January 15, 2012

Ducks and Eagles

Are you a duck or an eagle?

Here’s a video from a talk I gave at a Citynetevents networking event.  It’s about how there are two kinds of people on every team — ducks and eagles.  Each has a role on your team.  If you want to improve your leadership and create a great team it’s important to know who is who.

Special thanks to John C. Maxwell for teaching me about ducks and eagles.


Chris: Thank you to Citynetevents tonight for hosting this great
networking event. It’s beautiful here. I’m here tonight for a couple of
reasons. One, the mission of VietnamWorks is to help people and to help
companies achieve their dreams. The more successful our customers are and
the more successful all of you are, the more successful we can be too. I’ve
been working in Vietnam now for four years, and I’ve been in charge of
VietnamWorks, and then recently, I was promoted to be in charge of the
whole company. I’ve learned a few lessons about how to motivate people and
how to create winning teams. I want to share some of these lessons with you
tonight. If we have time, I’d like to take a few questions. So, let’s

First, I want to talk about our jobs as leaders. A leader
achieves nothing by himself. Nothing. Just like Mr. Calisto, a
leader . . . they won last night, right?

Audience: Yes.

Chris: Okay. [speaking Vietnamese 01:40] I could hear it outside my
house until about 1:00 a.m. Mr. Calisto didn’t score even one
goal. He wasn’t even on the field, but everybody gives him
credit for winning. This is what leaders do. This is what you do
if you have people and you have a team.

What does he do? He selects the players. He chooses which
positions the players play in. He motivates the players, and he
coaches them. When the team wins, he gets the credit. With no
team, he cannot compete. It’s the same with each of us that
leads people. You achieve nothing by yourself. You achieve
through your team. Your number one job is focusing on your team.
When your team is successful, like Mr. Calisto [speaking
Vietnamese 03:09], you can achieve great things.

I want to talk about ducks and eagles. There are two kinds of
people in every team. The first kind are ducks. Ducks are good.
I want to be clear about that. But ducks come to work every day.
They do their jobs. When they finish a project, they wait for
the boss to tell them what to do. They’re very comfortable.
Yeah, they can learn new skills, but they’re not that interested
in learning new skills. They can work in the same job for years,
and they’re okay with that. That’s fine.

Eagles are different. Eagles on your teams love to fly. They
love to grow. They love to learn. When an eagle is done with a
piece of work, the eagle doesn’t wait for the boss to tell them
what to do next. The eagle has ideas. “Oh, I can do that. I’ll
do this. Oh, I need to do that.” And the eagle begins to work.
The eagle will get bored if he’s in one place for too long.

We all have eagles and ducks on our teams. The first step is to
understand who are the ducks and who are the eagles. We need
ducks, but it’s eagles who are going to make your organization a
success and grow and change.

I want to tell you a story about ducks. One of my favorite
management gurus is John Maxwell. John Maxwell loves doughnuts.
He loves Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Krispy Kreme has a special
marketing thing they do. When they make fresh doughnuts, they
put a light on outside the store. So the light tells people,
“Hey, there are fresh doughnuts. Come in and get them.” Because
fresh doughnuts are the best.

One day, John Maxwell was driving, and he saw a Krispy Kreme,
but the light was not on. But he thought, “I want a doughnut
anyway.” So he opened the door, and he smelled fresh, amazing
doughnuts. He was surprised. The light’s not on. So he got to
the front and he asked the manager, “Hey, this fresh doughnut is
great, but how come the light’s not on outside?” And the manager
said, “Well, when that light is on, too many people come. I just
get too busy. I don’t like that.” Quack, quack, quack. That
manager was a duck. That manager is probably a good worker, but
that manager, that person should not be managing the store.

As leaders, we have ducks and eagles on our teams. It’s our job
to find out who are the ducks and who are the eagles. Eagles all
share things in common. They may have different skills and
different backgrounds, but they all love to learn. They love to
grow. They get bored if they’re in the job for too long. They
have ideas, and they take initiative. It’s our job as leaders to
understand who are the eagles. Eagles share those traits, but
they have different strengths and weaknesses. Some people are
very strong in an area. That same person might be very weak in
another area.

So the first step is to decide who are the ducks and who are the
eagles. The second step, what are they good at? What are they
strong at? A great example is somebody who loves to meet people,
who develops relationships easily and quickly. That person might
do well in a job where they talk to customers or a front
receptionist. Put them in an area that takes advantage of their
strengths. Don’t put that person in an area that takes advantage
of their weakness. I see this happen a lot.

I’ll tell you another story. Let’s say our friend Francis is in
charge of team of animals that’s going to compete in the
Olympics. On his team, he has a penguin and he has a rabbit. He
says to the penguin, “Penguin, you are a great swimmer. You’re
great. But you know what? You’re a bad runner. I want you to
focus on your running. No more swimming. Running. I want you to
be a better runner, because you’re weak there.” And he says to
the rabbit, “Rabbit, you’re a great runner already, but you’re a
lousy swimmer. You need to be a better swimmer. I want you to
forget about running, and I want you to focus on swimming.” Is
this a good strategy for Francis?

Audience: No.

Chris: No, it’s not. The rabbit is never going to be a strong swimmer.
He might improve some, but he’ll never be great. The penguin is
never going to be a great runner. He might improve, too, a
little bit, maybe 10%, but he’ll never be a great runner. The
reality is we do this all the time. This happens in business all
the time, but it’s harder with people, because it’s harder to
see what people are good at. It’s harder to see. Not as obvious
as the animals. But ask yourself, do I have anyone on my team
that’s a rabbit and I’m making them swim, or that’s a penguin
and I’m making them run? If you’re doing that, you’re setting
your people up for failure and demotivation, and it’s going to
be tough for you to win.

