Leadership according to the School of Herring

A modern organization is like a school of fish. It’s not about big versus small fish. It is about fish with unique skills and different roles, unified in purpose and coordinated in action. The performance of the team is a function of how well the group moves in formation, transferring information within its structure. It is not about me or you. It is about us as a whole.

Over time our individual skills and roles evolve, but the organization continues on its route, producing results through coordinated action by the individual members. The team is resilient both to internal and external changes. It is driven by a purpose. From the outside it may be difficult to discern who or what steers the group. Inside, each member knows their role. In its totality, a school of fish can be immense, yet it moves and turns with astonishing agility and precision.

In a well-functioning organization, every member constantly improves their leadership. It is not a question of how big a leader someone is, but of how big of an increase of leadership each one is ready to take on. Leadership is everyone’s affair.

The following 8 tenets of modern leadership can be employed by everyone in the organization, not just by its top leader.

1. Learn to lead yourself

Leadership is when we take responsibility for more than ourselves. When every member of the team does this, a virtuous circle is formed. The team and its productivity improves dramatically.

To lead yourself, you must understand deeply your strengths and your weaknesses. By observing yourself with an honest and curious mind, you can learn to manage yourself. Ask your colleagues for brutal but constructive feedback. Set goals for your improvement and self-development.

Be tough with yourself every morning; set the bar high. When evening comes, be kind. Accept yourself the way you are and allow yourself to get a good night’s sleep. Be patient. Soon you will have reached new levels of insight and ability.

Managing oneself is difficult, because we easily deny our weaknesses and do not recognize our true strengths. It takes nerve to look in the mirror and give ourselves the hard feedback. This is why we need to ask people around us for direct and honest feedback.

2. Treat others with respect

We may have different abilities and we play different roles, but we are not of different value. Each person in an organization plays an important role. All are worthy of respect and attention.

Although great leaders treat all with the same level of respect, they do not lead everyone the same. Great leaders lead every person differently, focusing on and enhancing their strengths. This brings out the best in productivity and leadership in the person. It creates new leaders and it strengthens teamwork.

An excellent leader says “we” and not “I”. They know success is a group effort.

3. Believe in the positive energy

A great leader has confidence in the organization and believes in each individual’s innate positive energy. By trusting the team, the leader generates more trust and a willingness to work hard. Individuals will step up to more significant responsibility. They learn to act without tight supervision, in line with the purpose and goals of the group.

A leader will be impatient in regards to everyday actions that need to happen, and at the same time patient with how the intentions and results are manifesting. The ultimate test of leadership happens when the leader leaves the organization. A strong organization continues to flourish, with new leaders emerging to take over after the one who left.

4. Align around a purpose and set concrete goals

There is a world of difference in productivity between a highly motivated person and one who is less so. The job of the leader is to motivate the organization and to encourage each member to step up. This is achieved by aligning the team around the purpose or mission of the organization. The purpose reminds us every moment of what we are here to do.

A true mission is larger than the organization pursuing it. It is a way of making the world a better place. The purpose should be so clear that it can be enthusiastically relayed to family and friends for the social reinforcement that motivates all of us.

Within the purpose of the organization, leaders set concrete measurable goals for teams and individuals. Follow-up of goal attainment needs to be on-going, and if a goal risks being missed, the leader will step in and do whatever possible to help the person or the team achieve the goal. At the end of the day, we are all working in the organization for the purpose of producing results. Goal setting and performance management is what attention to results means.

5. Reward and give feedback

Human beings are simple creatures. We crave feedback and will do more of what we are rewarded for. A great leader will use all available methods to signal back to the organization that their efforts are noted and appreciated. Financial rewards such as bonuses are excellent, but most of the time, the specific attention and recognition by your boss feels even better.

The key to providing feedback is to first build up a trusting relationship. When the employee knows that the boss always has their best in mind, even negative feedback will be well received.

Feedback only works if it can go in both directions. Great leaders possess the self-confidence to seek honest and direct feedback from their teams, even when it feels painful for both parties. It takes repeated requests and an atmosphere of trust and respect before employees are comfortable to give honest feedback. But when it happens, that moment turns into a huge source of energy and commitment for everyone.

6. Bad news is good news

There is instant gratification in good news. Bad news however, no matter how useful, is unpleasant to tell. Therefore, great leaders encourage bad news to be brought to them. Only when the messenger is publicly rewarded will the organization learn that it is allowed and desirable to bring bad news. When the bad news are acknowledged, the fix is already on its way.
In all of this, the leader remains positive and focused on opportunities. It is exactly because of the positive mindset that the leader can also productively deal with bad news. But organizations that try to hide bad news will be mediocre at best.

7. Run great meetings

Successful leaders run productive meetings. The many forms and sizes of meetings require their own approaches. The leader must be able to manage 1-on-1 meetings, team meetings and all-hands meetings – in person and using digital tools.

A productive meeting starts with a practical agenda and ends on time with useful conclusions. The leader of the meeting needs to keep the meeting focused while being ready to make changes to the agenda as the meeting progresses. It’s important to balance various inputs and make sure that everyone gets heard. When driving towards a decision, the leader of the meeting will look for shared viewpoints and also for obvious disagreements. After the meeting is over, vital information and decisions need to be communicated to the broader organization.

When meetings are productive, the organization will accomplish more. Great meetings improve and speed up decision-making, reducing uncertainty and company politics. Productive meetings are inspirational. They align the organization behind key decisions and set the bar high for execution.

8. Communicate

A leader must take responsibility for communication. This task cannot be delegated. Leaders do not have to produce the most eloquent or beautiful communication. It just needs to be authentic, clear and relevant.

In the future, almost all management will be performed digitally across time zones and language groups. Leaders can reach all members of the organization instantly. When the top leader takes responsibility for communication, it becomes a trait that others emulate. Soon the organization becomes transparent as information is shared faster and better.

It’s best when leaders embraces all channels and tools of communication: email, videoconferencing, newsletters, instant messaging, blog posts, conference calls, twitter and other social media. In the digital world the organization lives in digital channels. The leader needs to be where the team is.

When relevant communication reaches everyone, the team becomes better at reacting to sudden changes. Everyone can take small corrective action in their own field of responsibility. The organization at large – the school of fish, if you will – quickly adapts to the new environment. If you throw a rock in a school of fish, individual fish dodge the rock and the school continues on its course.


Leadership is everyone’s affair. When we improve leadership, we can improve anything. Leadership development is a task for each team member. It starts with a simple question: “How can I improve my leadership?” You may ask it silently from yourself or vocally from someone else – be it your mentor, boss, peer, direct report, or team member. Ask this question often!

Mårten Mickos

Marten Mickos


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