In the old paradigm, leadership was much like a pack of lions. There could be only one alpha male and everyone else was subordinate to this male. There was a clear hierarchy when it came to feeding, with the most important eating first and the least important last. If a member of the pack didn’t abide by the rules the violator was ostracized from the community. Then left to become either a lone male in search of another pack or ultimately die.
Leadership in the industrial age followed much the same model. One CEO at the top was ultimately responsible for all the decisions. The rest of the organization subordinate to this one leader. The hierarchy was also much the same. There was fierce competition between the pride members to compete for the alpha male position with the strongest and most cunning ultimately the winner. When a team member didn’t follow the rules imposed by the leader, he was fired or in more subtle ways invited to leave by making the environment so uncomfortable that the only option was an exit.
The message was quite clear. Either you follow in the footsteps of the leader, or you leave. It was survival of the fittest in a quest for more power. The winner taking all. The lower down the hierarchy, the less you earned and the less power you had.
It worked well and much got created with this method. Was it not for the industrial age and invention of management, much of what we have today wouldn’t exist. It made cars, books, education, clothes, furniture, even money more accessible making many scarce resources abundant.
A new paradigm of leadership
But then the world changed with the arrival of the age of the knowledge worker. Suddenly, information was the most valued asset and creative thinking the most sought after resource.
What worked before don’t work anymore. It is becoming increasingly harder to get results from employees with an approach designed for labourers who were expected to follow rules. Not question anything with quality. The ability to reproduce as many identical objects as fast as possible and as cheap as possible. Quality in the age of knowledge workers is the ability to produce the most unique, new solution to old problems as fast as possible. Copying what someone else already did is a recipe for failure where previously it was the recipe for success.
A new paradigm of leadership is needed. A paradigm where an environment for creative thinking and collaboration is possible, where people can produce unique solutions and learn as fast as possible. An environment where the knowledge of the group is more valuable than the knowledge of one. Where more of the same was valuable before, now more of what’s new and different is valuable.
The beehive as a leadership model
The new paradigm of leadership can be compared to a beehive. The bee colony is a social species. Its sole purpose is the sustainability of the environment and the hive, maintaining the balance between nature and the organism of the hive. The quest is to live in harmony with the environment, not overpower and control it. The goal is to benefit from the environment and in return give back equally in service, not seeing how much you can take with giving back as little as possible.
The purpose becomes creation, not consumption.
1. The leader as visionary
In the beehive, the queen bee’s sole responsibility is to produce more bees. She is ultimately responsible for the existence of the colony as the only bee in the colony able to lay eggs. She can be considered the primary caregiver, with the health of her hive her ultimate goal.
In the age of knowledge workers, the queen bee is not as much the manager as in the same sense of the pack of lions, but rather the visionary, giving birth to new ideas that will enable the organization to survive and expand.
In the organization, the queen bee is the person who is the strongest visionary, not the most dominant personality. It is the Steve Jobs of Apple who envisioned making technology accessible to everyone and beautiful at the same time. Also, it is the Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google whose aim it is to organize the world’s information and make it accessible and usable to everyone. It is the Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post, with her sleep revolution, Thrive and one of the first media houses to listen to their audience and give them a voice.
The leader is the person with the strongest vision which the followers believe in, not the most dominant as it was in the lion pack.
2. Chosen by the people
When a queen bee dies, the hive decides who the next queen bee will be, not the queen bee herself. It is a collective vote from the bottom up, not a decision made by the leader at the top.
In the new paradigm of leadership, the leader is selected by the people he or she is to serve. The people choose the person they most trust in the organization to have their best interest at heart and is able to lead them towards a shared vision everyone believes in.
This implies that each person in the organization has the ability to rise to become the next leader. Where previously leadership development was only available to a hand-picked few, now, everyone should strive to develop leadership qualities such as responsibility, trust and respect. Each person in the organization should ultimately be equally equipped to become a leader themselves when the need arises.
3. Collaboration towards a shared goal
The worker bees tend to the queen bee knowing that she is the reason for their existence. There is as much benefit to her as there is to each bee in the colony. There is no competition between the bees, with each responsible for a different role within the hive. They work together to sustain the hive’s existence. There are bees cleaning cells. Bees that receive and stores nectar and honey. Bees who collect the nectar and honey. And finally, bees who guard the nest and bees who ventilate the nest. Each bee rotating through each role and able to switch between tasks as it is required by the hive, without any hierarchy.
Each bee contributes to the existence of the hive, working together, not in competition with each other.
In the organization, this means that the silos are broken down and the layers of management removed to become a flat structure where each person contributes to the shared vision of the organization by performing service for the greater good of the organization. There is no one service that is deemed more important than the rest. Everyone realizes that each role is needed for the hive to survive.
4. Self-organizing teams
In a hive, the queen bee isn’t responsible for telling the bees what they should be doing or where they should be. When the temperature within the hive rises too much, more workers bees start flapping their wings to cool it down because they see the need, not because someone told them to. When more nectar is needed, more worker bees go foraging. The goal of the hive is to remain in equilibrium.
In the organization, this means teams are empowered to react and respond to the changing needs of the organization as and when it arises. Each team member is willing and able to help their colleagues, all with a goal to remain in balance. They aren’t restricted by the rules and roles imposed on them. This means that everyone has to make decisions and act in the best interest of the group, without a manager or leader telling them to.
5. Sensing and responding
In a hive, when conditions change, the hive as a whole reacts to the change. When there is a danger, they attack without first waiting for approval from the queen bee or an appointed supervisor. When the hive gets too cold, they sense this and fewer bees flap their wings, servicing the hive in another form without first obtaining permission to change roles.
The hive operates on the principle that the bees who sense disharmony in the environment respond to it. The rest of the hive follows. When there is a danger, the first bee who spots the danger attacks, knowing that the rest of the hive will follow because every bee has the same goal – survival of the colony.
In the organization, this means that decision making happens where the decision is required, not at the top. When a team needs more resources, they find a way to get more resources. When the customer needs changes, the client-facing person observes and responds to this need. The rules and products are changed to remain in harmony with the environment and the balance between offer and customer need is maintained.
This requires that each person needs to have the authority to make decisions. It also means that the group as a whole needs to respond to the change as one, knowing it’s in the best interest of the organization, not a competition to become the next queen bee.
A new paradigm in leadership is needed. A paradigm where each person in the organization works together in pursuit of a shared vision. A vision which they believe in and choose to contribute to. It requires personal leadership development for everyone in the organization, not only a select few.
Leadership needs to become a less scarce resource in the age of information. Just like access to cars, education and books became a more accessible resource during the industrial age.
With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.