CoP Leadership - A Lesson from the Flight of Pelicans

Two days ago, I blogged about whether a CoP could evolve into gangsterism and Patrick offered a case study on a successful CoP gone bad through exclusivism.  In the study, one of the causes that led to the dysfunctionality of the CoP was the lack of a leadership renewal process.  It made me think of the flight of pelicans.

Pelicans prefer to fly in V-shaped formation because it reduces drag and saves energy on long migrations. It is estimated that probably a fifth less energy is used when flying in formation than if they were to fly solo. The aerodynamics from flying in formation allows them to flap their wings less and causes their heart rate to slow down.

What is more interesting in the flight of pelicans is that the bird in the lead at the forward point of the ‘V’ formation has to work the hardest by being the first to ‘break through’ the air, which presents resistance to its flight. The lead bird, however, does not stay in that position for very long. It drops back into formation when it tires and another bird takes over. This changeover happens throughout the flight – a type of leadership renewal process – necessitated by the biological stress on the lead bird.

In a CoP, I see the leadership renewal process as one where members take turns to lead discussions to keep others “in flight” and help them feel supported. The community recognizes however that the leader is not appointed or permanent but is one who in his/her natural sort of way, steps up to sustain the conversations. Then as the leader falls back from the fore to “re-cover” (their thoughts), someone else within the community would without hesitation, take over and lead the discussions. CoPs need such a leadership renewal process to migrate to greater knowledge and wisdom. In such a system, the spirit of trust is inherent. Trust in knowing that when stepping up to lead discussions, there is the freedom to also retreat, certain that someone else will rise to the occasion and take over.

Perhaps, the next thing would be for CoP members to step up their “game” and be able to see the truth from the magnetism of hearsay! “Birds may be able to see the magnetic north”.

8 Comments so far

Patrick Lambe

Nice post Paolina.. I think this can be just as true of teams as well.

Posted on September 29, 2007 at 08:00 AM | Comment permalink

Jamieson Teo

Great analogy Paolina. Unfortunately, doesn’t really reflect the human world. Its good to know that most of us agree on the need of continual leadership change. Issue here is many existing leaders tend to stay where they are and some of them ‘grooming’ their contenders and ‘proteges’ which might unfortunately, inherit their mindsets and ways. Though we do have changes in Stat Boards CEOs, little is done to ensure the change in the higher middle level. If your opinion, how often should leadership roles be change?

Posted on October 08, 2007 at 02:37 PM | Comment permalink

Paolina Martin

Hey, nice of you to drop by Jamie.

My tongue-in-cheek answer to your question would be the moment they expect only “yes-men” on the team. In most situations, this is undesirable but the fault I think lies not just with the leader but also with the people who choose to fit the mould.

In the context that you are referring to ie. within an organisation, I prefer to make the distinction between leader and manager. Changes in management are tough decisions for various reasons - long-proven formula, deep expertise held that takes time to replace or perhaps even just structural constraints that exist within the larger system.

In the context of a CoP, I see that there is no one “defined” leader.  We may have a CoP manager type of person responsible for coordinating the activities of the community and subscribing to available support systems for the community’s use. The leader, on the other hand, is more a person who steers and stimulates discussions, generates provocative and breakthrough thinking, helping others reach a new level of understanding ie. to grow. The leaders are kind of temporal and topical, they slip in and out of the spotlight when the need calls for it.

Well, that’s what I think anyway. smile

Posted on October 08, 2007 at 03:44 PM | Comment permalink

Hi Paolina,

Good morning to all.

With regards to your comment on “We may have a CoP manager type of person responsible for coordinating the activities of the community and subscribing to available support systems for the community’s use”, are you refering to a CoP moderator ?

As for changes in the higher middle level, I am not sure if rotating their roles in the organisation will do any good. I think some organisation are going that but don’t have any information of the success or failure to such an arrangement. Anyone has any thoughts of this ?

Posted on October 09, 2007 at 08:48 AM | Comment permalink

Paolina Martin

Hi Sunny,

The CoP manager or coordinator, if you will, and the moderator need not necessarily be one the same person.  It’s very much up to the CoP members to decide how they wish to run their sessions, whether online and/or face to face, and whether moderators are necessary and if so, are they to be volunteers, rotated from session to session or appointed for a specific term, etc.

As for the rotation of leadership, I was referring to CoPs and not the middle management of an organisation in the original blogpost.

Posted on October 09, 2007 at 03:28 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

I know of some organisations that deliberately rotate their leaders (or double hat them) as a way of overcoming the tendency to become conservative, set in their ways, and build stronger silos.

This is an extremely effective way of ensuring knowledge transfer as well, because internally rotating people see opportunities for cross linkages and collaboration when they move to a new post. After all, this kind of cycling round different functions is routinely done with newer managers as a way of building generalist skills before they specialise. Why shouldn’t this be extended to senior people as well?

Posted on October 09, 2007 at 06:32 PM | Comment permalink

It’s not just rotation of leaders that can benefit an organisation - I work in an academic library where all the library assistants move from one post/site to another every 6 months. As well as the advantages cited by previous posters, this helps to maintain and mature cross-organisational standards and working practices, share best practice etc. Staff who are regularly adapting to new environments stay more flexible in their approach, and inevitable personality clashes can be more easily tolerated because staff know that they won’t be working with this person forever!

Posted on October 09, 2007 at 07:32 PM | Comment permalink

Paolina Martin

Rotation of staff within an organisation is generally a healthy thing. There may be some exceptions though. 

Having also come from a library environment, the organisation had rotation of its librarians every 2-3 years to help develop the breadth of their knowledge in terms of library work but after the “full” cycle, the staff would have to make a career decision as to whether to proceed on a managerial track ie. as a generalist with more mobility given the skillsets, or on a specialist track to deepen their expertise in one domain which therefore makes them more rooted.

I think allowing the possibility for some “rootedness” is necessary to encourage staff to develop their expertise and be more committed to their craft.

The other exception I see is the extent to which the processes and systems supporting the function is structured and embedded. If these are loosely defined and awkward, there needs to be some core members who remain so that the function as a whole does not suffer from loss of tacit knowledge through staff rotation.

Posted on October 10, 2007 at 08:00 PM | Comment permalink

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