Schooled in Leadership

By Liz McBride

dateWed, Jul 15, 2015 @ 09:00 AM

I’ve missed my calling as a Fish Trainer. Animal behavior is fascinating - especially if it confirms the DNA Effective-Leadershipof what makes an effective leader.

University of Bristol conducted a study on fish and effective leadership. Why didn’t I think of that? Scientists trained fish on where the food source was.

When ‘untrained’ fish were added to the environment with a ‘trained’ fish (a leader) either all or none of the untrained fish followed the trained fish:

  • Some trained fish were highly goal-oriented and took the most direct path, but the untrained fish would not follow.
  • Other trained fish would balance between achieving the goal while making sure the untrained fish were able to follow.

The lesson our scaled friends are giving us is not to be so individually goal driven that you isolate yourself from the group. Fish would reach a consensus on whether or not to follow the leader. If you have such a polarizing, strong desire to achieve the goal, you may look back and notice no one is following. Successful leaders still have the desire to achieve the goal but know the greater achievement is to cultivate a team who will follow.

A trend I’ve noticed among CEOs is how lonely it is at the top. Reasons for the loneliness include these:

  • There are fewer perspectives or advice at the top resulting in pressure to make quick, effective decisions solo.
  • They get a filtered down version of the truth the higher the information flows.
  • They feel as though some reaching out to him/her may be opportunists, and therefore, they have a tendency to build up walls.

I had these lonely CEOs on my mind when reading the fish study. If we look at it through the fish tank, some CEOs may swim the quickest path towards their goals with no one in their wake. Not because they necessarily mean to do so, but out of a feeling of necessity as they don’t gain enough perspective and advice to do otherwise. They’ve unknowingly (or knowingly) shut off anyone trying to swim after them for fear they are at risk of being taken advantage of, or worse, not getting the tasty reward themselves.

When you look behind you in the fish tank, is anyone following?

Also fascinating to me is these same lonely CEOs are faced with a huge gap in talent and succession planning. Who will fill their bench? If you’re not balancing the quickest path to the goal with taking your school of potentials with you, your legacy may be what will truly be left behind.

The fish had no trouble deciding: “Do we all go? No? OK, let’s not follow Mr. Fancy Fish and swim our own way. He’s all about himself anyway.” If I think back to my Fish Leaders, I’ve had some who I’ve followed and others who left me in their wake. They only had to leave me behind once or twice before I’d find my own path.

I am pretty confident the fish leaders who consistently scored a school of faithful followers had a few things up their gills:

  • A coach who could help them navigate the waves and find the outside-in perspective they need. These coaches would keep them in the know while remaining brutally honest in any needed adjustments to their stroke.
  • Clarity on the following:
    • what goal they are after with a cascaded message throughout the tank
    • what each fish’s role is to get them there
    • the metrics and dashboards used to track progress and make adjustments
  • Positive intent to teach others how to get there so others can enjoy the tasty treat and carry on the legacy.
  • Feedback and appreciation to every fish along the journey. If Mr. Fancy Fish appreciated those around him, he’d have faithful followers. He’d also have removed his own walls and would have been able to gain perspective from those who swim the most.


Well, I’m off to go train some squirrels on leadership effectiveness. In the meantime, if you have any other perspectives on what the fish were ‘saying’, I’d love to hear.


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Photo Credit: Flickr User Stephen Gower, CC license


Liz McBride


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images