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LESSONS FROM THE GEESE - Who is the author and is it scientifically sound?

This clever piece of prose takes certain migration characteristics of geese and applies the concepts to human behavior and teamwork.  It has been presented at many management seminars and according to one source, has been around for at least 20 years.  Some of the concepts presented below are used by athletes like bikers (it has been said that those participating in the "Tour De France" could not ride the course at that speed without not only the help of their teammates but also the help of their competitors.  Lance Armstrong, the winner in 1999-2005, 'drafted' the Pelaton (line of bikers) for the first few days before he 'pedaled to the metal' and started winning the race.

I was not only intrigued about the origin but also whether it was based on scientific fact.  Though many sources give the authorship as anon, I felt the article was too well researched to be 'anon'.


  1. In a Nutshell - who wrote it, when and why

  2. Scientific evidence collaborated with the claims (with cites)

  3. Search for the authorship

    1. Anonymous

    2. Milton Olson

    3. Ryugen Fisher (and Daniel Jenson)

    4. Dr Robert McNeish

In a nutshell:

Lessons from the Geese, was written in 1972 by Dr Robert McNeish of Baltimore.  Dr McNeish, for many years a science teacher before he became involved in school administration, had been intrigued with observing geese for years and first wrote the piece for a sermon he delivered in his church.  I had a several hour conversation with Dr McNeish in which he totally documented his research and how "Lessons from the Geese" got to be used worldwide.  How I found him was NOT easy and took roughly two days and a lot of blind alleys and even resorting to the telephone!  Below I include scientific documentation of his claims and also my research process in finding the authorship (anyone who has enjoyed detective novels might enjoy reading this).

Researching is often like living through the most exciting mystery story, only the fact that it is really happening makes the suspense even more intriguing.  My long search for the REAL author of the intriguing and clever "LESSONS FROM THE GEESE" led to an educator who has given his life to help open new worlds and horizons to our young folks.  Why am I not surprised?

As the saying goes "If you can read this, thank a teacher!"

BTW, Dr McNeish has never made any money from this clever insightful and scientific article which is featured on numerous websites and used by Toastmasters International, Boy Scouts of America and more.  But I would like to see him get the credit - if you have it on your website and have not attributed it to his authorship, I hope you will consider doing so after reading this article.

Scientific documentation of the claims in "Lessons from the Geese" (with cites):

FACT: As each goose flaps its wings it creates an "uplift" for the birds that follows. By flying in a V formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.

People who share a common direction and sense a community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

Science: Geese and some other species of birds migrate in distinctive “V” or “U” formations or in lines. By taking advantage of the wing tip vortex of the bird in front, each bird can save energy by reducing drag. The energy savings in flight can be as much as 50%.

FACT: When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front of it.

If we have as much sense as a goose we stay in formation with those headed where we want to go. We are willing to accept their help and give our help to others.

SCIENCE: Unable to find any info about this but this may be referring to the fact that geese have very keen eyesight and keep themselves in formation by focusing on the butt end of the goose in front of them (geese apparently have a very unique looking butt-end!) (Encyclopedia Americana - "GOOSE")

FACT: When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies to the point position.

Science: Contrary to popular opinion, the lead bird of the V formation is not always an adult male; rather, the geese shift their relative positions frequently during the flight. (Encyclopedia Americana "GOOSE")

It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership. As with geese, people are interdependent on each others skills, capabilities and unique arrangements of gifts, talents or resources.

FACT: The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

Science: Migrating geese make loud, honking noises, called contact calls, to help them stay together.

We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. In groups where there is encouragement, the production is much greater. The power of encouragement is the quality of honking we seek.

FACT: When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock.

Science: Encounters such as detailed above, demonstrate that families of geese do not break up after the breeding season, but form strong family units that migrate and winter together until they return to their breeding ground.

Later I found out that the Source for this point, was Chesapeake, by James Mitchener in which a goose family is described.  Mitchener is known for his careful research and accuracy in his novels.

