Lead Like a Fish

08/04/2016 08:43 am ET Updated Aug 04, 2016

Lead Like a Fish

© Wes Gow

Fish get kind of a bad rap in pop culture.  For example, a handshake like a dead fish is never a good thing, and neither is being accused of merely giving a man a fish as opposed to teaching him the trade.  Furthermore, no one wants to be the kind of houseguests that Ben Franklin famously describes, who, “...like fish, begin to smell after three days.”

Similarly, I’d wager that aside from the southern seaboard states and the trendy sushi crowds, fish in general rarely make the meal rotation.

But I’m suggesting here that we can learn an important leadership lesson from fish, particularly the species that travel in large schools.

What do you notice from the picture above?

There’s no evident leader.

And yet we’ve all seen the beautiful undersea footage of a massive school of fish maneuvering as a single living organism.  (This phenomena was also well-illustrated in the adventures of a certain clown fish!)

So how do they do it and what’s it got to do with leadership?

Ironically (or not?), I’m a big biology nerd with undergraduate and graduate degrees in the discipline.  My first job out of college required almost as much time underwater as it did on land!  Needless to say, I’m a fish fan, but I’ll restrain myself to the Cliffs Notes answer to the first question.  All fish possess a sense called the “lateral line,” which extends laterally - as you’d expect - down the length of both sides of their bodies.  As an example, the snook, (an awesome coastal game fish in Florida!) possesses a particularly pronounced lateral line:

This line is essentially comprised of tiny cilia, or sensory hairs, that detect nearby vibrations in the water column.  A large school of fish, then, is able to swim together in coordinated fashion in part because they are highly attuned to each other.

What’s the connection with leadership?  Exactly that.  The most effective leaders are those who stay highly attuned to their team.  

So how can you gauge this?  There are many ways, I believe, but at the risk of overreaching, consider once again our first conclusion about the picture of a school of fish:  there’s no apparent leader.  Think about that.

Most times we think about leaders who are out in front, bravely leading the charge to take the hill.  No doubt that’s an accurate image; an effective leader is one who is able to see the preferred future before anyone else.  But those moments of great risk are generally rare, (or maybe hopefully rare in an organization).

Other times we think of leadership from the vantage point of a cattle drive, leading from the rear and deftly moving your team along.  This is also accurate in the life cycle of a leader, especially in regards to seasons of significant change management.

But as it pertains to fish, how often are you leading from within?

Not out in front charging the hill.

Not from behind guarding the strays.

I’m talking about rubbing “fins” together in the trenches of the day-to-day, highly attuned to the subtle needs and nuances of your team.

In fact in my experience, I’d suggest that only when you’ve led like a fish are you then able to effectively take the hill or guard the strays in those seasons of risk and change!

Think like a fish.  Get to know your team.  It’s not as sexy as the daring general or the rustic cowboy, but it’s the real life and times of leading within your organization, and it’ll pay huge dividends when you do need to lead the charge or move the herd.

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