Exploring cognitive coaching through ‘How wolves changed rivers’

You might have seen this video about ‘how wolves changed rivers’ after the reintroduction of a few wolfes in the Yellowstone National Park. This video is an outstanding resource to look at organizational change and empowerement. I have crafted some ways to explore it through the lens of Cognitive CoachingSM. (Find out miore about Cognitive CoachingSM here).

I found that the video was an analogy of self-directedness. Self-directedness is divided in three aspects by Garmston and Costa (2015:16):

1- Self-managing:Knowing the significance of and being inclined to approach tasks with outcomes clearly in mind, a strategic plan, and necessary data, and then drawing from past experiences, anticipating success indicators, and creating alternatives for accomplishment.”

–> In the video, we can imagine that the wolves are aware that they can be efficacious, they have a clear goal and a way to get to their goal. They have the legacy of the ancestors, have developed their crafts by learning from previous experiences. They also feel in control and feel empowered by being aware that when they face obstacles, they can be agile, take risks, innovate and persevere.

2- Self-monitoring:Having sufficient self-knowledge about what works and establishing conscious metacognitive strategies to alert the perceptions for in-the-moment indicators of whether the strategic plan is working and to assist in the decision-making processes of altering the plan and choosing the right actions and strategies.”

–> The wolves are flexible. They are designers because they are not afraid to alter their plans. They don’t see obstacles as impossible problems but as challenges to overcome. They are “moonshot thinkers” (read more about moonshot thinking here) because they enjoy hardship and throw themselves into new and scary learning situations; also because they are intrinsically motivated and love to find solutions by tinkering. They feel the satisfaction of achieving difficult tasks.

3- Self-modifying:Reflecting on, evaluating, analyzing, and constructing meaning from experience and making a commitment to apply the learning to future activities, tasks and challenges.

–> Through their strong sense of efficacy and interdependence as a community of wolves in a territory, the wolves adapted, adjusted and embraced change through collective thinking and collective actions. As they continously evaluated, they were increasingly successful in achieving their goal. Like design thinkers (and design “doers”!), they used “quick prototyping” (iterated), kept reflecting and kept acting fast to improve.

In what ways is this video an analogy of empowerment?

Just like Margaret Mead said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This video really showcases that change is a choice and we can accelerate change; amplify it with our deliberate actions. While the first step might feel like a lost cause (reintroducing a few wolves), the impact of a few can be outstanding. To make a connection to the Adaptive School Foundation Training I received from Ochan Kusuma-Powell: “You don’t need to touch everyone to make a difference”. There is a balance between the human intervention and the cycle of natural regeneration and connection between tiny elements and bigger ones (because there is a system, indeed, there are several “eco-systems” that influence one another). This is related to the concept of holonomy (Costa & Garmston, 2002) which explains how a person can be both a high functioning individual and an integral team member at the same time.

For example, the wolves “radically changed the beaviour of the deer”: the deer adapted and avoided certain spaces, therefore regeneration happened. Some trees “quintupled in 6 years”, “bare valleys became forests”, “birds started moving in”, there were more and more habitats and more and more species. The system regenerated through individual and collection actions and through this interdependence of species and habitats, that craftsmanship of the biodiversity… Finally, the river changed.

The entire story is a story of redefinition, of a change of identity and of hope and optimism (while wolves are known to kill, we might go beyond labelling them and realise they also create life, indeed, they create more than they destruct). If we make a connection to leadership, well, we might see leaders negatively (those “killer wolves”), however, they might not be that bad! They might indeed create life and create more life than destruction 🙂

Change is disruptive. We resist change because it’s unknown, scray, uncomfortable, however it is necessary to redefine ourselves and innovate.

Going back to the idea of extending capacity, if we “just” change the environment, it does not necessary have an impact but if we change our identity, values and beliefs, we can genuinely transform ourselves and others and grow.


Costa, A. L. & Garmston, R. J. (2002) Cognitive Coaching: A foundation for renaissance schools, 2nd Ed Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Costa, A. L. & Garmston, R. J. (2015) Cognitive Coaching: Developing Self-Directed Leaders and Learners, 3rd Edition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 408 p.


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