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Real Lives of Arctic Lemmings

July 20, 2018

By all accounts, lemmings have the Four C’s. No, I don’t mean color, cut, clarity, or carat weight, but cute, cuddly, colorful, and cool. Pictures of them remind me of a guinea pig or large gerbil, sans the long tail. Their fur looks soft and pet-able, but watch out for those large, rodent incisors. Like guinea pigs they come in a variety of colors—some sporting coats that are a blend of white, caramel and black. And yes, you have to be “cool” if you make the Arctic your year-round home (Rhode Island readers: this Arctic is not located in the center of West Waw-wick. Jus’ sayin.’).

Being “a guinea pig” has implications, as does being “a lemming.” Lemmings are best known for a bizarre mass suicide tendency to run en masse off the edge of cliffs, plunging to their deaths. If the moniker “lemming” is personified, we typically mean that one (or more) individuals follows a group without thinking, especially if the behavior leads to a tragic end.

What’s the truth behind the real lives of arctic lemmings? First, the sweet creature does not have suicidal tendencies as we’ve been led (like lemmings?) to believe. This myth began several hundred years ago when the lemming population surged and the idea caught on that they fell out of the sky as a result of storm activity. I wonder, did anyone invent a lemming-proof umbrella?

Today, we can confirm that lemming populations do, in fact, escalate, then dramatically decrease, but why? It seems that their own behavior points to the suicide explanation, but instead of having a death wish, it is their migratory activity that drives them. When overpopulation occurs, lemmings migrate in groups to search for new territory. Once they set out, they persist, sometimes going over cliffs or diving into water. They can swim, but some succumb to fatigue. The population drops, and the cycle starts over.

Since science has given us a reasonable explanation of the lemming dilemma, why does the myth persist? Simply put, we’ve been misled. A large, rather well-known entertainment company needed footage of a lemming death dive for a film, so they created one for the cameras. Sad. So we’ve believed in this lemming custom for years. I did too, until I looked a little deeper.

So what does all this have to do with leadership? There are leaders, who for lack of a better term, deliberately mislead. Why? Well, unlike the dear little lemming, they cannot point to an excuse such as migratory behavior. Instead, we must look to human motives such as a pride, pride, and oh, did I mention pride? It’s better to own up than to cover up. It’s the leaders who are open to learning (even when it hurts), then moving forward with that new knowledge that avoid the fateful vocational summit plummet.

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Of Leaders, Lemmings, and Learning

Lately, I’ve begun to think more about leaders: what they do versus what we expect them to do. When the word “leader” hits the big screen of the mind, certain images appear. Studies have even been done about how we think a leader should look. As to how they behave, many of us anticipate that he or she will take us to new heights of productivity, efficiency, and mission fulfillment.

Nothing resets expectations like a reliable definition. Dr. Peter G. Northouse has done extensive work in leadership and communications theory. In his book, Leadership: Theory and Practice, he defines leadership as a “process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Northouse, 2010, p. 3).

That’s it. One individual, influencing others to achieve an objective common to all of them. Many leaders in the business sector, for example, are content to function in a context of continual operation, advancing a team through status quo practice in known industry territory.

In other words, the next year’s bottom line may be better than last year’s (advancement), but it is not due to any innovative practice (status quo procedure). Rather, it may be attributable to a wide range of causes from deliberate enhancements through best practices to unwittingly making beneficial decisions (dumb luck, anyone?). The status quo practice is preserved, the leader continues to lead, and the organization is still viable.

This is not to say that these leaders are no longer fulfilling an important role; the mission of the organization may still remain a good one and teams still need competent people to provide direction. However, I believe that people innately hope that their leaders provide more than the “status quo” to the work environment. Likewise, I think that those who aspire to be leaders, or those who are leaders have the same aspiration.

What makes the difference? There are good leaders and bad leaders, and then there are terrible leaders. As I slid down the scale of leadership quality and bottomed out, I thought, “Hm. Even lemmings have a leader. One of them (individual) has to lead the rest (group) over the cliff (common goal). That’s pretty poor leadership, but it fits Northouse’s definition. Yikes.”

As I dug a little deeper into what this might look like, what I learned was quite shocking, and that will be the topic of my next post.

Northouse, P. (2010). Leadership: Theory and Practice (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA :Sage Communications