Leadership Lessons from Geese

I made this presentation for an assembly a couple of years ago.

I have since discovered several identical versions on the internet.. but this was my effort. The point of the assembly is obvious enough. Although it has spawned a continuing stream of ‘animal analogy’ or goose-themed gags from my students ever since, the messages are clear: teamwork, taking your turn at the front, supporting your peers, being encouraging – it all pays dividends. At the same time, going it alone is hard. I’d recommend this as assembly material for any age group, especially to encourage less assertive students to step forward to take their turn at the front.

However, it struck me again this week after our initial SLT sessions, that the analogy is especially apt for an effective leadership team. I have the privilege of working with exceptional people – and I don’t say that lightly. Individually, the members of my team are all highly talented; I’m in awe of them! However, that is not enough in itself; it is the geese-like team ethic that we have forged over the last few years that is really our greatest strength.

What have been the key factors in generating and sustaining the team dynamic? There are some simple practical strategies that we use that have been particularly important:

1) Investing time in agreeing common goals

At strategic points we have taken time out, away from the day-to-day, to talk through what we want to achieve. At the very start, we talked about shared values, common beliefs, principles and ambitions. We had some props – lots and lots of words on cards that could be sorted and ranked – but it was really just the fact of having the conversations that mattered. Since then we’ve undertaken various stock-takes so we’re clear about what matters and what is just noise. We’ll need to continue this for ever… and just occasionally have a proper cards-on-table thrash-out over key points of principle.

2) Reflecting on the processes:

SLT meetings, CPD sessions, documents, emails, line management, assemblies, staff meetings, ‘difficult conversations’, reports to Governors, data analyses…… the whole lot can be done well or done badly; they are never easy and need to be worked at. So we spend time talking about them Importantly, we talk about our own meetings: the dynamics, the paperwork, the timing keeping – the nitty-gritty stuff. By working out what works well and what we variously find irritating or inefficient, we cut out some of the noise and devote time to the core issues. Every so often, we have a word with ourselves and resolve to do better still!

3) Rotating the Chair:

Sometimes I think this is the best idea I’ve ever had! A friend/colleague in a previous school joined my SLT; early on she said.. ‘blimey, you don’t half go on!’ OK… point taken; unchecked, I talk too much. So, the solution – rotate the Chair. Works like a dream and now at KEGS we use this all the time. Every member of SLT, takes an equal share in the role as Chair. This involves ‘owning’ the agenda-setting process for the week and conducting the meetings. The consequence is that each week, a fresh person is in the driving seat; there is a continuing sense of purpose, a high level of ‘lets just get on with it’ discipline and multiple voices. As Head, it frees me up to think more freely, without having to run most of the meetings; it also forces me to listen. The effect is powerful…. ideas before egos and true Geese-like formation flying!

4) Inviting Associate Members each term

This is the second best idea I’ve ever had: Each term, a different member of staff joins SLT as an Associate. They have no portfolio or additional duties except that they take a full part in all the meetings, including taking their turn as Chair. The effect is fantastic. From our perspective, it forces us, continually in every discussion, to think about how messages are communicated into and out of the SLT. We can’t decline into cliquey insularity and we have to model effective team behaviours at all times. In addition, crucially, we gain the insights of a different staff member each term. This is what two recent Associates said about the experience:

  • I really enjoyed the experience and was grateful for it; it helped me to understand the role, remit and dynamics of SLT as a whole, and also the individual SLT posts, better than I did before
  • I am now aware of a much broader spectrum of issues that face the school, and factors that affect decision making, than I ever was before – and I think I realised that decision making at that level is much more multi-faceted and difficult than I perhaps understood
  • Seeing others model decision making and problem solving unexpectedly made me think much more analytically about my own positions of responsibility and how I work through or identify challenges (particularly as Head of Department) and I think it genuinely improved/developed me in this regard
  • The existence of Associate SLT members brings a perception of transparency and openness the leadership of the school which is hugely welcome – and I hope that it helps SLT to feel like they always have a link to the rest of the teaching staff too.
    Associate membership is an excellent programme, as much for what “outsiders” can bring to the leadership team as for what the experience gives the associate. I try to take a broader, longer view of what we do – and one of the most interesting things about associate membership was the opportunity to do just that. Although it didn’t always seem that way – SLT can be a fairly high octane environment, and I often didn’t feel sure that I was going about things in the way that I ought to – it was a really validating experience. It made me think hard and continually about the ways in which the educational decisions we make hundreds of times a day in classrooms impact on individual students and the wider community – It can sometimes be hard to remain aware of that. So while not every SLT conversation was directly focused on Teaching and Learning, I sincerely believe that My SLT term has had a wholly positive effect on my classroom practice. If I ever had the chance to do it again I am sure I would get twice as much out of it! 

5) Celebrating and Nurturing

Just like Geese, we do a lot of ‘honking’, encouraging people to have a go, try something out, tackle the challenge. We also reflect at length on all the difficulties and set-backs. We are hard on ourselves – is there more we can do? We also carry each other whenever that is needed; real life can be much tougher than school life and family always comes first. We’re pretty good at remembering that!

Honk Honk….


  1. I was part of this training 8 or 9 years ago at Alexandra Park School with HeadGuruTeacher. I still remember this today and it will certainly be featuring on my staff CPD program this year. Thanks for sharing again Tom. Miss working with you…


  2. Interesting.

    Nevertheless, I remember reading a book intended for would-be writers. Some of the advice given was always to think one had a set number of stereotype individuals (there was a number, but this is so long ago I cannot remember that!). One of those individuals would *always* see the funny meaning, or a meaning that one had not intended, if that meaning were at all possible from reading what one wrote.

    I’m a bit like that. I’m the reader who always says “really? who says?”

    Your presentation on geese was fascinating. I should only have liked a few footnotes – just so that I could check the factual basis of your claims about how geese behave, and your interpretation on why they behave in the manner you describe. It would not decrease the chance of that magnetic leadership field you have also written about on this blog from collapsing – should one or more of your claims turn out to be an “urban myth”.


  3. I’m afraid, having done a week or so of looking this thing up, I am unable to find any scientific source that verifies anything other than the obvious – that flying in a “V” formation is aerodynamically beneficial to the geese (or other birds). I have, however, found out that, as you mention yourself, there are many versions of this on the Internet – and these are the only “sources” behind the story. At the same time, I have found someone who claims that the US Library of Congress used to quote the same goose myth on its website until he challenged it to verify its scientific basis – whereupon they removed it. This person writes that the goose story is a myth, invented by management consultants in order to support their organisational structures see http://lenwilson.us/5-thing-geese-can-teach-us-about-teamwork/ – and I regret to say that, from the evidence I have so far, I agree.


    • Do you think that really matters in this context? I don’t. The geese take turns at the front – probably randomly by chance. The V certainly helps – Geese clearly don’t fly in a random pack. Do they help each other back to health… I would bet someone had observed this – and the also certainly honk. It is encouragement? Who knows. It works for me….


      • For me, the important thing is to find ways to understand how to run schools in the best possible way for the benefit of young people. I like the “lessons from Geese” idea because it makes sense in terms of sharing leadership in a team. If it turns out not to be totally based on true goose behaviour in every respect, I think I can live with that. I mean that sincerely.


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