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What Managing Birds of Prey Taught This Falconer About Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

Leadership is an ongoing act of social conditioning requiring presence and foresight.

Deanna Curtis, Falconer - The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs
Deanna Curtis, Falconer - The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs

A hallmark of high emotional intelligence is a thirst for knowledge, an insatiable curiosity. Mine compels me to seek new and challenging experiences. Not base jumping, I’ll leave that to the adrenaline junkies, but a hybrid of intellectual and active pursuits typically achieved while traveling. This approach works for two distinct reasons:

  1. By always learning and by staying slightly uncomfortable, I find my capacity to connect, to relate and to influence greatly expands.
  2. By maintaining presence, I find meaningful leadership insights in the most unexpected places.

I recently visited The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs and met with their falconer, Deanna Curtis. Her role is fascinating enough to pique my interest, but what really sparked my curiosity is her experience managing birds of prey.

Is it similar to working with difficult people, a reality most of us would like to – but never will – avoid? What, if anything, can we learn and apply to our roles in the workplace and within our communities? Even at home?

Unsurprisingly, this experience seriously delivered. 

Out-think Who You’re Leading

It’s one thing to know your subject matter. It’s another thing altogether to know your actual subject(s). 

“I have to be smarter than these birds,” offered Curtis. “In order to be effective, I must anticipate their moves, know their habits and behaviors, see how they work together or don’t.”

Effective leaders do their research, and they listen and observe with intention to gather valuable information, like what motivates team members or who is feeling unsupported, all of which can be used to influence.

The best-kept secret of leadership is it’s easy to become lazy and disengaged when things get awkward and uncomfortable, or when you’re overwhelmed by responsibilities to the organization.

Laziness is the first step down the slippery slope of ineffective leadership, the kind that often leads to more-drama-for-your-mama at work. Always and actively pay attention.

Neutralize the Situation, Don’t Ignore It

When leading difficult people, it is guaranteed that you’ll be crisis managing bad behaviors. (Read more about dealing with the “pot stirrers” here.)

It’s as simple as this – Aim for your environment to be a product of you, not for you to be a product of your environment.

“Birds of prey are crafty, I can’t let them train me,” Curtis explained.

Much like parenthood, leadership is an act of social conditioning.  Curtis finds the following tactics work well with her children and her birds of prey, and are good reminders to leaders everywhere:

  • Only use positive reinforcement
  • Vary the reward behavior for optimal outcomes
  • Opportunities for correction require you to act swiftly
  • If you’re going to correct behavior, neutralize the situation, don’t negatively reinforce 
  • Give a do-over
  • Ignoring a deteriorating situation only makes it worse and negatively conditions those around you

Understand to What Extent Those You’re Leading Relate to You

Knowing what someone says or thinks about you is far less important than understanding how they relate to you.

One of the most insightful moments during my falconry lesson was learning about the social behaviors of the different birds and how they regard Curtis. For example, hawks and owls are prone to imprinting – or bonding, whereas others simply regard her as a food source.

This is a very useful lens to use when evaluating your relationship to your team members. Determine who is bonded to you as their leader and who isn’t.

Those who imprint require a different set of social boundaries. They can be the biggest drain on your energy and time, and will also have the most expectations to manage. The key is understanding their expectations of you in the first place. If you’re just a food source for them via a paycheck, they’ll require much less attention from you.

Being an effective leader means knowing where to spend your time and energy most efficiently and to the greatest social benefit. Not everyone will need you. And those who do should get the best of you.

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