When he lived in Florida last year, my brother called me and described how he had built his own organic traps for June bugs that had invaded his garden. Simply put, each trap was a small canvas bag with an open top and a fragrant substance at the bottom to attract the bugs into the bags. And come they did. As he dutifully checked his June bug trap the next morning, he saw several critters trying to scale the wall of the canvas bag, climbing one on top of the other. Over and over as the leader of the pack nearly reached the top of the bag to escape, the weight of all of the June bugs collectively crashed to the floor. The bugs then slowly righted themselves and began the long climb again with the same futile outcome.
Contrast the June bug story with that of geese. Have you ever wondered why geese fly in a V formation? Scientists conclude there are two important reasons: Number one, flying in formation conserves their energy. Taking advantage of reduced wind resistance, each bird flies slightly above the bird in front of it. When the bird in front gets tired, it falls back and allows a different bird to take the headwind. The geese can then fly much longer before they are forced to stop and rest.
The second reason geese fly in a V formation is to keep track of all the other birds in the group. Again, scientists believe flying in formation may assist with the communication and coordination among the team of geese, which seems more important to geese than to June bugs.
In my new position as CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute, I have studied leadership more carefully since the inception of WLI just six short months ago. The Women’s Leadership Institute is the brainchild of visionary business leaders, led by Zions Bank as the founding sponsor, who wisely understand the importance of women’s voices and perspectives in politics and in business. I might add that I am blown over by the substantive support and passion among Utah’s leaders for elevating the stature of women in our state. We are making progress but we have a long way to go.
This brings me back to June bugs and geese. In both examples, the participants want to get somewhere. The successful scenario (geese) offers the road map on how to do it. First, geese appear very willing to share leadership roles. They have a vision of where they are going. Geese seem to understand that every member of the team will have opportunities to take the headwind, and they do it for the sake of survival of the entire team. (I have also heard unconfirmed stories that geese that give up and fall to the ground are followed by the other birds in a final gesture of camaraderie before the surviving geese take off again.)
The behavior of geese teaches us an important lesson. Women need opportunities for leadership, but women must also be willing to step into leadership roles. In an effort to increase gender diversity in their organizations, several male business leaders have approached the Women’s Leadership Institute and asked for names of women for board memberships. The fact is that we are surrounded by capable women with potential to add critical insight and perspectives to boards and in organizational decision-making. Further, women make and influence 85 percent of consumer purchase decisions, so including the perspectives of women leaders is an incredibly smart business decision. But women often fail to see themselves as leaders and often need to be nudged or pushed into leadership.
Perhaps most importantly, women tend to have leadership styles that more closely mirror the behavior of geese than of June bugs. According to the research group Catalyst Information Center, women typically have a more inclusive leadership style, which is linked to reduced turnover and improved organization performance. The research also suggests that performance peaks when teams are composed of about 55 percent women. So step up, Utah women. Run for political office, ask about opportunities in your workplace and community and be willing to lead. We will all be the beneficiaries.
If you are interested in learning more about the Women’s Leadership Institute, visit our website at wliut.com.
Patricia W. Jones is CEO of the Women's Leadership Institute. Previously she was a co-founder and president of Dan Jones & Associates, and served 14 years in the Utah Legislature.