Herd instincts: leadership, teamwork and community spirit in the age of social distancing

We’re being told to distance ourselves from others to stop the spread of COVID-19; an unnatural state for sociable creatures. However, with some community spirit and effective leadership we can manage to maintain and continue to develop our ‘herd’, and emerge even stronger.


We have a saying at Leading Edge Life Skills: ‘Herds are to horses, what teams are to people’.

It’s relevant for anyone interested in effective leadership and team dynamics. Today, this saying is taking on fresh new significance as we are being told to socially distance ourselves in an effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus and protect the most vulnerable in our community.

Both humans and horses are by nature social creatures, who need to live within a ‘herd’ for support and protection. It’s this instinct that has many of us scared of a potential lockdown.

A good example in our stables is our dear old chestnut mare, Amber. Amber was perceived as a bit cranky, she gave signals that she did not want other horses too near to her. Instead of respecting the personal boundaries she was setting herself, and allowing her interaction on her terms, her previous humans kept her in total isolation – she could not see, sniff or touch other horses – as they thought it would be better for her to be away from them. Yet, this only made things worse for Amber, becoming cranky to the point of aggression. When she came to us and was put back into a social situation again, she visibly relaxed, as she found her place in the herd. The sense of safety and connection this gave her improved her attitude immensely. Eventually, she started engaging enough to participate in our programs.

Her personality didn’t change entirely – she remained standoffish, but just being able to be a part of the herd  – on her terms – was what she needed.

A side note worth thinking about is this: within the herd, each horse typically requires at least one metre of personal space and sometimes as much as five. Horses exist within the companionship of a herd without having to always touch each other. Just as our horses, we too can maintain strong social and emotional connection in the absence of touch or physical closeness. Let’s try and reframe social distancing to distanced socialising!

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can put our leadership skills to use to help retain our ‘herd’ and continue building teamwork in the face of social distancing. As I see it, there are a few areas we should be focusing on, and I plan to explore each one of these over the coming weeks:

  1. Help each other as much as possible. Now is the time to work together. Remember that our communities function like a ‘herd’ and are infinitely stronger when we all play a role
  2. Re-think the way we work, embracing flexible working practices. Never before have we had the impetus – and opportunity – to change outdated views on work practices. Let’s use this challenge as a tool for positive change.
  3. Find new ways to communicate. Staying in touch with our ‘herd’ is possible without face-to-face contact. How can we support our ‘herd’ to stay connected?
  4. Remain present and mindful. Embrace the chance to slow down and spend time with family

This week, I’m going to dig deeper into the first point around helping each other; taking our leadership skills beyond the workplace and into the community.

Embracing the ‘herd’: everyone has a role to play

For horses, the herd has many important functions; safety, comfort, protection. Each horse has a vital role to play. In the wild, some horses will keep watch while others eat or sleep. Some are in charge of finding food and water. The stallion is like the CEO, protecting the group, while the lead mare is the 2IC, in charge of finding resources.

For humans, our community is the equivalent of our ‘herd’ and we also all have our own part to play in keeping it functioning during trying times. At the moment everyone is anxious, because of health concerns, job security and feelings of isolation. As leaders we have the opportunity to  step up and set a positive example.

Help the most vulnerable

We all know that older members of our community are some of the most at-risk of contracting the virus: with around one in seven Australians aged 65 or older, there are many people for whom simply leaving the house is becoming a risk. We can all make sure we’re helping our elderly relatives, friends and neighbours.

Tap into our communities

I noticed people on my local Facebook page, for example, offering their time to drive places, walk dogs or pick up groceries for others. What a beautiful example of kindness and the good that emerges in times like these. Try tapping into your own community noticeboards. Or you could even start your own!

Look for others who need support

There may also be others who need support in ways which aren’t immediately obvious.

You may have been sent home, and with your partner and/or kids around, it feels like you’re working from a house full of people.

However, take some time to think about whether a colleague might be lonely, recently separated, or bereaved, and welcome some extra support during their isolation. Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that even before the COVID-19 outbreak, one in four Australians are experiencing an episode of loneliness. We don’t want this to get worse as workplaces and social events close their doors.

Remember to ring, text or email your friends and colleagues – for no particular reason except to stay in contact.

Remain tolerant

In a statement last week, the Diversity Council of Australia said “unfortunately, since the COVID-19 outbreak, we have seen instances of stigma and discrimination directed towards people on the basis of their race or appearance”.

There is no excuse for such behaviour. As leaders, we simply must be mindful of this and demonstrate positive inclusiveness within our ‘herd’.

Look after yourself

And finally, remember that looking after your own mental state is also important in order to function as a leader in the ‘herd’. Fear and panic have led to some of the worst behaviour, such as hoarding toilet paper, medications and other essential items.

Mental health advocate Beyond Blue has put out a great list for looking after your mental health during the virus outbreak. Their recommendations include maintaining perspective, taking a calm and practical approach and not getting too caught up in negative media coverage. All excellent advice.


What have you done or seen others do to help the community during this time? Let us know in the comments. And to subscribe to more updates and leadership tips from Leading Edge Life Skills, please comment below to ask to be added or email info@leadingedgelifeskills.com.au