Top Leaders’ Murmurations

In the years since the six books shown below were published concerning the Institution of Leadership and System of Profound Privilege, some very smart people now and then come to the odd and simple-minded view that I believe top business leaders conspire to achieve certain ends. There is no conspiracy; I have never believed such a thing exists. But, murmurations do exist.

Six Books 2

“Murmuration” is the name given to the rapid change in speed and direction of a flock of starling birds. You likely have seen such flocks before. Their synchronization in flight is a mesmerizing spectacle. The word “murmuration” describes the collective low hum sound that a large flock of starlings make while in flight. They probably do this to help assure their survival. So how do starling flocks, each bird so close in proximity to one another, fluidly shift and swirl? How is such dynamic group behavior simultaneously coordinated in such a way that many birds act as one?

Click on image to view image source and starling murmuration video.

It turns out that when one bird changes speed and direction, its nearest neighbors instantly sense the changes and follow along. The birds neighboring the neighbors of the first bird instantly sense the change and follow along. And so on for the rest of the flock of starlings. The collective response to the movement of the first bird is coordinated among its seven nearest neighbors. The starling’s flight path is a mode of communication that produces a strong information signal that flows across the large flock quickly with little degradation, and thus they avoid crashing into one another. In simple terms, one coordinates the actions of several others, who in turn coordinate the same action in several others, and so on.

In the above books, I have described how most top business leaders, across scores of generations, think in similar ways and do things in similar ways. They do this by following traditions that are passed along from one generation to the next via emulation and processes such as mentoring, coaching, promotion, and succession planning. These are high signal and low noise because they come from people high in status.

Top leaders’ similar ways of thinking and doing things can also be the result of a human form of murmuration. Top business leaders are well known to be closely connected to others similar in job function and status, as well as to political leaders, world-famous academics such as economists, etc. So it is not surprising that when one top leader says or does something, seven close connections (neighbors) will likely follow, and so on for the rest of the “flock” of top business leaders. While communication is rapid, unlike starlings there can be delays in taking action due to extant factors. But, usually, the signal is not lost; it is stored in the minds of top leaders until it is needed.

In this way, leaders synchronize and act as more or less as one, but, again, not as a result of any conspiracy. For example, when one prominent CEO in a particular industry decides to lay people off, others typically follow. The same goes with outsourcing or offshoring, or limiting or reducing pay and benefits, criticism of a group such as Gen Z workers or labor unions, or imposing more strict policies and control over employees. This is the collective low hum sound that the “flock” of top leaders make.

It is particularly evident in recent times. During the COVID-19 years, leaders extended many freedoms to employees. But soon after the COVID-19 years, some leaders decided to take most or all of those freedoms back. Other CEOs quickly followed, thus exhibiting a coordinated dynamic group behavior in which they avoid crashing into one another; meaning, the avoidance of disunity.

Why do leaders do this? Well, like starlings, top business leaders have an interest in survival. But, as I have noted previously, what is more important than their personal survival is the survival of the traditions that assure continuation of the status, rights, and privileges for current and future leaders. While these retrograde prerogatives satisfy the needs of top leaders, they produce a continuous dissatisfaction among a large population of employees who seek greater respect, fulfillment, and work-life balance.

Sometimes you have to give a little to get a lot. This contrasts with the shared view of those highest in status that the more you get, the better. Does this really serve top leaders’ interest? They think it does, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. But, what leaders think is what counts.

The valued traditions and the murmurations that support traditions, which most of society accepts, will continue to prevail until top leaders decide it is in their interest to think differently.

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