overarching school body.

Sometimes, as just one member of this much bigger entity, it can be easy to feel that maybe some people are more important than others.  The reality is that everyone is equally important and has a vital role to play.  I’ve talked before about our concept of MeWe which explains how being part of St John’s enhances the potential and experience of every individual within it, while that individual also enhances the wider community through their contribution to it: we are more than the sum of our parts.

And it was thinking about this interaction between the individual and the group which made me think about geese…a bird I used to be a little scared of if I’m honest but which I’ve come to admire the more I’ve learnt about their fascinating behaviour. As summer turns to autumn, the sky fills with the sounds of geese departing and last month I saw great flocks of them sleeping in fields as I walked the dogs in the early morning. If you’ve ever looked up when hearing them overhead, you might well have noted the familiar v-shape ­formation – the ‘wedge’ or ‘skein’ – as they pass.  So, what can we learn from these interesting birds?

Lesson 1: By flying in the wedge, the flock increases its flying range by 71%.  As each goose flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the birds behind, meaning that they can cover much greater distances together than they could individually.  It is a wonderfully vivid illustration of how working together can produce vastly improved outcomes.  By pooling our resources, rather than struggling individually, we can be more efficient and go further.

Lesson 2: The lead position in the wedge is the most energy-intensive spot, so when the lead goose gets tired it drops back in the formation and a more rested goose switches up to lead the flock.  This rotational approach to leadership builds trust and confidence, sharing out the hardest work and removing the pressure by having no single leader. In a team situation, it is hugely powerful to understand how the team is interdependent on the unique talents and capabilities of every member. Sharing both responsibility and accountability helps to develop stronger, more connected teams.

Lesson 3: Geese are social creatures, remaining with their flocks all year round, except when nesting, and their migration follows a predetermined path, even down to favoured spots for resting en route.  From one generation to the next, they pass on this knowledge.  In the teams we belong to within school, more experienced team members can pass on ideas and beliefs about what it means to belong to St John’s as new people join. These informal networks help shape our understanding of values and culture so that individuals learn what matters to the group as a whole.

Lesson 4: Geese aren’t just being noisy when they make their distinctive honking sound as they fly - they’re actually encouraging those at the front to keep going!  When did you last remember to encourage or praise someone in your team?  Productivity improves in teams where there is consistent encouragement and recognition. So, when you’re working in a team, give some thought to how you could support a fellow team member, encourage them or offer a bit of a confidence boost – the result will benefit both that individual and the whole team. 

Lesson 5: If a goose gets sick or wounded when flying in formation, two other geese will leave the formation to stay with it while it rests or recovers.  They won’t abandon it and will wait until it can fly again and then begin a new formation or catch back up to the flock.  This instinctive behaviour to offer protection and support – never leaving a team member to struggle alone – is a touching reminder that we should stand by one another, particularly in tricky times, caring about the wellbeing of our fellow team members, being kind, and looking out for one another. 

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey