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  • Writer's pictureMark O'Neil

What's Leadership Got to Do with Birdwatching?

Throughout my career, I have had many opportunities to observe great leaders firsthand. Whether in the academic environment at the University of Rochester, the voluntary nonprofits of United Health Services, the faith-based organizations of Catholic Health East, or the investor-owned Tenet, each had certain strengths and weaknesses. However, every great leader had the ability to put together high-performing teams, simply by understanding the weaknesses and playing to the strengths of each member.


As a former healthcare executive and current executive coach, I find myself looking for great leadership in any endeavor I take on. Indeed, I find it wherever I look! Most recently, in the strangest of places: a week-long birding trip to Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas. You may have some preconception of who birders are and how they typically behave (and you would be mostly right). But under the right leadership, even stubbornly independent and often introverted birders can join together to create a truly successful team.


Photo Credit: Mike Doll

Our trip started as most birding trips do: seven strangers picked up from an airport. We crammed ourselves and our luggage into a van and drove off into the desert in search of our quarry. Most of us were strangers to each other, so we tried as best we could to avoid crowing about our birding prowess from the start. Still, by the end of the first leg of our trip (a mere three and a half hours), we knew enough basic details about each other’s family, jobs, and hometowns to start birding together.


Our guide, David, was a real leader. On every trip, you find birders with different, yet equally useful, skills. Some are good at seeing the first motions of a bird in the trees. Some excel at getting their binoculars onto the bird quickly and explaining where it is. Others can describe the bird in great detail, which is essential to identifying its species. Still others have terrific memory recall, so that they can relay all the species we saw at the drop of a hat.


You might wonder, then, why would we need a guide at all? Because like any great leader, David took the time to assess the varying skills within our team. He encouraged the strengths of each birder to surface, when and where they were needed most. Without a single negative comment during our entire week together, he molded us into a highly effective team of birders. He set the strategy for the trip, but gave us all the opportunity to suggest changes. He was the ultimate servant leader, checking to make sure each of our needs were met while maintaining focus on our results. He showed interest in us as individuals, not just birders.


It is absolutely certain in my mind that if any one of us had gone on the trip alone, using just their own skills, they would never have seen the 115 different species that we did in just seven days. It took real leadership from our guide to take advantage of the strengths of every individual member and mold us into a highly effective group, all in such a short period of time.


Photo Credit: Mike Doll

In the end, these are the attributes of any great leader. Leaders excel at figuring out how to facilitate each team member’s personal and professional growth. However, in the business world, leaders often have their own responsibilities that can at times take precedence over the team. When they do not have the time or experience to successfully mentor and lead their team, that’s when they could use some outside help. An executive coach can do wonders in bringing a fresh perspective to helping individual members of the team thrive, driving better results for the team as a whole.


So whether you are birding or running a multi-million dollar enterprise, you need to be committed to shaping and encouraging individual strengths for the betterment of your team. With this eye for leadership, high performance is virtually guaranteed. A good executive coach can help you assess your team as a whole as well as each member’s needs. Working closely with leaders, we have the added advantage of being an outside eye and confidential ear. With the right help, your organization can be just as successful as our scrappy team of birders.

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