"Visions of World Benefit & Global Responsibility: Perspectives of McGill Students

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Emperor Penguin as a Model for Corporate Teams

Living under the harshest weather conditions on Earth, the emperor penguins have developed a strong organizational model in order to survive. Such wise model sets an archetype for team collaboration and effective team management. Their behaviour can be conveniently analysed from a systems thinking perspective in order to provide a new paradigm for team leaders in the 21st century.

The story about penguins is far more than a story about survival; it is one about supportiveness, collaboration, commitment, interdependence, synergy, family and love. It all starts in April when thousands of penguins gather together to begin their 100-mile march towards the rookery where they were born. The rookery is far from the sea and thus there is no food available. However, it is the only safe place to breed avoiding the risk of the new-borns accidentally falling to the sea. Although it appears hard to remember the way given that ice blocks shift from year to year, their leadership system enables them to reach their destination because the penguin who knows part of the path becomes the leader until he gets replaced by another penguin who knows where to go from there. No penguin would assume leadership and make decisions unless it is certain to know the way. Once in the breeding ground, they mate and wait for the egg to hatch. Because the mother is tired and close to starvation, she must pass the egg to the father and march towards the sea to get food. Meanwhile, the father must keep the egg warm and survive without any food for five months facing the winter that brings temperatures below -80C. In August, the mother returns to feed the new-borns and the father can finally go back to the sea to feed. From this point, the mothers and fathers take turns to go for food until December when they abandon their chicks.

Even though it sounds simple at first, it is a very complex task to keep their eggs alive and survive the weather. In fact, several mothers, fathers and new-borns die in the process due to cold or starvation. Nonetheless, the secret for their survival lies in their organizational behaviour, the group formation, the norms, roles and collaboration. They have a unique model of shared leadership combined with trust which enables them to collectively remember the way to the rookery. Additionally, their success is mostly due to the fact that they act as a system instead of as an individual. When the worst winter blizzards arrive, the tribe’s only defence is the group itself. Thus, they form a collective organism uniting their bodies to break the wind. Since the centre of the assembly is warmer, they take turns to be in the middle. This is a valuable example of how coalition defeats individualistic systems; penguins are a model for alliance, not competition. As systems thinking theory suggests, they are interdependent of each other thus each penguin cannot be studied in isolation. Furthermore, those who walk alone have a very remote chance of survival. Clearly, for penguins, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts which is a valuable example for managers seeking synergies in their team.

Similarly, penguins are very successful in reducing entropy and chaos by establishing lasting interpersonal relations. During the year, they only have one mate and one chick so they can memorize their sound in order to find them when they return from the sea. Their relationship lasts for months as they take turns for taking care of the chick or going to the sea for food. Occasionally, they are able to spend time together as a family. Unfortunately, human relationships in teams are rarely as successful because when people get separated by distance, the relationships tend to cool down and experience chaos.

The emperor penguin is a prototype for successful teams that gives managers a valuable insight into principles and practices for effective teams. Most importantly, penguins have a clear and elevating goal: the survival of the new-born. In order to succeed, corporate teams must also define an exciting goal or vision that is achievable and which all the members believe is important. Second, penguins are a legitimate example of unified commitment following the motto “all for one and one for all”. They must remain solidary to survive the weather and share the cold and warm positions within the group. To illustrate their commitment, the father must remain alone the coldest months of the winter without any food in order to keep the egg warm while the mother returns. When he can go back to the sea he has lost half his body weight reaching starvation. Additionally, penguins have a policing instinct. For example, when the mothers lose their chick after a strong storm they feel an unbearable sorrow and their frustration leads them to try to steal the chick from another couple but the entire group doesn’t allow it so everyone defends the attacked couple. Similarly, in the corporate world, team members must feel untied by their commitment to achieve their elevating goal and have an attitude of solidarity instead of rivalry.

Furthermore, penguins, as well as corporate teams, need external support and recognition to keep the members encouraged. In the case of the penguins, their reward is the chick itself growing up. Similarly, corporate teams have multiple recognitions and external support to feed the enthusiasm of its members. Another particularity of penguin’s organization is their shared leadership approach. Often times, teams are more effective when leadership responsibilities are shared instead of having a single authoritarian leader. On the other hand, team members must be competent in knowing how to perform their job. Penguins have a clear vision of what their role is and how to achieve it. Similarly, corporate teams must know how to leverage their skills and knowledge to fulfill their objectives. Lastly, penguins are a good example of cohesiveness, which is an essential attribute for teams to be successful. Penguins have a sense of belongingness to the team; they walk together and face the storms together. When corporate teams or not cohesive they might be victims of rivalry, hidden agendas and lack of collaboration.

According to Steven Beebe and John Masterson[1], there are five principles to follow in order to enhance team effectiveness. First, the expectations and rules must be clarified. For penguins, as well as for humans, it is important that all group members agree to their role and the general procedures. Second, everyone must learn the strengths and weaknesses of each member. For instance, the father penguin is known to be able to survive the coldest months without food and their egg is known to be extremely sensitive to the cold. By knowing this, penguins can organize utilizing the members’ strengths to protect the weak points. Next, the team should identify barriers that may keep them from achieving the goal. This step is useful to identify and overcome potential difficulties. Penguins for example are aware of the risk of the ice melting before the chicks are old enough to swim thus they walk for miles to a thick ice ground. Fourth, teams should develop a plan and put it into action. With a plan there will be less chaos and everybody’s actions and tasks can be coordinated. Consider the penguin who started marching late and died walking alone. The reason of his misfortune was failing to follow the strategy of walking together. Finally, evaluate the plan and team procedures. This step is important because even the best laid plans might have unexpected obstacles thus a re-evaluation is necessary to determine the new course of action. As an example with penguins, the mothers are often caught by predators as they feed, so the father who is waiting for her return must realise that maybe she is not coming back. Thus, father penguins decide at some point to abandon the chick and walk to the sea to avoid their own starvation.

The organizational strategy of penguins seems to overcome most of the threats for their survival; but more generally, they developed a highly efficient system of practices for group collaboration. Consequently, when managing a team or becoming part of a group, it is extremely useful to take into consideration the principles under which penguins operate to achieve their goal.

[1] Beebe, S. & Masterson, J. (2006). Communicating in Small Groups: Principles and Practices

Beebe, S. & Masterson, J. (2006). Communicating in Small Groups: Principles and Practices – 8th Edition. U.S.A.: Pearson Education


The March of the Penguins (2006), Warner Independent Pictures and National Geographic.

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