Red Ants Pants: On Leadership and Murmurations

August 22, 2023

By Sarah Calhoun, Executive Director of the Red Ants Pants Foundation

In a recent conversation with a wise friend of mine, David James Duncan, he brought up murmurations. He and Barry Lopez, another phenomenal writer shared similar reflections about how humanity should perhaps take some pointers from sandpipers.

Have you ever seen a murmuration of birds? Where hundreds, sometimes even thousands of birds are in flight, and they shift collectively in waves of black across the sky. It is one of life’s great amazements. The instantaneous communication, the seamless ease and flow as if one greater organism.

I have seen this phenomenon up in the Bay of Fundy, eastern Canada. Where tens of thousands of semipalmated sandpipers migrate through and stop to feed on the mud flats before their four-day, nonstop flight to Argentina. It is usually a peregrine falcon that comes torpedoing through a resting flock on shore that sends it into a murmuration. It is truly something to behold.

From Barry Lopez, “The flock is carving open space up into the most complex geometrical volumes, and you have to ask yourself, How do they do that? The answer is, No one's giving anyone else instructions. You look to the four or five birds immediately around you. You coordinate with them. The intricacy of that lattice means that one of the birds you’re using as a guide for your own maneuverings is itself watching the birds around it to coordinate its movements. There’s no leader.

David and Barry’s suggestion caught and challenged my thinking on leadership. At the Red Ants Pants Foundation, we spend a lot of time and effort programming around leadership, specifically for teenage girls. But if we don’t need one leader, what do we need?

Instead of one leader, what if we all had leadership skills? Instead of following one we could work with our neighbors towards a common direction of good?

How do that many birds stay in tune with each other determining their direction and movements so rapidly? They seem to know each other, predict each other’s movements, they communicate effectively. They know their roles and what needs to be done.

At our Red Ants Pants Foundation Girls Leadership Program, we teach different mind styles, communication styles, and leadership styles. We can have loud leaders and quiet leaders. Calm leaders and exuberant leaders, analytical leaders and creative leaders. We learn about different identities and about our own limiting beliefs.

We think about our own fundamental values and what we believe in; how these values affect our place in the world.

By the end of the year, we have all learned a lot about each other, and even more importantly, about ourselves.

What if we all were a little more self-aware? What if we all took a little more responsibility with our leadership? What if all our leaders led with a little more compassion and curiosity? And truly looked to our neighbors, to the birds flying to our left and to our right to see how they are doing. Who can we take a little lift from and help them carry the load? Who needs a quick turn of protection from a predator?

And so, it does seem we could learn from the sandpipers. And we can also learn from one another. We will keep working towards more leadership skills for all, and especially for girls and women.