It is logical to assume that family members will be flying with each other and that since they are closely knit, if one drops out, the others in the family will follow him/her and stay with the injured goose, re-forming their own formation or joining another formation when the injured goose gets well or dies.

If we have as much sense as geese, we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.

The originator of  LESSONS FROM THE GEESE was as difficult to find as the scientific basis.

Many sites say it's anonymous.  A couple of sites attribute as below:


"LESSONS FROM GEESE" was transcribed from a speech given by Angeles Arrien at the 1991 Organizational Development Network and was based on the work of Milton Olson. It circulated to Outward Bound staff throughout the United States.  (note this page is no longer up)

But this apparently was not the first documented appearance of the article (which by the way, has been translated into several languages including France, Spanish and Japanese!  The first appearance I could trace was as follows (in 1988)

"A Lesson from the Geese" appeared in the November 1988 edition of Nebraska Synod (ELCCA) Update, where it was credited to Milton Olson.

(This is a Lutheran magazine.)

 The authors occasionally mentioned are as follows:

By Milton Olson or Ryugen Fisher or Robert McNeish ..

Milton Olson

Since Milton Olson was the author most often mentioned, I tried to trace him first which was as difficult as this individual wrote:


... There was a Milton Olson who was a pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church from 1958-1963, but that website is dead so I can't get any detail that might identify him as the author. One website says that the original author is: "Milton Olson or . . . . " Another website implies that Milton Olson was a poet and that the original piece was a poem that Arrien adapted for her talk. I even checked the Encyclopedia Britannica online. Nothing found.

I can't resist: the last lesson from all this effort is that chasing down the authorship of this piece is a WILD GOOSE CHASE.

Ellen Paul, Executive Director
The Ornithological Council


Note: my research showed that a Milton Olson was at St Olaf's Lutheran Church for the years designated above but no one knows if this is the same Milton Olson to whom the text is attributed.

Another article from someone trying to trace Milton Olson and the origin is as follows:

Bells and Whistles: Goosed!  ( )  NOTE: this page is no longer up.

Since then, I was contacted by a charming lady named Christine Olson who is - you guessed it - Reverend Milton Olson's daughter. Christine had been transcribing some of her Dad's older sermons and came across the sermon in which he quoted, "Lessons from the Geese". Although he DID attribute it correctly to the real author (not Rev Olson), apparently someone from the congregation didn't hear the attribution and well, the rest is history. :-)

I was so impressed with the real Rev. Olson, however, that I would like to include here, a biography from his daughter - she is rightly proud of her father who though now sidelined by Parkinson's disease, is apparently still as active as his stamina allows him to be. He's truly a fine man and I thought you might find her letter, inspirational reading! (we need more folks like Rev Olson in our world!):

My dad, Rev. Milton Olson, established the Prince of Prince Lutheran Church in Grandview Missouri as a mission congregation of the Lutheran Church in America, serving there from 1958 to 1963. In 1963 my father accepted a call to work as Assistant to the President of the Lutheran Church in Brazil. He worked from 1963-1969 in southern Brazil, responsible for supervising LCA community development projects, including the construction of clinics, technical schools, and churches in largely rural communities. In 1969, he and mom returned to the United States, where my dad served for three years at St. Marks Lutheran Church in Kansas City. In 1972 he was asked to assume the position of Secretary for Latin America for the LCA Division for World Missions and Ecumenism, head quartered in New York City at the time. In that capacity he directed all of the Lutheran Church in America world relief efforts throughout Latin America. After six years, during a time when my three sisters and I were in our teen years, he decided to head back to the Midwest (where he was born) and accepted a call to parish ministry at First Lutheran Church in Manhattan, KS. He served at First Lutheran Church until 1988, when he was asked to assume an administrative role once again with the ELCA Central States Synod, leading stewardship and evangelism efforts in the four state region of Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Oklahoma. After “retiring” from 40 years of ministry he concluded his professional contributions to ELCA ministry efforts by assisting with stewardship and development efforts (through the ELCA Stewardship Key Leader Program)with 35 congregations in mostly rural communities throughout the United States.

