What eagles teach us about second-mile leadership

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
Throughout history, eagles have been viewed as special animals. They are revered by many cultures for their grace in flight and for their ability to overcome even the most difficult of circumstances. 

However, perhaps one of the most interesting of features related to these magnificent birds is how they choose to build their nest in the cleft of rocks near the top of a cliff, usually 8,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. Creating these nests, which weigh as much as two tons, is not an easy endeavor to undertake. In fact, few animals are capable of achieving such a difficult task. 

Yet, through close coordination and strong cooperation, the eagles are able to achieve their goal. Their vision of a future home made real as the female eagle acts as the chief architect and builder of the nest, while the male eagle serves as the couple's supply collector, delivering the necessary building materials to make their shared dream come true. 

Oftentimes during the nest's construction, the male eagle is required to gather thick branches and other material that weigh more than he does. It is undoubtedly a difficult, arduous task but one that must be completed as this material will form the foundation for the eagle's home. 

As the nest construction progresses, the types of material required changes from sticks to twigs, and, eventually, to fur gathered from the prey the eagles have eaten. The fur is used to line the nest for one of its most important future tasks: the arrival of precious eaglets that will one day become part of the eagle's family. Together, the eagles create an environment that will be safe for those in their care to grow, to stretch, and one day, to fly. 

An environment where the eagles selfless commitment to one other and to the shared task at hand reveal how a spirit of collaboration can transform the improbable into the possible. 

However, it should be noted that the eagle pays a great price for building its nest so many thousands of feet above the ground. After all, it would be far easier to build the nest just a few feet above sea level. There would be less distance to travel with the construction material and it would be far easier to search for food. But eagles do not forgo what is best to settle for that which is easiest. They know there is greater safety for those in their care by building the nest high above the ground, just as they know that going the extra mile to build their nest where they do, will serve them better in the long-term, even if it requires greater commitment in the short-term. 

Here we Grow 

As the nest is nearing completion, the female eagle will begin to line it with grass, vines, leaves, fur, and down to prepare for the arrival of their eaglets. At the same time, the male eagle sets out to find various items the eaglets can play with when they break into the world. The "toys" the father brings back to the nest are usually shiny objects such as soda cans, golf balls, or pieces of plastic that will keep the eaglets amused. Together, the two eagles work to shape the conditions for those in their care to feel safe so they can grow into their full potential. 

One day the eaglets arrive and things begin to really get interesting. You see, eaglets are born with big appetites. In fact, from the time the eaglets are hatched into their comfortable, safe environment, they are fed every time they open their eyes. As a result, both parents must hunt to keep the eaglets growing. Both must work together to deliver all that is needed for those in their care to continue to develop. 

The eagles know success demands a team effort.
It doesn't take long for the eaglets to settle into their routine. Every day, between feedings, they become more aware of the comfortable environment that has been created for them, an environment where several layers of down from their mothers own breast and animal fur from successful hunts create a warm, plush, and cozy space. All they do is eat and sleep in this soft incubator-like world their parents intentionally created for them. 

They feel safe because they know they are cared for.
After the eaglets have been in the world several months, the mother eagle returns home one day from hunting and begins to rip out some of the first layer of plush lining from the nest. The eaglets question what's happening for a moment, then fall back into their comfortable routine. But several days later the mother eagle again returns from another hunting trip and this time rips all of the remaining fur from the nest. 

Changes Afoot 

Several more days pass and the mother eagle begins to turn up the ends of the raw vines and branches on which the eaglets are resting. This exposes the young eagles to sharp points and jagged edges that significantly disrupt their comfortable space. And as a result of this latest disruption, they are forced to stand on their tiny, spindly little legs for the first time. If that were not enough, the mother then begins to throw all the eaglet's precious, shiny toys over the side of the nest, causing them to squeal and squeak in dismay. 

Now the eaglets are concerned, convinced their mother's gone crazy.
All of a sudden, their warm cozy home has been seemingly destroyed and their precious toys have been taken away from them. Where once they were convinced she loved them, they're now sure she hates them. After all, she is making them stand up on their own and get stabbed by the sticks. They even complain that they are forced to flap their wings to prevent themselves from becoming stuck in portions of the nest. Things seem to have gone very bad in the eaglet's world. 

But they haven't seen anything yet. 

Several weeks later, the mother eagle returns from a hunting trip and this time, Dad is not with her. Instead, he is circling high above the nest. As Mom swoops in, she intentionally lands, not in her usual spot, but in the back of the nest and starts to flap her magnificent wings. This instantly creates a windstorm that flushes the eaglets to the front of the nest. At the same time, she begins to move forward, nudging those in her care ever closer to the edge of their once comfortable home. As the eaglets look down, they see nothing but a valley thousands of feet below them. 

Now they begin to panic. 

At the same time, the father eagle continues to circle gracefully overhead, apparently missing all the commotion that's occurring below. And then, the unthinkable happens and mother eagle pushes one of her offspring out of the nest. The little eaglet begins a free fall, squeaking, squealing, and trying its best to flap its little wings. Just as the baby eagle is about to hit the bottom of the canyon and surely be killed, the father eagle swoops under it, catches the eaglet on his back and takes it back safely to the nest and to mother eagle for another turn. 

As it turns out, this is how eagles learn to fly. 

An Environment to Stretch Us 

Psychologists tell us that everyone yearns for the security found in a space where our most basic human needs of love and belonging, closeness and connectedness are nurtured. As human beings, we are driven to find meaning in who we are and what we do, and as such, want to be in a safe place where we feel accepted for who we are today while constantly being challenged to stretch into the person we are capable of becoming tomorrow. 

But what is it that encourages people to accept the risks associated with growing into their full potential? After all, doesn't growth require some measure of risk? Does not the desire to move forward, to achieve more than you've accomplished before require you to step out further than you think you are capable? 

Sometimes, much like the eaglets, to the point you're sure you won't make it?
Anyone who has challenged themselves to be more or to do more with and through their lives know the answer to these questions is yes. 

Much like the eaglets, we too must have a certain degree of security in our environment if we are to grow into our full-potential. We too, much like the eagles nest, must have a safety platform if we are to benefit equally from the good experiences in our lives as well as the challenging ones. A platform that encourages us to continue to pursue our dreams instead of simply settling for what is safe, what is easy, what is comfortable. 

After all, comfort alone does not compel us to fly. As the eagles remind us, stretching our wings often takes a little push from someone who cares about us! 

So, for those of us serious about becoming Second-Mile Leaders, eagles can indeed teach us a great deal. In particular, how creating an environment that celebrates collaboration, commitment and teamwork can transform improbable dreams into plausible realities. An environment where those entrusted to your care feel safe enough to accept short-term setbacks in order to experience long-term paybacks. 

An environment where you compel those in your care to soar above everyday life! 

Simply because that's what second-mile leaders do.