It was an urgent tour; being a Sunday, reservation in an AC Compartment was out of the question even in Premium Tatlkal – not for Mumbai. And thus it was that I was sitting in a lovely window seat of a three-tier reserved coach, on my way on my official business, drinking in the lovely sights for a change; and with my ever-present book by my side… this time, it was “Storm The Norm : The Stories of 20 Brands That Did It by Anisha Motwani”. My mind was steeped at that moment in business jargon, when it happened… when the surreal sight assaulted my senses…
A flock of birds, flying some 3 or 4 feet above the ground at best. Pristine and the purest of white, against a solid backdrop of lovely, beautiful green, with not a brown splotch for miles; and outlined perfectly against this poetic green was a flock of white birds skimming the ground, almost… just a few feet off the ground…
I was transfixed by the sight; I literally forgot everything, and just watched those birds, for what seemed like hours but was in reality only a few minutes. The sheer grace and the transcendental beauty of those birds was hard to top in my memory at least; I completely forgot that I was a modern gentleman with something called an Android phone in my pocket which had top quality Video recording facility… and just watched. It is a sight that will remain with me all my life.
The beauty was not just in the sight of the white birds on a lovely solid green background; a photographers delight if you will; it was in something else. The way those birds were flying, their sheer grace and the superb teamwork they displayed, as they negotiated the bushes and other obstacles that cropped up – they were flying at ground level, almost – without breaking “stride” or rather formation, in superbly coordinated and executed perfection.
Yes – it did make for lovely viewing, as the entire flock rose and fell, undulated in waves and flowed like water over obstacles. It was transcendental beauty, a sight that was unforgettable in its sheer magic. More than that, credit to the business book I was then reading, what transfixed me was the effortless execution, internal communication, teamwork and tackling of the task as one unit, with no leader and no follower noticeable from afar… in reality, there is one or at times more leaders in a flock. But seen from afar, it was impossible to tell.
That flock of birds taught me a lot about the science and the art of true leadership, and many other parameters than I care to count – all in those few minutes. Flying close to the ground has its share of risks and challenges, much like the business world; the way you negotiate obstacles is vital in such a scenario. And maintaining formation while doing it calls for a very high degree of internal trust in team members, understanding, role clarity, coordination and execution standards. It also highlighted the need of sticking to the plan even in the face of problems, and not breaking formation!
In business terms, maintaining formation while flying means keeping team intact, not losing momentum, keeping direction along the planned path; flying close to the ground indicates tough, fast changing environments. I saw in those birds that in order to do both, you have to have trust, communication, training, role clarity, skills, and a buy-in to the overall plan from the entire team. Without this buy-in, trust doesn’t happen fully; neither does role clarity. Role clarity can only happen when you are aware of your contribution in the overall plan; as well as clear communication of the desired deliverables.
Training is also something that is apparent; the clear realisation and expertise of each member in his or her role and being abreast of current developments; without which formations can easily crumble at tough obstacles. That brings us to trust and communication; two of the softest among the soft skills management gurus are so keen on talking about.
Think of those birds again; when the leader/s spot an oncoming obstacle, they alter flight path – and the entire set of followers execute in perfection, ensuring that the formation and the speed is intact. This also makes for a stunning visual impact – giving us another deep learning : a team performing as a team, in perfect union, has a much higher impact and effectiveness value.
To pull this off – the basic requirement is a very, very high degree of mutual trust among the entire set of team-members, as well as superb communication; there has to be both. You need trust to listen to and follow team members facing the obstacle, and listen to their suggestions and follow their actions. You also need quality communication so that time is not wasted in explanations and needless reactions. But most of all – it is the complete surrender to the group cause, total alignment of group and individual objectives – and the absence of egos and special agenda that is the key.
And that, in my opinion, is why Human Endeavours rarely perform at such levels of performance and beauty. And when they do – legends are created, and stories are minted of their performance – as we have seen both in business and in sports. The key is the crafting of a team that executes as one, faces problems as one solid unit, flies as one and lands as one. And the key reason for non-performance at comparable levels : ego, internal disputes / disagreements on strategy, and vested interests / placing self goals above team goals.
In the fast changing patterns and the fluid transformation of the flock from one pattern to the other is another story – that of plan flexibility and short-term fluidity in execution so long as the overall strategic goal is not compromised. But let us leave that thought here; that takes us far afield. Business is a bottomless pit, and let us not stray too far from the individual and group aspect of the learnings to take from this.
Is it really feasible to ensure total buy-in from all team members? To be a bit more practical, why cant we ensure at least basic understanding and buy-in of plans from our teams? Is it really all that hard to subjugate our individualistic instinct during the job,and focus on group tasks? It is reaaly that hard to align your teams and their goals to yours? Isnt that a key aspect of managing teams? Ego, internal disputes and vested interests will happen; we need to learn to negotiate them as managers.
But most critically, what hit me the hardest was that these seemingly simple things are the hardest to do in teams comprising humans – as Human Ego, individuality and desires intervene. The very qualities that set us apart as Humans can also be our biggest weakness! Given the numerous attractions that come in, the various temptations that hinder, keeping flying along tough paths without breaking formation is a test that can break the best of teams. But those that do manage to cross that rubicon… become the stuff of legends that are talked about for years afterwards. Just think of those flock of birds… and visualise them if you have ever been lucky enough to have seen them in a similar situation!