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Rivera Sun’s Murmuration Exercise for Leaderful Organizing

Starlings in Murmuration over Rome. Image from Creative Commons (CCO). Support the Commons!

Murmuration Exercise

Adapted for movements and organizations by Rivera Sun
Please use and share, but please let participants know where it comes from so a sense of lineage and longevity is built through our movements. Thank you.

History: I first learned this exercise as a group improvisational dance structure at Bennington College with Dance Professor Susan Sgorbati, 2000-2004. I wrote it into The Dandelion Insurrection as a movement structure in 2013. Since then, I have used this adaptation to teach shared leadership, collaboration and allyship skills in numerous workshops. You can use it in your groups (including workplaces).

Objectives: To teach shared leadership skills in an embodied and experiential manner using this participatory, movement-based group exercise.

Set up: You will need an open space for movement. This exercise works best with 10+ people, but if you have a smaller group, you can rotate 1-2 people standing outside observing while a 5-10 person group does the exercise.

Show this video on 60,000 Starlings In Flight (a murmuration): https://youtu.be/ctMty7av0jc Note: There are many online videos of murmurations. This one includes footage of the hawks being chased away from the nests by the group action; a very clear collective nonviolent response to an immediate threat of violence. It is theorized that murmurations with no hawks present are trainings.

 

Introductory Speech: Explain that a murmuration is a biology term for a flocking structure that shares leadership. Such structures are used by animals for a variety of purposes: hunting, protection, or perhaps reasons of beauty and culture beyond human knowledge. We can use the murmuration to practice sharing leadership and working in collaborative and supportive roles. The murmuration’s flexibility and solidarity-based strength happens because every individual bird is following four shared principles.

Explain that the four principles are:

  1. Keep moving forward
  2. Whoever is in front is the leader
  3. Leadership changes when the flock turns
  4. Don’t leave your wing mate out on a limb (Wingmate Solidarity)

Ask the group to stand up in a circle. You may wish to do a quick “lightning round” of motions to get people more comfortable in their bodies. In this, go around the circle as each person does a gesture or motion and the rest of the group mimics it back.

Ask part (5+ people) to stand in the middle of the room facing one direction. Let people know that you will all be switching roles of participant/observer.

Note: As facilitator, you may choose to join the group to demonstrate the initial instructions, but step out as soon as they start to understand the basic idea. You can offer further reminders or clarification as the participants experiment with the exercise.

Ask the group to point out who is in the front. Ask: who is the leader? Let that person know he/she/they can begin to move. (If hesitant, suggest they lift their arm up and down.) The rest of the flock will mimic the motion together. Explain how the first three principles operate. As soon as the leader turns to the left or the right, call out the question: “who is in the front now?” Remind the group that this person is the leader. The flock will now mimic the new leader’s gestures. As this leader turns, the leadership passes. If the flock does not shift to follow the person in the front of the group, ask them again: who is the leader now?

Wingmate Solidarity: Pause the group to explain Principle 4. If someone splinters away from the group, another person needs to go with them and support them. If no one joins them, the person who winged off on their own needs to rejoin the main flock. In large groups, it is possible to have 1-2 person off-shoots, and also 2 or 3 groups of murmurations that separate from the main flock. Both eventually re-merge with the main flock. Ask the group what the starlings gain from this principle? (The hawk can’t pick them off one-by-one; this is also how they splinter and surround the hawk.)

Restart the group to explore the murmuration. Ask them not to talk. Laughter happens and it’s okay. If the group gets confused, you can help to refocus them, but let them work out their confusion if possible. You might remind them of the principles if it seems like they’re forgetting some.

After 3-7 mins, call the murmuration to a close. The group usually reaches a natural break or pause where you can conclude the exercise. Give them a round of applause.

Open up a discussion by asking the flock how that felt. (See suggestion questions below). After a few comments ask the observers what they observed.

Switch roles, swapping out the groups of observers and participants. The second group will likely be quicker to action than the first. An occasional reminder about one of the principle might be helpful. It is common in this second flock to run into leaders who leap out and are not followed. Take note of this and bring it up in the discussion afterward. In the moment, you might need to remind them about wingmates.

After 3-7 minutes, find a closing point. Applaud Flock 2. Open a discussion by asking the flock to share their experiences. Then invite the observers to offer comments. Ask both sides about how they felt in their switched roles.

If you have time, encourage a third flock to form. You will likely have many participants. Let this flock experiment together with little to no interruption.

Find a closing point. Applaud Flock 3. Open up one last discussion and sharing of observations.

Questions:

  • How did it feel to step into leadership? (Scary? Natural?)
  • How did it feel to support – not follow – the shared and shifting leadership? (Comfortable? Confusing?)
  • How did it feel to support the flock in general? (Boring? Safe? Uncomfortable?)

 

If there is a moment of confusion about who is the leader and someone clearly steps forward to lead, you can ask the group:

  • How did that feel when so-and-so stepped forward?
    So-and-so, how did it feel to take on the leadership position right then?
  • Did it make a difference to know you could pass the leadership mantle off to someone else?
  • Did it make a difference as a supporter to know that you could support many people and have a chance to lead?

 

If the group has tried splintering (successfully or not), ask them about it.

  • What happened when so-and-so splintered off?
  • How did it feel when (someone) joined you? Or: How did it feel when no one joined you?
  • How did it feel to rejoin the flock?
  • How did it feel to break away from the flock?

 

Relating murmuration experiences to real life:

  • If there is a dominating individual, a very confident leader who steps forward and assumes command, ask the individual and the group about that. Ask them if they’ve ever seen this in their real life.
  • If there is confusion in the flock about who is leading, ask them if they’ve ever experienced that in real life? What happened?
  • Ask the whole group if they’ve experienced shared leadership in the real life. How was it? What worked? What didn’t?
  • Have they experienced non-shared leadership? (Traditional singular, hierarchical leaders) What did they like/dislike about that kind of leadership?

 

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