Skip to main content
Civil Service

Leadership: the duck stops here

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Leadership Statement
Head shot of Julia Ruane (b&w)
Julia Ruane, Stakeholder & Communications Manager, UK Commission for Employment and Skills

Working in Westminster it’s impossible not to be held up at some point by a group of bemused tourists following someone holding aloft a colourful something – usually an umbrella or, on one memorable occasion, a plastic flamingo.

What they’re doing is ‘following the leader’ – and there is no way you could argue with the idea that Mr Flamingo isn’t a leader. Where he goes, they follow. Where he asks them to look, they look. When he picks up the pace, so do they, and when he slows down, they amble along with him.

I’ve worked for organisations in both the private and public sectors where that is exactly how people are with their leader. In an almost hero-worshipping, sheeplike manner, my colleagues would fall in line with the Big Boss, no matter what their actual views were.

Storing up problems

Is this a good thing? The Big Boss might think so. It’s their job to get the group where they need to be, when they need to be there. And, after all, they have no naysayers bringing them down. But I’d argue that this sort of leadership approach is just storing up problems for the future.

This is because people are happy to follow when times are good. But if only one person is making the decisions, then there’s only one person to blame when change happens or markets take a turn for the worse. And it’s amazing to see how quickly the sheep turn on their shepherd. Everything that’s gone wrong becomes the boss’s fault, and they decry all the ‘obvious’ things that should have been done to prevent this.

I believe that it is during the bad times that good leadership really shines. When people aren’t dictated to but are empowered in their work, when they choose to follow rather than being herded, when they are contributing as part of a group heading together in the right direction, then they are experiencing good leadership.

'V' formation

Good leaders set a direction and inspire their people to get there too, they don’t just set off waving a flag on their own.

Actually, it’s like being a duck. Yes, I did just say that. Ducks really are quite amazing creatures. Flying in a 'V' formation, they (and other birds) can travel thousands of miles together.

Snow geese in flight
Snow geese in flying-V formation

Each takes responsibility for their role in the journey, creating uplift for their fellow duck travellers and taking turns to lead the flock in flight. By working together, the whole flock adds 71% more flying range than if each bird flew alone.

Can you imagine if we were all 71% more effective? It would certainly solve the UK’s productivity problem in one fell swoop. So, for me, I’d rather be a duck than a sheep.

But that also depends on me being prepared to step up and also be a leader. OK, then!

Can you say the same?

[Picture credit: 'Gimme a V' copyright:hjhipster, from Flickr and used under Creative Commons]

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by Paul Greenacre posted on

    Nice BLOG Julia. Do consider implicitly disclosing your sources though. It’s clear that the common ‘V formation management’ analogy has resonance with you, because it forms the backbone to your whole BLOG. So perhaps you could begin by telling your readers that - a sort of 'philospohical confession' if you like. There's plenty we can learn from a simple signpost like that, so we can go off and do further reading. It's very clear that you can write and it's very clear that you have a lot of knowledge, so by implicitly making it known to the reader that you are paraphrasing the V formation analogy, you provide us with a springboard to further knowledge. I once worked with an MD of a very large outdoor retail chain, and he would always make it very explicit what his sources were. So if he read about a particular management theory, he would disclose this and tell us why it excited him and how it could apply to us. I know this is only a BLOG, and that's why I began by suggesting that you simply 'imply' what the source of main the main thrust of your argument is. The danger with BLOGs, is that one can write with a certain voice of authority as if the idea is essentially yours – some would call this plagiarism. Being transparent and fully disclosing the sources of your knowledge tell us a lot…and in more ways than one. Having said all this, your piece did make me smile and it certainly got me thinking. A successful blog therefore methinks…thanks.

  2. Comment by CS Leadership posted on

    Thanks to Julia for writing a really interesting post. Thanks too for so many comments, we read them all and welcome the feedback. Improving leadership capability is going to be important to leading and managing change and there's a lot to do. It's good to see engagement with the subject from all points of view.

  3. Comment by Faizan posted on

    Wow, who'd have thought that a light-hearted blog post on leadership and waterfowl would provoke such rancorous reaction? Are we really so dismal these winter months?

    Great post, Julia. Keep writing.