This is what you want. Let the rabbit run, and let the penguin
swim. It’s what they’re great at.

I’ve seen many times people get promoted, especially this
happens in sales a lot. Someone’s great in sales. They’re strong
in sales, and they get promoted to be a sales manager. The
skills required to be a sales manager are quite different than
those required to be an excellent single salesperson. All great
sales managers are great salespeople, but not all great
salespeople are sales managers, and we forget this. Because
they’re good at swimming, they must be good at running. Not

Last thing. After you’ve identified your eagles and you
understand their strength areas and their weak areas, train.
Train, train, train, train. Eagles love to fly, and they love to
grow. When you train your eagles and you help them fly higher
and grow more, you win. They win. They love it. It motivates
them. They will stay with you. If they feel they can learn and
grow with you, they will stay. This is especially a problem here
in Vietnam, where another company might offer your person a
little bit more money and they leave. But if you train the right
kind of people who love to learn and grow, they will stay with
you. So ask yourself, “What am I doing today to help my people
learn and grow and be better at their jobs?” Because when they
do better and they’re stronger, you can achieve better results
in your team.

So, if you identify your ducks and your eagles, if you
understand strengths and weaknesses of your eagles, if you put
your eagles in positions that take advantage of their strengths,
and if you work hard to train your people to make them even
better at what they do well, I guarantee you, you will have
great success. Thank you.

  • Viet Hong Le

    I watch this video of you 1 year before and still find it inspiring now :)

  • Quynh910

    wow you have the transcript :) i think the hardest job now is to know clearly who is eagle and who is duck, especially when ducks want to become eagles!

    • Yes, that is the art of leading people Quynh. 

      Some ducks think they are eagles, and sometimes some eagles think they are ducks.  Never give a duck an eagle job — not only will the duck fail but it will be impossible to return the duck to his hold position.

      Similarly, recognize eagles and don’t keep them in duck jobs for long.  Often eagles will begin transforming their duck job into an eagle job through their own initiative.

  • interesting post, Chris.

    i guess the old-aged question of, “Are you a sitting duck or a soaring eagle?” applies well with this post.

    • Hi Linda – yes, it’s a useful metaphor to think about people on your team.

  • Ron Bell

    So, thinking about this, Chris … do you think that companies need *both* eagles and ducks?

    • Hi Ron – Yes, companies need both ducks and eagles.

      Ducks are not bad at all.  Good ducks are reliable and steady.  We need ducks to get things done and make businesses go. 

      But it is eagles that will propel the business forward with innovation, ideas and sheer dynamism.  You have got to have eagles in your key positions.

      Every business has positions that are most suitable for ducks.  If you have too many eagles might mean some of them have to take duck positions.  That frustrates the eagle and might lead to conflict.  Kind of like the old adage “Too many cooks spoil the soup.”

  • mu

    I think that there are 3 components:
    the personality
    the personal history
    the current environment

    Some people might appear like duck because the current environment doesn’t motivate them. So the leader must correct the environment.

    Some people might be currently duck because of their personal history(culture/school/past jobs/…).  Here the leader must teach the thinking and behaviors.

    • Good points Mu.

      Eagles might appear like a duck at first, but if you look closely you will see an eagle beak and eagle feathers.  Eagles have common traits — they love to learn and grow, try new things, have ideas and take initiative.  These are easy to spot.  Even if an eagle is in a duck position, you usually can tell you have an eagle on your hands.  Nurture that eagle and help them grow.

      It can happen that ducks become eagles.  But it’s not common.  If a duck lacks any eagle qualities — i.e. they don’t like learning, they are content to do the same job for years, they always wait to be told what to do, they don’t have ideas — then it’s just about impossible for that duck to become an eagle.  It’s just not their nature.

      Don’t confuse eagles and ducks with strength areas and weak areas. Everyone has those.  Regardless of whether someone is a duck or eagle, identify their strength areas.  Make sure to put them in jobs that take advantage of those strength areas.  Then help them make those strength areas even stronger.

      It seems counterintuitive, but you should ignore your people’s weak areas if you think they have little aptitude to develop those areas.  Just like it’s pointless to to spend time helping a penguin to run better (a penguin has no aptitude for running) it’s a waste of time to teach a shy engineer to become a sales superstar.  If he’s a 3, maybe if you’re lucky after a lot of time and effort you can improve him to a 5.  Instead, put the engineer in a position that leverages his strengths and help him become a 10 in that area. 

      The same goes for you.  If you have little aptitude in an area, don’t waste your time trying to improve it because chances are that area will never be a strength for you.  Instead, use that time and effort to make your strength areas even stronger.

  • Giang

    Really nice speech, Chris. It’s inspiring. 

    I just few little sad that not many manager can follow this. Some cases they even kill eagles and nurture ducks.

    • Thanks Giang!

      Yes, it’s astonishing how many managers treat ducks like eagles, and eagles like ducks.  They could be so much more effective if they learned to treat eagles like eagles and not put ducks in eagle positions.  

      I like “ducks and eagles” because the metaphor is so simple, accurate and useful.  Eagles gotta fly.

  • Edwin Guillermo

    A quick Google search reveals that eagles fly 10,000 to 15,000 feet but mallard ducks can fly at 21000 feet. There is something definitely wrong with these metaphors.