What a Few Sardines Can Teach Us About Embracing a Leadership Change

When there’s a leadership change or different direction embarked upon, folks at your company may not be quick to embrace it right away. It’s not uncommon and is often the natural course of things. But we can learn from nature, too. Take, for example, the story of the blue whale and school of sardines.

The blue whale is the largest mammal on earth. At maturity, it can reach a length of 100 feet and weigh around 300,000 pounds.

Let’s put that in perspective.

100 feet is the height of a 10-story building. Go downtown and stand next to a 10-story building and imagine a living creature that size. And 300,000 pounds is approximately the weight of a Boeing 757. At birth they weigh two tons and grow about 200 pounds per day. It has a tongue the size of an elephant and a heart the size of a car. It makes me feel petite.

This gargantuan beast glides elegantly through the ocean, but it is not the nimblest of animals. It has a rigid body that prevents it from turning quickly (unlike a seal that has a flexible body). In fact, it takes 2-3 minutes for the blue whale to turn 180 degrees.

Contrast this with a school of sardines.

Schools of sardines can exceed the size of the blue whale.

Near Africa, sardines have been seen in groups upwards of seven kilometers long and two kilometers wide! While these schools are massive in their total size, they are able to shift and switch direction with awesome speed and fluidity. Their ability to move as one unit has puzzled marine biologists. How do they do it? Do they communicate through sound, sight or smell? Perhaps there is some sort of telepathic connection.

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However, what scientists have found is that there is always a portion of the school that is swimming in a different direction than the prevailing flow. When that number of cross-swimming fish reaches a threshold, the whole school says, “This must be the way to go now,” and they change direction. It doesn’t take a majority of the fish to swim against the flow. In fact, it only takes 10-15% of them.

When I give speeches on effective leadership change, I’ll often have an audience member ask, “How do I get everyone on board with the change?” My answer to that is you don’t need to get everyone on board. You only need to get 15% of your team bought into the change and embracing the new path.

Perhaps your company is a blue whale—large and slow to change.

It doesn’t need to be that way. Not everyone has to be completely receptive to the new direction right away. It only takes a few committed sardines to fight the trend and head a different direction. The rest will follow

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