About five years ago, Parkinsons Disease had compromised his physical and cognitive capacities to the point that he was no longer able to work in a formal professional capacity with the ELCA church. He continues to be active in the church’s poverty and hunger alleviation efforts, problems to which he has devoted substantial energy in his lifetime. (by Christine Olson, PhD)

Note: Rev Milton Olson was called Home to the Lord, May 2010. I am sure when he entered Heaven, Jesus was there to greet him with "Well done, good and faithful servant". You can read Rev Olson's Obituary here.


Ryugen Fisher

Researching Fisher I found that he appeared to be a Buddhist Monk with a website - he did not mention authorship of the piece but one site stated that he had PROVIDED the text and gave the Dave Jensen as the author. I contacted Dave Jenson who did NOT author the piece. He was not pleased when I informed him I had found the author.

(Note the 'searchmasters' website appears to be down now - i.e. when they had "Lessons" displayed).

Since then, Ryugen Fisher has contacted me and we have chatted in email.  He felt that he was the first to notice some of the aspects of the behavior of the geese and had detailed his research to a John Lyons who apparently wrote an article for a 4H publication. Fisher had felt "Lessons from the Geese" may have been based on his research or the John Lyons article.  However, in checking the dates (Ryugen had his chat with Lyons in the "late 1980's" he told me), it is clear that Dr McNeish was the first to write about this, since his article was completed in 1972, over a decade before Ryugen's conversation with Lyons.  I have enjoyed meeting Ryugen "on the net" and found out that we are both folk music fans! :)

Dr Robert McNeish

Robert McNeish was the last name I had and really by this time, I was definitely feeling the "Wild Goose Chase" feeling and almost called it a stalemate without looking up this last name.    However, since my natural curiosity would not allow me to complete my research without at least doing a quick search.   I did so and surprisingly enough, found an article which stated that the author of  "LESSONS" WAS none other BUT Dr McNeish who had been Associate Superintendent of the Baltimore Public Schools.   Note: this link has long hit the road which is interesting because it was a presentation of "Lessons from the Geese"by Dr McNeish meeting announcement from the Boy Scouts in Baltimore which led me to the location of the author!

Problem is, the ONLY mention of Dr. McNeish as being connected to the Baltimore Public Schools OR "LESSONS" was FROM the scouting network which published the article.  But since it WAS such a reliable source, I got desperate and decided to use the phone.  I pulled up the website of the Baltimore Public Schools and through a long chain of phone calls (which included getting cut off in the land of hold), I obtained Dr McNeish's phone number and was able to call him and ask him personally.

The answer was, YES, Dr Robert McNeish (who retired in 1992) IS the author and he wrote it in 1972!  Dr McNeish told me that before he was Assoc Superintendent of Schools, he was a biology teacher who enjoyed going over to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and observing the geese!  (He is also a poet who wrote a book of children's poems!).  The facts in LESSONS FROM THE GEESE are based on a couple of sources but Bob was apparently intrigued by a flyer he picked up near where he went to observe the geese which gave interesting facts about the geese.  He wrote "LESSONS FROM THE GEESE" for a lay sermon he delivered in Northminster Presbyterian Church in Reisterstown, MD in 1972!  In 1987, a nurse called him and got his permission to print "LESSONS" on small cards to hand out at the National Nurses Convention that year. And in 1990, US Representative Dutch Ruppersberg, called Dr McNeish to obtain permission to read "LESSONS FROM THE GEESE" at his inauguration!

article by Sue Widemark (copyright 2009, all rights reserved)

(on the web)

Dr McNeish's email address is:

An artistic presentation of LESSONS FROM THE GEESE can be found at:

This writer did research on the Biblical underpinnings for the text... very interesting:

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