One who knows the way

A mother duck and her ducklings at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, May 2013

A mother duck and her ducklings at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, May 2013

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” 
John C. Maxwell

As Reneé, Roger, Tammy and I walked through one of the outdoor courtyards at Walter Reed NMC, one of them said, “Look, a mother duck and her babies!”  Naturally, I had to take some photos.  It was really interesting to watch how the mother duck reacted to my presence, and how her nine ducklings responded to her every move.  They were clearly accustomed to people, and showed no fear as long as we kept a distance.  The mother  would waddle along and the babies would hop along behind her, often in single file.  But the instant she stopped — which she did whenever I got too close — the ducklings would cluster next to her and freeze until she moved again.

We watched them until they traversed the courtyard and turned into the bushes on the other side, although they froze several times when I approached, and their actions followed an amazingly identical pattern each time.  As far as I could tell, she gave them no vocal signals, nor even a gesture with her wings, unless it was so subtle that I missed it.  But her confidence must have been enough for the ducklings, who watched closely and imitated her actions without fail.

My best teachers in life are people I remember mostly for who they were and what they did, not for things they said.  Certainly verbal instruction is an important skill, but no didactic lesson compares with an example in action.  Wherever your career, interests or circumstances lead you, I hope you will have some great leaders who know, go and show…and maybe you can be one yourself!

This post was originally published seven years ago today. The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. Good morning, Julia!
    So cute!
    My first thought was, ducks aren’t really very smart, but they’re smarter than ducklings!
    I have read about imprinting in ducks, and it is interesting.
    I suppose I want really very smart as a young mother, either, but we did navigate through it, and I was probably much smarter by the end of my kids’ childhoods. I wonder if duck mother become wiser?
    We have a cardinal pair in my yard, and they are so old that the male is bald! He has a little black head, and then bushes out to the typical red color and shape starting at the neck. Amazing. They have babies now, and are keeping a close eye on the cats!

    • Susan, I think we do become wiser with experience, and that extends to all the members– at least the sentient ones– of the animal kingdom. In fact, I believe that science may one day tell us definitively how such experiences become encoded into DNA. In animals we call this “instinct” (although I also believe that instinct is just God talking to the animals 🙂 ) but I believe people may have encoded experiences somewhere in their DNA too, and traces of our experiences likely are passed on in some way– see previous comment re: my fascination with genetics. The down side of this is that not all such “wisdom” from experience is functional or even true. I think it’s entirely possible for bad past experiences to result in hypervigilence, unwarranted suspicion, and prejudice, among many other unfortunate traits. So I think it’s beneficial for us to take care what our experiences “teach” us!

      • Judy from Pennsylvania

        Yes, information about telomeres and the transmission of negative experiences from one generation to the next has been interesting to me too. I wonder what else science will discover about how things are passed on from our ancestors (or to our descendants). Fascinating area for study in decades to come.

      • Good observation regarding our “wisdom.”
        I remember a prof once explaining to the class about how it’s an adaptive behaviour to tuck away what we learn from experience so that we don’t have to stop and think about it later and can react more quickly, possibly saving our lives. I don’t recall the examples he used; tigers or fires or spiders…?? At any rate, he did not discuss the counter-adaptive experiences we may also incorporate by NOT taking the time to ponder the possibility that we are mis-incorporating the lesson from our experience. I once came down with a flu within hours of eating chili, and didn’t eat chili again for several years, I think. It wasn’t the chili that was the problem, of course.

        • Yes, Drew once got very sick after we ate out at a restaurant in Hawaii. Though none of the other three of us got sick, he refused to go into one of those restaurants (it was a chain) for the remainder of our 3 years there– which meant that the rest of us couldn’t go, either. When things are correlated in our minds, we often infer causation even when that’s an invalid conclusion. This tendency is especially worrisome with all that’s going on in the world today. And the media mavens seeking higher revenues through click bait and sensational stories are quick to profit from our hysteria. Worrisome indeed.

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