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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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