Murmuration: The Balance between Leading and Following in Nursing

Contributor: Mary Elaine Southard

I was outside this evening when a beautiful occurrence caught my eye. A flock of hundreds of birds did a dance of a murmuration. I watched in awe at this phenomenon and wondered about its significance.

A murmuration of starlings

“In a murmuration, each bird sees, on average, the seven birds nearest it and adjusts its own behavior in response. If its nearest neighbors move left, the bird usually moves left. If they move right, the bird usually moves right.

The bird does not know the flock’s ultimate destination and can make no radical change to the whole. But each of these birds’ small alterations, when occurring in rapid sequence, shift the course of the whole, creating mesmerizing patterns …

Computational biologists and computer scientists who study them describe what is happening as ‘the rapid transmission of local behavioral response to neighbors.’ Each animal is a node in a system of influence, with the capacity to affect the behavior of its neighbors.

Scientists call this process, in which groups of disparate organisms move as a cohesive unit, collective behavior. The behavior is derived from the relationship of individual entities to each other, yet only by widening the aperture beyond individuals do we see the entirety of the dynamic.”

Scientists have been studying murmuration in starlings for decades. In 1987, computer scientist Craig Reynolds created a simulation proving that complex flock behavior could be replicated through individuals to create different patterns of movement (Komlos & Benjamin, 2019).

As I participate in leadership meetings related to healthcare, I have observed the energetic pattern of shifts of behavior as the strongest voice has the capacity to sway behavior according to vested interests. There is an almost palpable coercive component that leads to a less democratic discussion or input of ideas.

Human systems and organizations are always complex adaptive systems. Key insights can be gained from observing our patterns of behavior in our personal and professional lives. In nursing leadership, we must have a thorough understanding of both leading and following, while honoring cues of discomfort, disconnect, or discontent.

Are You (We) Responding to Curated Bait in Healthcare?

The evolution of the current climate within nursing appears to be the culmination of spontaneous events that no one can control. As seasoned nurses leave the profession and organizations struggle to retain staff, this is a critical turning point for the profession. But is it?

Referred to it as “nudges” or “bait”, curated information that gets pushed into our view ends up influencing what we think and do, thus influencing what gets passed and what doesn’t. It’s an incredibly subtle form of influence. At its core, it’s social engineering at its finest.

There’s a nudge of urgency (curated information pushed to the front of an agenda, perhaps), individuals react, and suddenly, in masse, numbers of people move in aggregate, creating a trend. Basically, social engineering and behavior modification works by steering our attention toward a specific target. Without fully realizing the implications or consequences, an individual’s agency is compromised. As it turns out, the curated information that is pushed ahead influences agendas, newsfeeds, and/or legislative proposals and can dramatically influence crowd behavior, ultimately causing unintended consequences.

Why this Insight is Crucial to Nursing Leaders?

As a nursing leader, it is incredibly important to become consciously aware of the dynamics at play as collective behavior influences decisions at all levels.  Sending clear, and consistent signals that allow processing of information requires communication that is thougtful, inclusive, and open to debate…

 Nursing leaders, due to theoretical underpinnings, are adaptable to new directions, threats, and opportunities. Nursing leadership theories provide a framework that fosters self-reflection, expanded consciousness, growth, development, and engagement. Pattern appraisal, described by nurse theorist Elizabeth Barrett (1988) is the process of collecting data and identifying manifestations of pattern emerging from the human-environmental mutual field process. We are the human instrument used in pattern appraisal. Human and environmental field patterns are appraised through manifestation of the pattern in the form of experiences, perceptions, and expressions (Cowling, 1990). Throughout the pattern appraisal process, nurse leaders utilize all forms of knowledge, including tacit knowing, intuition, and pandimensional modes of awareness (Butcher, 1994). Detecting and communicating how information is received, processed and “landing” for the person, speaks to the core of leadership, culture, and awareness. Shifting directions due to needs/wants of an individual can lead to misdirection or bad decisions, personally and professionally. While organizations are complex adaptive systems, so are everyone that comprises each part of the organizations “nervous system”.  When something feels “off” it is an indicator to pay more attention to the details. Phillips (1991,2000) affirmed we must attend to “personal knowledge” as valued pattern appraisal.