  4. Comment by John posted on

    OMG seems like a lot of us have spare time to write on here about WHAT? LEADERSHIP don't think so ever herd of the saying to many chiefs and not another Indians. comments are true some times people at the top forget what its like on the ground we are the front line and do have a very good idea about the job so when we get told to change again we know its not going to work but the bosses no BEST. I have worked in the MOD and the British army for 12 years now And do you know what yes the pay sucks some times, But trust me half of you who have only worked in the government would be a lot worse off working outside of it. if we dint not like our jobs in some small way we would leave that's the smart thing to do don't you think? But no we like to moan. So that's my rant over I wish you all a MERRY CHRISTMAS and HAPPY NEW YEAR . were ever that maybe.

  5. Comment by Chris Lamb posted on

    The 'V' formation team, inspired by the migrating geese model, is interesting both in its greater flexibility from where 'leadership' may derive - (that is, from any point in the 'V')- and because it is a flat structure. Who has ever seen geese flying in a hierarchy?

    This is completely different to the civil service's organizing principle which, despite lip service to the latest management-speak- cannot seem to dispense with hierarchical super- and sub-ordination relations between its staff.

    I work in a distance managed team where myself and my colleague, who are Assistant Officers, quite frequently have to demonstrate 'leadership' initiative to solve problems in our own patch, from the back of the 'V'. The hierarchical management system over us, separated by geographical distance and its own work burdens, is often less equipped to solve these problems.

    Would it not be better (for performance purposes)- and more equitable- to develop flat structure teams where possible and elevate Assistant Officers who daily demonstrate initiative to solve problems in their jobs to Officers?

  6. Comment by Jim posted on

    Someone's been watching a BBC wildlife show the night before and had this revelation.

    Geese/ducks fly in that formation because it's aerodynamically more efficient - not because they are sharing out leadership and each taking responsibility.

    Let's see:

    The gorilla model of leadership: you do what you're supposed to do or you get pummelled by an angry 800 pound silverback.

    The tadpole model: everyone swims in their own direction

    and so on.

    Incidentally I'm much more convinced that the Civil Service follows the ant/bee model - with its many disposable workers.

    Can I have a senior communications post now?

  7. Comment by Tom1 posted on

    It's all very well saying staff should be empowered, but what I find is that we are given some poor systems and processes that we HAVE to use, even though they hold us back. When we point this out or complain then we are accused of displaying negative behaviours. If we try and find a way of working around the problems then we are told we can't do that.

    My Department talks a lot about empowerment, but senior management still restrict the things we can do to improve our work practices and then they wonder why we have become disengaged!

  8. Comment by Daniel posted on

    The problem is, leaders in many Government departments are often not the most qualified for the job, but are simply those who have the ambition and the drive to get promotion. The 'social climbers' who often end up asdcending the management ladder quickly are usually the types who move from office to office and role to role, completely changing as many proven working practices as possible so they can say they have 'made their mark' in their end of year reviews, then moving on to the next thing and leaving a trail of chaos behind them. Every time one of these so-called leaders comes to our office and then moves on, we have to spend months getting things back in order.

    There is no real sense, at least within my department, that those qualified to lead are given a chance to actually do so. In the midst of writing this, I have just been informed that one of our HEOs has hunted down several members of staff while they were having lunch outside the building in a public place to bellow at them to 'get back to the office, now!' - they had been out of the building for 15 minutes. Is that an example of flying in a V? More like a V-sign to those wqho do all the actual work to make managers look good.

    All the platitudes and metaphors in the world will not make up for managers who think staff are beneath them, and are so terrified of being exposed as incompetent that they will bully those of lower grades to try and keep them from speaking out against bad decision making.

  9. Comment by Tom H posted on

    Julia I agree with Grace; a very interesting read. I think some of the issues fall dependant upon where the leader sits in the organisation. I note above that the cry for more management/ less leadership is made and I think that has a place. But I see management as technical expertise; applying process to deal with know problems. Leadership on the other hand is something different and something badly needed in any sector. Ultimately as General McCrystal (US) indicates; the role of a leader is far more that of a gardener (nurturing to help flourish) than Chessmaster (directing and controlling each move). The Gardener (leader) has the job of bringing those with expertise together, providing a stable environment for them all to flourish, and allowing their collective genius/ expertise to help the answers grow and emerge. Thats my take (stolen from Gen. McCrystal) anyway. Thanks for a great blog and getting people talking about a very difficult but hugely important subject; Leadership.

  10. Comment by Mark posted on

    Wonderful words. But lets face the reality:
    It would be great to go 71% further if it was in a straight line, and achieved something.

