Being the Duck
I recently learned about this idea of being the duck.
That the best leaders are ones that appear calm, cool, and collected on the surface, while in reality, underwater, they are paddling ferociously and working really hard. Here’s an example image trying to convey this idea that I found on Pinterest.
This is of course different from rubber ducking, which is an engineering debugging technique where you explain your code to a rubber duck to help you solve your issue.
I learned about this idea of being the duck from a friend of mine in the education world recently. She was telling me that all good principals should try to emulate this philosophy (and all good teachers). As a principal, it’s important to be the hardest working person in the building (but not come across as panicky to your faculty). As a teacher, it’s important to command respect and consistency without having your students catch you in emotional turmoil.
While this may be an educational concept, I think there are practical uses in every industry or every leadership role.
Yesterday on my flight from NYC to Toronto, as we were coming in for our final landing, just as the runway was in sight, something unexpected happened. We hit the gas — hard — and accelerated back into the clouds. From my window seat I watched the runway we were supposed to land on fade quickly into the distance as we continued to fly higher.
There are a lot of things that go through the head of a passenger at times like these (and none of them are good):
Is there a problem with the plane?
Is there an incident at the airport?
Are we being hijacked?
Did somebody do something rogue?
Did I just hallucinate that whole thing?
“That was weird,” said the guy next to me. Thank you, I thought to myself. At least I wasn’t hallucinating.
In an unexpected and usual state, as a passenger, I sought every indication that something horrible was happening. I listened closely for alarm bells, I looked out for any flashing lights, I tried to see if I could hear any conversation among the in-flight crew, I looked for quick movements and jostling among the flight attendants as they race up and down the aisle.
None of that happened.
Well, I take that back. I’m sure a lot of excitement happened. I later learned that we had to abort our landing because there was another plane on the runway. I’m sure, given this, that there were quite a few choice words being thrown around from mission control to our captain in the air. I’m sure the flight attendants were equally tense as they felt the unmistakable feel of an airplane shifting in the exact opposite direction than it should have been.
But no visible indications of that happened from the passenger’s point of view. And that was quite possibly the most impressive part of all.
In a state of relative calm, passengers remain calm. In a state of panic, people panic. This is true at schools, at companies, and in families. This isn’t to say that it’s important to hide all emotion and problems from people. But I do believe that some of the best choices you can make as a leader are not about what you choose to disclose, but about what you choose to insulate. And even when you unexpectedly pivot directions (whether literally or metaphorically), this doesn’t mean everybody needs to be all hands on deck in panic mode.
My in-flight crew on WestJet Air knew this really well. And it was a great lesson in practice in how to “be the duck.”