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Leadership lessons from a penguin

In the past, I’ve been inspired to blog about Leadership lessons from a mountain and Leadership lessons from a sea turtle, and many of you were motivated enough to add to these lists. Today (stirred by a recent weekend visit to the Calgary Zoo), I thought I’d begin a list of what leadership lessons a penguin can offer.

PenguinsThe penguin is a bird that does not fly. With feathers and a beak, it looks like a bird. And in most behavioural aspects, it acts like a bird. Except of course in this one very significant characteristic … that it cannot fly. But what the penguin lacks in flight power it makes up in aquatic grace. In the study of bird evolution, paleontologists have determined that many eons ago, the ancient predecessor to today’s modern penguin could fly. But over millions of years, penguins’ wings evolved into fins as they adapted to marine life in the Antarctic Ocean. And if you’ve ever watched penguins swim, you know that they perform with as much elegance underwater as their avian relatives do in the sky.

The successful existence of the penguin offers at least two apt metaphors for leaders. One … that anyone can adapt. In order to survive, live and thrive, the penguin adjusted its behaviour, and over time, its physical attributes changed as well. So too is it possible for people. We just have to be prepared to seek out alternative choices and be willing to shift our behaviour.

Two …it’s okay to be different. C’mon, there isn’t anything more unconventional than a bird that cannot fly! Yet the penguin has carved out a very successful niche for itself in the world. And so too can it be true for people. As leaders, we sometimes fall into the trap of seeking out conformity in our staff. But perhaps we should be seeking out employees who are unusual and unconventional, not only because they offer different perspectives but because they take on roles or fulfill functions that most of us may not.

So what other leadership lessons can we learn from penguins? Please add your comments below.

6 thoughts on “Leadership lessons from a penguin

  1. Good morning Merge. Loved your article about the penguin and how it applies to each of us. I agree that we can modify our behaviour so long as there are two things in place; desire and an environment that supports change and creates challenges. Like the penguin, nature supported the penguin by providing the fish, and challenged the penguin to swim. All the pengiun had to do is, go and get it. In the long term, nature supported the penguin through evolution; increasing its odds at surviving. If organizations are to survive and grow, they too need to challenge their people and establish a nurturing and supportive environment.

    1. So true Sam. The desire on the part of the penguin was fundamental … survival. But without an environment that supported it, all the desire in the world would be for naught. A strong message here for leaders — if you don’t create that nurturing and supportive environment, even the most motivated employees will fail.

  2. Good Morning Merge. I also loved your Penguin article!! Happy to hear that you enjoyed the Calgary Zoo. Isn’t it an amazing place!!
    Advice From a Penguin: Dress for Success. Look and feel your very best each and everyday. This will attract the eyes and attention of those around you. And because of their continued fascination for all that you are, they will even blog about you!! Including Merge’s Blog!!

    1. Robert, love your comments, they are always laced with your great sense of humour! I didn’t even think about “dress for success” … but you’re right … penguins are often used as a metaphor for tuxedos and smart attire. Good one!

  3. Very interesting study group, these penguins provide. The book “Our Iceberg is Melting” is a good read about change management.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the previous comment and will also offer that titles or even uniforms (in this case tuxedos) do not make a leader. Based on an assessment of the environmental conditions and acceptance of the risk presented, a Penguin/Person with the optimal leadership qualities will take that first dive into the ocean.

  4. Claude, thanks so much for the book recommendation; I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet! I have put it on my reading list.

    It’s interesting that you bring up that penguins assess the environment before they dive into the ocean. In fact, I remember noticing exactly that when I was watching them. The penguin in the lead would stand at the edge of the water and survey around him before he went in, and then the others behind him would similarly scan before they followed. Great addition to the list!

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