Blog :: That's Remarkable

For the Long Journey, Learn from Terns

Artic Tern, Sterna paradisaea.Artic Tern, Sterna paradisaea. Photo: Carsten Egevang/ARC-PIC.COM
tern_routesGreen: Autumn migration routes (A. following African coast, B. following South American coast.); Red: winter range; Yellow return trip in spring.  Map: Carsten Egevang

The Arctic Tern lives on the move -- more so than any other living thing.  Recently researchers from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources fit tiny geo-locators to the legs of these epic migrators and revealed Arctic Terns fly 44,000 miles per year; all the way from the coasts of Greenland and Iceland to the ice shelves and beaches of Antarctica.  Over a life time, this adds up to 1.5 million miles -- or three round trip tickets to the moon.

As I've been researching and writing MuddyHudson's Strategy Course over the last few months, one thing has been pressed into my mind again and again: change isn't something we'll have to deal with in the future, it is the future.  That's why the Arctic Tern our metaphor for this course and our message about strategic leadership in general.  Like no other creature, this bird thrives in a world of change.

There are three reasons for the terns' success that I think have metaphorical implications for the next generation of leaders and enterprises:


A Faultless Internal Sense of Direction

Terns, like several other long-migrating birds, have small amounts of magnetite in their brains.  This hard-wired compass is incredibly sensitive and keeps the bird on course even over open water with no sight of land for days.

In the same way, the increasing dynamism and fragmentation of our economies and markets means businesses will no longer be able to derive their direction from external cues. We must begin paying more attention and practicing more intentionality when it comes to crafting and managing our story.  We'll also have to allow more access for participants like employees and customers to interact and evolve our common narrative.


An Asset-based Approach to The Journey

Terns don't make their trip in a straight line (one of the reasons they win the mileage competition by some 4,000 miles).  Instead, they make hundred-mile detours to visit the most productive feeding grounds on the way.  No animal could survive some 90 days on the wing without a marathoner's diet.  The terns blaze their trail by connecting asset to key asset.

The same should be true in business strategy.  Rather than focusing on plugging holes and putting out fires, plotting the way forward should center on an comprehensive knowledge of where available assets lie and how to connect them together to add strength to strength.  This will mean training our vision to see more organic resources in the systems and participants of our enterprises -- assets that grow with use, activating and uncovering new energy and material as they propel us forward.


Acute Awareness of Environmental Motion, Matched with Responsiveness

Changes in the oceans and arctic circles are reeking havoc on the animal populations that live there.  As the globe warms, currents are changing and ice fields are shrinking.  Food stocks are on the move or disappearing all-together.  But all this has had little effect on the terns.  Their populations are not dwindling, and they show no signs of disorientation as the world changes around them.  Maybe this is because terns are born for change and have an in-built sensitivity the effects even tiny shifts in the environment has on the motion and position of all the players.

Though we live in a world of real-time market tickers and 24-hour new cycles, no one really seems to know what's going on.  For companies small and large, survival and success will depend upon much better listening to the players in any environment.  This listening will have to be a relational responsiveness that draws its information from first-hand participation, not talking heads and self-interested voices.  In the future, we will anticipate the changes ahead by interacting much more meaningfully in the moment.



Carsten Egevanga, et al. "Tracking of Arctic terns Sterna paradisaea reveals longest animal migration" Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. Feb. 2, 2010, Vol. 107, No. 5. Pgs 2078-2081. (Accessed online 9/14/10, 

Mason Inman, "World's Longest Migration Found--2X Longer Than Thought" National Geographic Daily News.  Jan 11, 2010.  (Accessed online 9/14/10,