    However, I am tired of being the one putting in the effort, when SCS are leading the ducks round and round in circles.

    It continually staggers me that the ducks at the front lack the ability to see what the ducks at the back can see, which is lack of planning, lack of preparation and their really annoying habit of making excuses and using bingo buzzwords when they do fly into the mountain that everyone else predicted.
    If you are in the MOD, this mornings announcement of New Style of IT is a perfect example.

    Please pass the twelve bore…..

  11. Comment by Grace posted on

    Fantastic blog Julia - a really engaging piece of writing.

  12. Comment by Susan Douglas posted on

    Shepherds go behind the sheep and use dogs to control the flock- European traditional way to work on upland areas. Other countries the shepherds are at the front. No wise to make references unless you know what you are talking about. Ditto flying patterns story. Must improve!

    • Replies to Susan Douglas>

      Comment by Julia posted on

      Ah well I grew up in the countryside with lots of sheep, and other animals. No flamingos though.

  13. Comment by Peter posted on

    I'm not sure about the "sheep turning on their shepherd" analogy but I applaud anything which supports the notion that a good leader leads from the front. Whether it's flying south for the winter or just getting the job done week after week the whole team needs to understand their journey and the contribution they each make in getting everyone there. When that really happens the whole team embraces responsibility for seeing to it that everything goes well and the increase in effectiveness is self-evident.

    Empowerment happens when people feel empowered, not simply when their manager tells them that it's been bestowed upon them.

    Are good leaders born or made and can anyone become a good leader? Well just as no-one is born to be a brain surgeon, all the training in the world won't overcome a natural lack of aptitude with a sharp knife or an aversion to the sight of blood!

    • Replies to Peter>

      Comment by Julia posted on

      Interesting question on whether good leaders are born or made Peter. I guess one thing that is for sure is that we can all be better at it. We may not all be fantastic but as long as we feel we are doing the best we can, no-one can ask any more.

  14. Comment by Jim posted on

    That would be nice, but until the current leader gets out of the way it's not going to happen. The only alternative is breaking off to make your own V, and I doubt you're advocating that.

  15. Comment by John Carroll posted on

    Sir Alex Ferguson used the migrating geese / flying ducks analogy when he spoke to the European Ryder cup team ahead of their competition in 2014
    I think he should have been credited in the article as this was not the writer's original intellectual property or idea

    • Replies to John Carroll>

      Comment by Julia posted on

      I think the ducks should get the credit for flying in v-shape. They, amongst other birds, are the ones that worked it out. Oh and the researchers, who did that study in 1970, before Sir Alex came along 🙂

  16. Comment by Iftikhar Khan posted on

    A very bad comparison of leadership, using the V-shaped bird migration patterns. It has been shown that this is instinctive and possibly heridatry in the world of migratory birds. Humans on the other hand are not just not like mugratory birds........... we follow leaders who have many agends, some good and some bad. Just look at our leaders, they do not listen to their staff regarding processes, what type of work requires what, too much recording for the sake of recording ratjher than dioing the actual real job. Leadership has gone downhill and taken a nose dive, I have seen it in my working environment every day since HMRC was created. Leadership means moving forward and up and beyond with the employees, not introduce cumbersome silly processes to do an operational job.An operational job means working on the frontline providing the public with help with their problems. A leader inspirres abnd there is no inspiration in the Civil Service for many years. The focus has just been on cutting, cutting cutting and no real investment in people, who are the real asset of any organisation private or public. Humans are thinkers, innovators.............. and not animals that behave instinctively or by their heridatry condtioning.

  17. Comment by stuart roberts posted on

    I think its another misconception that good leaders set the direction, after all, what qualifies them to make that decision?

    In my opinion good leaders should articulate purpose (especially important in the public sector) and then facilitate the conversation of their people to agree direction and how to get there.

  18. Comment by BJ posted on

    If we were 71% more effective we certainly wouldn't provide a better service - we'd just see 40% loss of jobs.

  19. Comment by Neil Woods posted on

    Ducks do not fly in a V formation, it is geese, and there is quite a substantive difference, especially at this time of year (you don't include orange with goose!). If we are going to lead by spreading the word the best practive would be to spread correct facts.

  20. Comment by Andrew posted on

    Can we get back to better management please? That's enough on leadership.

  21. Comment by Stella posted on

    Much more interested in the duck vs goose debate now