Merge's Blog

A leadership lesson from monarch butterflies

monarch butterfliesEvery fall, millions of monarch butterflies leave their summer homes in Canada and the northern United States and travel over 3,000 miles south to their winter home in the mountains of central Mexico.

Even though the journey is long and arduous, instinctively, the butterflies know that they need to find a safe place to spend the winter.  This makes sense.  But what is very unusual is how the butterflies make their spring return trip to their breeding and feeding territories in Canada.

You see, the individual butterflies that leave the north are not the ones that will return.  While favourable air currents permit the monarchs to make their way south to Mexico relatively quickly, the return trip to northern climes takes much longer.  In fact, because the life cycle of a butterfly is just 5-7 weeks, individual monarchs stop for breeding and feeding cycles, and eventually they die before completing the journey.

However, their offspring continue the journey. Eventually, it takes the monarchs four to five generations to actually make the entire trip back up to Canada.

We still don’t know why …

Science is still deciphering how an individual monarch knows to return to the summer breeding and feeding grounds from several generations ago.  Is it genetically coded into its DNA?  Is it following the bloom of its primary food source – milkweed? Are they responding to immunological cues?  Or are they just following the sun?  We still don’t know.

No matter what the scientific reason is though, the fact remains that each individual butterfly starts its trip, going in the right direction, and trusting that somehow, a future generation will continue towards the final destination.

But there is a lesson for leaders …

In many ways, that’s exactly what leaders are called upon to do.  A key aspect of leadership is the ability to envision the long-term health of an organization and move people and processes in that direction.  And often, that involves taking actions in the short-term, knowing full-well that the destination is still afar, and that there will likely be no instant or visible payback.

But exceptional leaders have the courage to start the expedition, clearly articulate the destination, and trust that those who follow behind them will continue the journey.

Leaders have to think strategically for the long-term, even if there is no short-term positive result.  Monarch butterflies show us how it can be done!

So what do you think?  Are monarch butterflies cool or what?  And yes, please do also share your views on the lesson for leaders!  What have been your experiences from a leadership perspective?  Please comment below.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I often find leadership inspiration in the animal kingdom.  If you enjoyed this post, you might like these as well:


  • Really loved this particular article and your analogy to leadership. Monarch butterflies are amazing. It reminded me of the time we had to implement wholesale changes to our entrance scholarship program and how it took time to lead people through why we needed to do it and ensuring all the key stakeholders got involved and had a chance to provide their thoughts; and how it related to the strategic directions and goals of our institution.

    It took about a year or so of leading people to where it needed to be, before we could get it approved and now that it’s in place, it is being well received by most, especially for those students who are now a part of our new program. It was a team effort and am grateful to those who helped me move it through, to making it a reality.

    Sometimes we may not be there to see how things end up depending on how long it takes, but it’s always fun to be a part of the process.

    • Manoj, thanks so much for your thoughtful input. Your willingness to be part of the process, even though you may not be there to see the end result, takes courage, and it’s what separates leaders from managers. So bravo on what you’ve accomplished!

  • I totally agree with your comment about leaders needing to think of the long-term future. However, when compensation and rewards are measured using short term measures (quarterly results for example), what is the motivation to go for the long haul?

    • Oh, agreed completely John. And herein lies the dilemma. Which is exactly why it takes courage for leaders to look to the long-term, even if it means short-term pain. When the compensation and rewards system works in direct opposition, it is even harder! It takes a strong will and presence of mind.


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