In my latest short soft skills video (9 minutes) I look at Leadership teams: Maverick Magpies and Predictable Pigeons. I briefly explore some leadership themes including task vs relationship, future vs present, leadership vs management, strategy vs operations and visionaries vs integrators.


Hi. Today I’d like to talk to you about leadership. But first I will introduce you to my two characters for this video – a pigeon and a magpie.

Please start thinking about the differences between these two birds. Meanwhile I will tell you a story…

A story of dual leadership

Many years ago I was working with the board of a property company. The senior partner was a gregarious person – he really connected with everyone in the organisation and was a true visionary who inspired people to follow his strategy for the business.

The managing partner was a very different character – he was at the top of his game in his technical field but was much more reserved and rational. He looked at the data for all decisions, analysed risks and alternatives. I doubt whether either of these people would have made the business as successful as they did on their own.

It was the combination of these two very different approaches – a focus on emotional aspects of relationships and the future and a focus on the rational hard facts about the task at hand in the present – that thrust this business to success.

In many management models – the focus is on balancing these two things – Relationships (with individuals and teams) and Task (achieving business aims). Many senior management teams have separate channels for strategic and operational effectiveness.

So let’s talk about magpies and pigeons

So what did you think about on the pros and cons of magpies and pigeons?

Which do you prefer and why?

The Maverick Magpie

Magpies are attractive creatures aren’t they? That striking plumage and that distinctive call.

There is a myth that magpies are attracted to shiny, sparkly things. The myth says that they will even steal them. (In 2014 researchers at Exeter University disproved the idea that magpies are attracted to shiny things – but bear with me while I continue my metaphor).

Creative swiping was a term coined by Tom Peters – who suggested that the best leaders will find great ideas and swipe or steal them for their own business

The good magpie

Some leaders have “Magpie syndrome” – an irrational affinity for shiny objects. They have a short attention span. They are curious. They like shiny new things. They are easily bored.

Curiosity is a vital attribute for those involved in many careers – marketing and selling amongst them. But you need to combine this curiosity with analytical skills and persistence to ensure that the right opportunities are identified, researched, planned and pursued. There’s a recent book by Greg Orme about the importance of curiosity in robot-proofing our future.

In this fast-changing world, it is helpful to be attracted to new things. We need to recognise emerging trends, novel ideas, unusual approaches and different technologies. We need to examine them, assess them and adopt those that will help us achieve our aims.

The bad magpie

But there is a downside to the magpie. If you are constantly seeking new ideas, there’s a danger that some of the more routine but important tasks become neglected. There’s always a role for managing day-to-day operational stuff well and ensuring that the fundamentals are addressed.

Magpies are black and white – and often see things from that perspective. Whilst it’s admirably decisive, it may miss the important shades of grey that need consideration in important business decisions.

Magpies are often solitary. We all know the saying “One for sorrow, Two for joy…”. Solitary leaders may leave their troops behind.

So if you are a magpie – or you work for one – you need a balancing approach.

Someone who focuses on the more routine and perhaps mundane aspects. Someone you can rely on to take care of business whilst you are off on your flights of fancy and adventures of discovery.

Enter the Predictable Pigeon

Pigeons aren’t particularly attractive. Their grey plumage is unremarkable and blends into the City landscapes where they reside. There are a lot of pigeons. But I think pigeons are under-rated.

Homing instinct – Pigeons are known for always coming home. They have internal map and compass sense to help them do this. A business needs a homing instinct – no matter where you travel to and what you explore, someone needs to remember where home is. Someone needs to remember the agreed strategy is – and to return to it – and guard against too many distractions which may take the business off-course for the wrong reason. Many talk of the North Star of a guiding strategy.

Messengers – Pigeons were used as messengers – providing a vital communication channel in wars. Those lone magpies can be uncommunicative. We need leaders and managers who communicate well – to engage everyone in the mission and to motivate people to do their job and achieve their objectives and potential.

Fast – But just because pigeons are solid and reliable doesn’t mean they are dull. Remember that kid’s show “Catch the pigeon” with Dastardly and Muttley? The bad guys spent their lives trying to catch, trap and stop the pigeon who always prevailed. Skillfully.

Flocks – Pigeons are sociable. They are happiest in flocks or groups. We need team players in our businesses.

Nurturers – Pigeons nurture their young until they are at an advanced stage. You rarely see a baby pigeon – by the time they leave the nest they are mature and self-sufficient. It’s a good approach to succession in business – to nurture and prepare the next generation of leaders until they are ready to fly the nest safely.

Perhaps in business we should value great leadership teams – where the magpie plays alongside the pigeon.

There’s a related concept that I’d like to share

In 2016, in the book Rocket Fuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want from Your Business” authors Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters  argued that there were two types of leaders required to grow a business – Visionaries and Integrators.

The Visionaries are the ones who are future focused and see the big picture whereas the integrators are those who tackle how to align the organisation’s operations today to achieve that longer term vision.  “Visionaries have ground breaking ideas. Integrators make those ideas a reality.”

Another great leader said: “Management is the present, Leadership is the future

Others have comments that management is about the status quo and leadership is about change

Bennis offered a comparison of management vs leadership which supports this future challenging role against the present operational status quo.

In the latest management journals there is talk of an idea called “gig leadership” – this is where the leadership role is rotated amongst different people – particularly interim leaders.  Partly because the best decisions come from diverse groups, partly because no one leader has all the relevant skills and, I guess, partly because then decisions really will be made in the best interests of the organisation rather than any unconscious bias to protect the leader’s position.

So. Magpie or pigeon? Or both?

Thanks for watching and listening.

I first referred to my ideas about magpies and pigeons in October 2018

Other leadership posts:

Leadership – Authenticity, Values and Culture 

Leadership and change management – Don’t try to eat the elephant 

Leadership – Emotional contagion, delegation,  coaching and team meetings 

Leadership – Lessons from Star Trek and Neuroscience

Managing change and leadership 

Legacy – What the all blacks can tell us about the business of life

Leadership in property – eight insights 

An MBA is great – but you’ll need soft skills to make an impact 

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