A good leader can handle unpredictability

I have taken a canoe ride at least once a month for exercise and to see the animals and the constant change of the river. As of last Thursday, I have been on the Little Hocking River for 300 consecutive months.

Last month, I floated downstream and then up the west branch of the Little Hocking River. On the way to the confluence of the west branch, I saw a wood duck with five ducklings. As I started up the west branch, I saw two more broods, one with eight ducklings and one with five. I see the same broods as the season goes on each year. Gradually their numbers drop. I am not sure what happens to the missing ducks but assume a fox or coyote captures one occasionally for lunch.

Wood ducks have an unusual way of protecting their young. First, when danger presents itself, the mother leads her ducklings in the opposite direction with a furious paddling and constant warning beeps. When I come around the bend in my canoe, the mother duck’s initial strategy doesn’t work since I paddle as fast as they are moving.

Next, she falls behind the ducklings and continues to call them to seek safety. They pay attention and paddle so fast that it seems they are running on water. As I continue to approach, most of them dive and pop up in a minute or two near the bank or behind a log. Upon occasion, one will lose its way in the muddy water and will surface beside my canoe and immediately dive again. Sometimes they will scamper up the bank and hide in the weeds.

All this time, the mother plays an elaborate and dramatic role of a wounded duck. Repeatedly, she slaps her wings in the water as though she is helplessly unable to fly. She continues the act over and over attempting to lead me away from her hidden ducklings. If I get too close, she takes flight for a short distance and continues her charade. Finally, when I am far enough away from her family to be of danger, she flies high in the sky and circles back to count her chicks.

I am always enthralled to see the mother duck’s antics. For thousands of years, the same scene has been played out. I estimate that more than half the baby ducks survive to adults. Presently, the original brood of eight is down to five and one of the groups of five is down to three.

The mother duck is consistent and persistent. She wants all the eyes of potential predators to be on her. She plays the same part in almost the exact way. She is also teaching her young how to perform the wood duck predator-escape process.

When people are asked what makes a good leader, many people respond with the descriptors of consistent and predictable. Like the wood duck, leaders need to enable followers to predict their reactions to work situations. Predictability is not easy to accomplish, but moving in that direction can help a leader gain the confidence of his/her employees.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s new book, “And my Brother Jack: Everyday Leadership Lessons,” visit his website raycomlearning.com. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.

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