Echo Chambers and Directed Trends

Groups tend to become echo chambers, making “subtle murmuration’s” more likely. That is why there is a moral and ethical responsibility to take each vote, decision and seriously, ponder the implications, take time to ask appropriate questions and abstain if there is any hint of uncertainty. It is important to stay alert to a “push/pull” energy when items are brought forward for consideration. Checking your own internal compass for unease or statements that give you pause are guideposts to further investigate. This helps clarify and strengthen our own integral lens while contributing to the whole.

A murmuration can also be emblematic of unity, in that we are stronger together as cooperation is integral to success. The spiritual message is to be aware of emergent properties, language, and the power of collective achievement. As a nurse leader, one must use instinct and energetic sensitivity to sense a change in direction, challenge, innovate and transform healthcare. Emancipatory knowing (Chinn & Kramer, 2007) cultivates praxis by deepening and strengthening leadership abilities.


Barrett, E. A. (1998). A Rogerian practice methodology for health patterning. Nursing Science Quarterly, 11(4), 136–138.

Butcher, H. K. (1994). The unitary field pattern portrait method: development of a research method for Rogers’ science of unitary human beings. NLN Publications, 15-2610, 397–429, discussion 430–435.

Chinn, P. L., & Kramer, M. K. (1991). Theory and nursing: Integrated knowledge development.

Cowling, W. R. (1990). A template for unitary pattern-based nursing practice. NLN publications, (15-2285), 45-65.

Komlos, D., & Benjamin, D. (2019). Confronting Complexity. Lean & Six Sigma Review18(4), 24-25.

Phillips, J. R. (1991). Human field research. Nursing Science Quarterly, 4(4), 142–143.

Phillips, J. R. (2000). Rogerian nursing science and research: a healing process for nursing. Nursing Science Quarterly, 13(3), 196–201; discussion 202–203.

Rogers, Martha E. (1970). An introduction to the theoretical basis of nursing. F.A. Davis Co.

About Mary Elaine Southard

Dr. Mary Elaine Southard is a national/international educator, author, advanced practice clinician and leader in Nursing.  She holds a BSN from Misericordia University and is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania with concentration as an Oncology Clinical Nurse Specialist. She completed a post-master’s certificate as a Holistic Nurse Practitioner from New York University.  Dr Southard received her DNP in Integrative Health and Healing from the University of Minnesota and a Diploma in Clinical Homeopath from the Center for Education and Development of Clinical Homeopathy (CEDH), an international teaching organization that trains more than 3000 healthcare professionals annually worldwide.  She is Board Certified as an Advanced Practice Holistic Nurse & Health and Wellness Nurse Coach and is co-author of The Art and Science of Nurse Coaching: A Provider’s Guide to Scope and Competencies (2nd Ed) published in 2021 by the American Nursing Association. She is a Founding Member of the Global Academy of Holistic Nursing and chair of the GAHN Practice Committee. She previously served on the Board of Directors of the American Holistic Certification Corporation and was instrumental in developing the certification examinations for Nurse Coach and Advanced Practice Holistic Nursing Certifications. Her research focuses on the competencies of Integrative Nursing and Nurse Coaching using the Omaha System for data management and validation of interventions. She currently represents the American Holistic Nursing Association on the Licensure, Accreditation, Certification and Education (LACE) collaborative. She has a private consulting and coaching practice, Integrative Health Consulting and Coaching, LLC located in Scranton, PA.

2 thoughts on “Murmuration: The Balance between Leading and Following in Nursing

  1. As a PhD student/candidate I am investigating how disparate organizations, viewed as complex adaptive systems, adapt and co-evolve to an innovative intervention. I find utilizing the concept of murmuration to describe CAS to be quite fascinating and inspiring! So cool to see it show up on nursology.

  2. Beautifully written and articulated. I lean into the notion of patterning appreciation as a way of recognizing and understanding the beauty held withing phenomena. I think nature has much to teach us, if willing to learn, about the value of belonging and moving with one another for some greater good, what Martha Rogers referred to as “human betterment.” I find myself intrigued with the notion of nurses as map makers having read a mystery about a man who was a map maker and how depicting the landscape had so much to do with the suggestive journey, always mediated by the journey itself. Mary Elaine, thanks for sharing your observations is such a meaningful way. Richard

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