Teamwork with a capital V

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Robert Austin
  • 97 Air Mobility Wing Command Chief
From 1987 through 1994, Brenda and I were stationed at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. There were many things I saw and experienced there which I had never seen or experienced before. I went ice fishing for the very first time in my life (and most likely the very last time in my life). I saw the Aurora Borealis in the evening sky, and I saw migrations of Canadian Geese to an extent I had never seen before. It wasn't uncommon to look up into the sky and see several formations of geese flying south in the classic V formation during the fall.

Many of you already know the reason some birds fly in a V formation when travelling large distances. According to the encyclopedia Britannica, the V formation greatly boosts the efficiency and range of flying birds. Every bird, except the first, flies in the upwash of the wingtip vortices of the bird ahead. The upwash assists each bird in supporting its own weight in flight. In a V formation of 25 members, each bird can achieve a reduction of induced drag by up to 65%, and as a result increase their range by 71%. The birds flying at the tips and at the front are rotated in a timely, cyclical fashion to spread flight fatigue equally among the flock members. But, more than that, every article I researched regarding the V formation flying stated a second reason for the formation. In addition to the increase in efficiency, the formation allows the birds to communicate with each other easier and maintain visual contact.

There is a lot that can be learned about teamwork and leadership from this naturally-occuring phenomenon.

Being a leader isn't always the easiest thing to do. The lead bird has to exert the most energy to break the wind and move the flock along. Although it's the hardest position, someone has to step up and take the lead. I'm not sure how the birds figure it out. Maybe it's like certain situations we face. Some of us just hang around waiting for someone to take the initiative. Once the lead bird sets out, others seem to fall into line as part of the team. In the same way, opportunities may arise where you need to take control of the situation and rally the team to get the mission done.

In the formation, each bird has his job to do. If the lead bird didn't maintain communication and close contact with the flock, part of the team could get off course or lag behind. If that happened, instead of one efficient team, there would be two separate teams working harder than they would need to otherwise. It's vital that the lead bird sets the right course and ensures the flock is in line behind. If you are ever in the leader role, remember the importance of maintaining communication and contact with your team. The team needs to hear from and see their leader. Don't forget -- if you're taking off and there is no one following, you're not're just moving.

Additionally, each of the birds must ensure they maintain their correct place in the formation and perform the job they are assigned. What would happen if one of the birds decided they didn't want to participate anymore or didn't want to pull their weight? It would force the other birds to work harder in order to catch up and accomplish the overall mission. In the same way, every one of us must carry out our duties without concern that it may not be the leader role. If we don't perform to our best, the team will surely suffer.

Lastly, it's intriguing to see how the birds rotate the role of leader. Each bird takes its turn leading the formation and exerting more energy than the others. Instead of one bird trying to lead the entire journey, the lead bird rotates out and falls back into the formation to benefit from the overall efficiency of the team. In a team, everyone has different skills and brings different capabilities to the mission. A good leader will recognize when it's time to let someone else take control of a project if it's better for the mission. Pride isn't an issue when the goal of the leader and the goal of the team are the same: successful mission accomplishment. And just as a good leader will allow someone else to step up, team members must be ready to take that control when it becomes necessary. We can't skip our turn to lead the formation when it's required. If leaders refuse to fully utilize the skills of their team, or team members refuse to contribute 100%, the mission will be negatively impacted.

The lesson of the V formation is that leaders lead, followers follow and we must each perform at our best no matter how long the journey is.