Thought leadership

Lead Like an Osprey

Lead Like an Osprey

Ospreys are an interesting creature. They are an average-sized bird, yet they act like they are a close cousin of our country’s mascot, the Eagle, and are even referred to as the sea eagle. Similar in appearance, I sometimes mistake an Osprey flying overhead with an eagle because of their size, coloring and personality. Personality? A bird has personality? After my many observations, it seems they do. I’ve observed many Osprey from the deck of our weekend house on the Potomac River, and have watched the same pair come back to inhabit their same pole firmly planted along the shore line. Despite the civilization that has crept into their territory around the river, they act like they still “own the place” and fly and swoop through the sky regardless of which predators are in the vicinity. Mostly, they are proud and loud -- chirping loudly (or cheeping, really), often for a variety of reasons to communicate with their partner, young, or unsuspecting prey. Ospreys are goal achievers, too. When they decide it’s time to eat, they are laser-focused and only have one thing on their mind. Watching them dive into the surf, disappear underwater, and emerge like a phoenix rising, celebratory in their capture of the unwitting fish, is a sight to behold. Similar to my dog, Cody, when he drags in the latest rodent he has captured to show off his skill and prowess, our Ospreys do the same with their fish caught, clamped firmly between the talons of their feet. Whereas most birds are quick to gulp down their captured dinner, the Osprey makes several circles in the air for all to see and perhaps evoke envy of other hungry creatures before settling down into their oversized nest for feasting and feeding their young.

Ospreys are consistent, too. The pair in front of our house come back every year to the same roost to build their nest. Each year in the early spring we expect to see them, just as we think they expect to see us. And what expert builders they are. I watch them seek out the right materials – twigs, branches, and sea grass – that they weave into a nest that can withstand winds and waves of enormous measure. However, they do not just pick out any old stick for their homes. Rather, they specifically identify the shape and size they need before they head off in search of the right ones. They bring it back to the nest and, if it fits, they immediately incorporate it into their home; but if it’s not right, they allow it to fall into the water to be swept away for another’s use. What I admire about the Osprey is their ability to quickly, with a few flaps of their wings, fly up into the sky where they can peruse the panoramic view, while still observing all activity below. Instinctively, they know when to swoop down to catch a fish, help their young fly, pick up a stick or walk on the sand. Their existence is an awesome one.

Analogous to my observations of the Osprey, I have also had the honor and experience to have coached dozens of leaders from many different organizations over the last 25 years of working in business and in consulting. I’ve also read many leadership books and blogs and have watched the latest video talks of what makes great leaders, and it is clear to me that there are parallels between the world of leadership and the life of an Osprey. Below are my seven recommendations on how you can lead like an Osprey.

Act like you are in charge.

Even if you are not the most senior leader in your firm, people want to follow those who, at a minimum, act like a leader and are in charge. You do not have to have the most experience or the most tenure to be a good leader, but you do have to exhibit an executive presence, and put yourself at the front of issues and solve problems rather than step back from them.

Build a solid foundation.

Understand what the organization is expecting from you in terms of leadership deliverables, then build your foundation to include the most effective processes, systems and procedures that your team can learn from, follow, and work with to achieve success together. Even when things get tough, if your team knows what the solids processed are, then they can refer to them when they are unsure about what to do.

Communicate your expectations.

When your team members know what you expect from them as their leader, ambiguity is greatly reduced and chances for success increase. Set goals for your team that align with your firm’s goals and communicate them often and regularly. Track successes against those goals and praise and reward achievements. No one can read minds and be careful that you do not make assumptions of what your team members think you expect from them. Identify, document, and communicate with them in writing. As expectations are changed or modified, stay true to your authentic communication style.

Develop, feed and nurture your team members.

Much like the Osprey (although you cannot hatch your own team members), you can selectively identify what skills and characteristics you need to be successful on your team. Once hired, each new member needs careful, tailored development, authentic recognition and ongoing nurturing. Forget about the once-a-year performance review. Observe, collect and deliver ongoing targeted feedback. This will bring out the best in each team member. Be careful of not doing their work for them. Instead, as you coach, allow them to try and fail. Over time, they will grow their own wings and fly out of the nest to roles of higher responsibility.

Be consistent with your actions.

When your team members know how you will typically behave and react with them, you can build stronger relationships and a level of trust that will encourage communication, even when times are challenging. Leaders who are overly demonstrative, passive, aggressive, inconsistent, or waffle constantly are the most difficult ones to work with. It’s exhausting for your team members to get their work done under such types. Instead, be open, inclusive, inviting, and consistent in your behavior with your team. Allow others to express their opinions first, and withhold judgement until most have spoken. Be deliberate in your response, sharing not only your opinion, but also your feelings about the issues. Include “the why” behind your decisions. Help lead people to where you are coming from each time. Leaders who are quick to criticize, dismiss, or cut others off, often end up with poorer decisions and lower results than if they had consulted with their employees.

Set goals and achieve them.

Employees want to follow leaders who are winners. Know clearly what is expected of you. Then deliberately and intentionally involve your team in setting goals for each team member. Do whatever you can to help remove their obstacles and step aside. Be ready when they encounter barriers to coach them through solutions without giving them the answers. Help them stay on target and together the team will achieve great results. Without clear, documented goals that help people stay focused, teams wither, wander and wonder what they are doing.

Dare to fly high, swoop in low and be willing to fail.

Like the Osprey, not only do leaders have to see the big picture and be visionaries, but also they have to know when to get involved in the details without micromanaging. Furthermore, leaders have to be willing to put themselves out there. Think constantly of new and better ways of doing things. Create new products and services that don’t exist. Leaders have to be willing to take risks knowing that they won’t all pay off and be okay with that. It’s the leaders who constantly push themselves from an internal motivation drive that I see succeed over and over again. When leaders show their vulnerability and approachability through humility after a failure, it actually builds up a stronger relationship and stronger following from their team members.

Just like the Osprey tolerates a wide variety of habitats, great leaders too must tolerate a wide variety of situations, and teams’ failures as well as successes. Leveraging your leadership strengths like the Osprey will help you succeed. Lastly, although the Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, reported that parent Ospreys made their young fly up to the sun as a test and dispatched any that failed, this writer does not recommend leaders resort to those measures with their team members. Rather, I recommend that leaders consider the Buddhist principle that consider the Ospreys the “King of Birds” for their formidable skills in observation, hunting and protecting their young and ensuring their species survival.

Genevieve Roberts

Genevieve Roberts is a Managing Director & Practice Leader with the Gallagher Human Resources & Compensation Consulting practice focused on HR, Leadership, and Organizational development. Genevieve is based in Richmond, Virginia.

Genevieve has over 25 years of diversified experience in Human Resources and consulting. She has performed as a business partner with varied industries including technology, health care, higher education, manufacturing, retail, financial services, non-profit, public sector and professional services. She has specialized experience in Executive ...

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