Head to Head

Learning from geese

The nascent decade is now several weeks old. Memories of the festivities are fading as fast as those life affirming resolutions which many of us make, ever hopeful of a new being metamorphosing from the old self, like a butterfly or pupa emerging from its chrysalis.

 However, unlike those well-intentioned,   but short-lived New Year’s resolutions, what is here to stay is the agenda of empowerment.  “Empowerment “has become the educational buzz   word of the new decade. Why even Primark has seized on an opportunity “to empower “by enabling   women and girls to feel   further emancipated and emboldened   when they  wear  Primark designed  t-shirts or hoodies with the word  “ Empowered “ emblazoned across the clothing! Demand has outstripped supply; such is the clamour to be a la mode. So is Primark empowering their customers or are the customers empowering Primark by purchasing such garments, thereby helping to create huge profit margins for a company already seeking to gain global status?

Similarly in the world of education , empowerment is intended to lead to increased gains in terms of school improvement; increased autonomy, better partnership working across sectors and regional boundaries and ultimately towards  that  holy grail ,of  excellence and equity for all learners in the system despite their socio-economic background . There are eight key players in the empowerment jigsaw all interlinked so that strength and enablement come from all working together in a collaborative and cooperative way for the collective good of all the learners in the Scottish Education system.

So what does that mean for us as school leaders? It is doubtful that anyone could argue with the premise that leadership in itself is empowering and that being able to inspire and empower others is a key role of any leadership position. John C. Maxwell, renowned leadership guru and author of The 5 Levels of Leadership –states that “Leaders become great; not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.”  In the context of a school-led system, surely it should follow that meaningful collaborative empowerment leads to highly effective schools and Early Learning and Childcare settings which serve their learning communities very well?

However the empowerment agenda is predicated on schools and school leaders being at the forefront of it. In order to empower, leadership must be shared, since no one person or organisation can be solely responsible for its success. Rightly the empowerment jigsaw reflects this. Team efficacy, agency and effective partnership working are of paramount importance if we are indeed to achieve those most laudable aims of “excellence and equity for all children and young people”.

Dr. Robert McNeish, a former scientist from Baltimore wrote “Lessons from The Geese” for a sermon in his church in 1972. This came about as a direct result of his fascination with the flight patterns of geese and other migratory birds as they flew in formation and teaches us much about the importance of leadership and teamwork.

He noted that:

As each goose flaps its wings, it creates ”uplift" for the bird following. By flying in a "V" formation, the whole flock adds 71% more flying range than if each bird flew alone.  

Lesson: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are travelling on the thrust of one another.

For us in education -with the goal of excellence and equity for all children and young people- by working in synergy we can make a collective and tangible difference ;working together in a type of co-dependence  rather than in isolation or in silos.

 Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone, and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the "lifting power" of the bird immediately in front.

 Lesson: If we have as much sense as a goose, we will join in formations with those who are headed where we want to go.

Scottish education in 2020 promotes empowerment and it would be foolhardy to say the least, for schools and learning communities to “go it alone”. There is indeed power and strength in working together and for the greater good, in order to achieve the desired outcomes of excellence and equity.

When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies at the point position.

 Lesson: It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership – with people, as with geese, interdependent with one other.

Teacher agency; leadership that is distributed and shared and an equal weighting to the partners in the empowerment jigsaw would mean that it is not just the school leader who is driving the agenda and taking the lead. All can play a significant part and bolster the energy of each team member. Wellbeing has to be at the heart of this.

The geese in formation honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. Lesson: We need to make sure our honking from behind is encouraging - not something less helpful.

It  is imperative that everyone in the empowerment system supports each other and works together to retain a relentless focus on reducing inequality and closing the poverty-related attainment gap without recourse to blame or criticism if the pace is not fast enough or the direction of travel unclear at times.  

When a goose gets sick or wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow their fellow member down to help provide protection. They stay with this member of the flock until he or she is either able to fly again or dies. Then they launch out on their own, with another formation, or catch up with their own flock.

 Lesson: If we have as much sense as the geese, we’ll stand by each other like that.

A culture of trust, respect and positive reciprocity should be fostered whereby all protagonists share the load in supporting each other to roll out the empowerment story.  

So what are the barriers or limits to achieving a truly empowered system?  A very real issue is that of excessive workload. Pressures on already overstretched staff teams with insufficient staffing or staffing shortages. It is very hard to feel empowered ,when covering  for teacher absence( due to lack of supply ,for example) means that the day job is still waiting after the excited children spill  forth from the school gates at the end of the school day  and the  beleaguered Principal teacher Depute  or Headteacher is crawling to their office to start all over again. Schools and their communities are being challenged to reduce inequity and inequality for children and young people, yet there are huge inconsistencies and variations in staffing and in levels of headteacher autonomy across the thirty two local authorities and indeed between Primary and Secondary schools.  In some local authorities, schools and school leaders are well supported by Human Resources teams and by Business Managers who can deal with issues not related to learning and teaching, whilst in other local authorities school leader workload has increased exponentially as a result of swingeing council cutbacks and the loss of key staff at the centre. Reduction in school budgets in real terms means that less is available with which to do more. It can be a very difficult balancing act, trying to lead, empower and be empowered in a time of austerity and seemingly greater accountability and public scrutiny.  

So what would the geese do? Despite setbacks and delays they would not give up! They commit to working as a team with a clear direction of travel. When a goose falls out of formation it harnesses the power and slipstream of the goose directly in front and flies back to the fold. In short, it seeks help. Geese are empowered at different points of their long journey to take the lead. Turn-taking and interdependence are of paramount importance. They honk to encourage others in the flock to keep flying at speed thus acknowledging and motivating. They are very protective of each other and will support the sick or struggling goose. Lastly, they do not vary their migratory route. Members of the flock may change but the core values and purpose remain the same. Each goose has learned of that well-travelled route map from others in the flock and is trusted and encouraged not to deviate in order to reach warmer climes.

To achieve empowerment we can learn much from those geese. Look to the dusky autumn skies and marvel at their energy, tenacity and above all, their team work. As that great American industrialist Henry Ford once said “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success…”

The geese have learned that lesson well.


Sharon McLellan

AHDS President