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A leadership lesson from the monarch butterfly

Every fall, millions of monarch butterflies leave their summer homes in Canada and the northern United States and travel over 3,000 miles south to their winter home in the mountains of central Mexico. Even though the journey is long and arduous, instinctively, the butterflies know that they need to find a safe place to spend the winter. This makes sense. But what is very unusual is how the butterflies make their spring return trip to their breeding and feeding territories in Canada.

You see, the individual butterflies that leave the north are not the ones that will return. While favourable air currents permit the monarchs to make their way south to Mexico relatively quickly, the return trip to northern climes takes much longer. In fact, because the life cycle of a butterfly is just 5-7 weeks, individual monarchs stop for breeding and feeding cycles, and eventually they die before completing the journey. However, their offspring continue the journey. Eventually, it takes the monarchs four to five generations to actually make the entire trip back up to Canada.

Science is still deciphering how an individual monarch knows to return to the summer breeding and feeding grounds from several generations ago. Is it genetically coded into its DNA? Is it following the bloom of its primary food source – milkweed? Are they responding to immunological cues? Or are they just following the sun? We still don't know. No matter what the scientific reason is though, the fact remains that each individual butterfly starts its trip, going in the right direction, and trusting that somehow, a future generation will continue towards the final destination.

In many ways, that's exactly what leaders are called upon to do. A key aspect of leadership is the ability to envision the long-term health of an organization and move people and processes in that direction. And often, that involves taking actions in the short-term, knowing full-well that the destination is still afar, and that there will likely be no instant or visible payback. But exceptional leaders have the courage to start the expedition, clearly articulate the destination, and trust that those who follow behind them will continue the journey.

Leaders have to think strategically for the long-term, even if there is no short-term positive result. Monarch butterflies show us how it can be done!

So what do you think? Are monarch butterflies cool or what? And yes, please do also share your views on the lesson for leaders! What have been your experiences from a leadership perspective? Comment directly on the blog at

Merge interviewed by Investor's Business Daily

Writer Morey Stettner sought out Merge as an expert source for his story in Investor's Business Daily on how leaders can admit mistakes to their peers, employees, board of directors, and others. This published in the print edition of the magazine under their "Leaders and Success" page.

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