A Leading Perspective

Pragmatic insights for the leader in you

Lessons Learned from Family Night

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
John F. Kennedy


My 7 year old son is fascinated my marine life.  He constantly talks about being a marine “researcher” so he can learn all about the many animals in the sea and, of course, discover new ones so he can be famous.

Yesterday was an “Orca” day – he read books about Orcas, he was on the Internet learning about Orcas, and when it was time for family movie night, he searched Netflix for movies about Orcas.  (Thankfully, he’s more into documentaries than fiction so we didn’t get stuck watching “Free Willy.”)   

While I’ve been known to tune out of many “family movies,” last night was different as Orcas are fascinating creatures.  I quickly made the connection between their behaviors and human behaviors, and it didn’t take long before I made the connections to employee performance.


Orcas are social; they need their communities

Orcas live in pods and families stay together for lifetimes.  Research has shown that when these creatures of the sea are removed from their communities, they suffer.

I don’t think you should force “group think” or group work onto your employees; we all know that many of our staff need to be alone to re-charge, to find their creativity, to problem-solve, etc. However, I do think there is quite a bit of value in encouraging a strong work “community.”

pod of orcas

  • Are you allowing the social network to flourish or are you stifling it?
  • Are you encouraging group work by providing a medium for it to occur or are there so many obstacles and negative influences that many of your staff feel it’s more efficient and beneficial to “do it alone”?
  • Are you communicating to your staff that “needing” their coworkers is a good thing or are you suggesting to them it’s a weakness?

May I suggest that you try the pod mentality?  Give your team a sense of community, communicate to them that they will succeed or otherwise TOGETHER, and provide the avenues they need to interact and be social as a team.


Orcas are smart because they LEARN

We all know the king of dolphins is an intelligent creature but I don’t know if many of us realize “how” the Orca became so smart.  It’s because they are masters at learning and improving. They observe, they communicate, they share information, they try new things, they study results, they adapt accordingly and try again…this is a continual process until they succeed at their objective.

What, if anything, are you doing to “smarten up” your team?

fishing orca

  • Are you allowing for sufficient “observation” or “analysis” throughout a project or activity?
  • Are you ensuring communication channels are open so resources can be fully utilized and knowledge sharing is possible?
  • Are you encouraging risk taking”
  • Are you forgiving of mistakes?
  • Are you capitalizing on the “lessons learned”?
  • Are you sharing with others what worked and what didn’t?

May I suggest you approach your work, your projects, etc. with an Orca’s mind?

Don’t want to trust an Orca?  Fine, trust the father of Quality Control, Dr. D. Edwards Deming.  His “Plan, Do, Study, Act” method has helped thousands develop better critical thinking skills and improve their work and, as luck would have it, is remarkably similar to what Orcas has been doing for years.


Orcas place the needs of another before their own.

I was fascinated to learn just how deep the sense of “helping” is with these animals. They take care of the sick, they encourage injured or disfigured members of the pod, they do more work themselves when others are not able, etc.  Indeed, there have been many reports of entire pods in peril because they refused to leave another behind!

I wish humans were as selfless but instead, we have a tendency to throw each other under the bus. I’m saddened by this and I think leaders have to take some accountability when this “selfish” culture exists.

  • How do you demonstrate “we’re in this together”?
  • How are you encouraging your staff to step in and help someone?
  • Are you weeding out the weak/writing them off or are you identifying ways to help develop their skills and competencies?
  • What does your team do when another is suffering?  Do they avoid the person, make their own assumptions, think “someone else will take care of it” or, worse, do they chastise and judge?

There comes a time with Orcas when the leader decides to cut the team’s losses. However, this is only after the pod has exhausted many other solutions. They demonstrate extreme selflessness, even at the risk of their own demise, to help a member of their community.  At no time is abandonment the first option.

I know “survival of the fittest” is real and necessary and that there is a often a fine line between “helping” and enabling.”  However, I also know there is no place for selfishness on high performing teams.

We must begin to place a priority on the needs of our colleagues in order to move the entire team forward.


I don’t know much about marine life, predators, extinction, etc. but thanks to my son’s obsession, I’m learning. I learned yesterday that Orcas live longer and “perform” better than most in the sea. I believe this is because they work on a team, they are continually learning and sharing information, and they appreciate the needs of others before their own.

Call me crazy, but perhaps we should too.



CommunicationsEmployee EngagementEmployee RelationsEncouragementEngagementHuman ResourcesLeadershipPerformance ManagementRetentionRole of HRSHRMSkill DevelopmentTeamworkWorkforce Satisfaction

Heather Kinzie • January 6, 2014

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