Humans are obsessed with leadership. Ants don’t have any leaders. Humans build huge inefficient organizations. Ants are very efficient, but their organizations are thousands of times larger than those of humans. Humans learn management, performance, quality, and productivity. Ants don’t worry about it but perform better than humans. Maybe it’s time we learn from ants…
People spend a lot of time on building leaders. But leadership isn't natural to people. People perform at their best when they do something natural. So, why do we build leaders in the first place? Why can't we focus on what comes to us naturally?
The problem is that leadership is a mental block. When humans don't know how to do something, they come up with a poor working system and call it a "best practice." This best practice then becomes a standard and everyone follows it. But this standard is based on limitations of human intelligence (an oxymoron). Leadership is one example of such practice.
We obsess about leadership. But leadership is a tool allowing us to get something done. Isn't it time we find an alternative, more natural way to perform?
Ants can teach us a lot about leadership. They live in colonies consisting of millions of individuals. They don't have managers or leaders, but they perform well.
The first thing humans can do is focus on the natural approach. Humans are born with certain natural tendencies, but most tendencies are learned. These learned tendencies create variations for a number of reasons. These reasons include the source of knowledge, the delivery method, the learner’s experience, expectations, and motivation. As a result, learned tendencies are highly imperfect. Leadership is one of such tendencies. Removing the concept of leadership is the first step to a potentially more optimized organization.
Now let's think about ants...
The right ants in the right jobs. Everyone counts. Ants don’t distinguish between good and bad performers. They simply place the right ants in the right jobs. Strong ones become warriors. Little ones take care of the babies. Medium sized ones become workers. When guest ants wonder in from other colonies, they are immediately identified as “the wrong people in the wrong positions” and are removed. Humans can do the same. If a person doesn’t perform well, put him in the right job instead of criticizing him. If you can’t find the right job for the person, remove him. Don’t keep people for the sake of keeping them. But if you do decide to keep them, make sure what they do really counts and everyone in the organization recognizes that.
Socializing. Ants are highly social creatures. If one finds food, he will communicate that to others. If there’s danger, it’s communicated to warrior ants. If queen needs help taking care of the little ones, its loyal assistants will immediately arrive. This highly efficient machine works through constant, direct, candid communications. Humans can do so as well. Get people in the room, ask them to make a decision, remove dominant voices (no leaders!), communicate the fact that everyone’s opinion counts, facilitate productive discussions (eliminate group think), and watch magic at work.
Common intent. All ants have one intent on their minds – survival. Everything they do is linked to that intent. Humans can develop a common intent as well. However, the most common intent for people in most organizations is to have a job that pays bills. This is a very counterproductive intent. Humans should be communicated a vision and given a mission. They should all see the vision (intent) and agree with the mission and a strategy that will take them there. This right common intent can drive any organization in a needed direction. Just make sure the vision is right and the tools to execute are given.
Embrace change. Researchers found that change is the way of life for ants. In one experiment, a researcher placed poison on a tree that was a major source of food for ants. When ants brought poison into the colony and detected that it as something that negatively impacted them, they stopped going to that tree. In another experiment, a researcher removed ants’ access to food. Instead of going on strike like the human beings would, time aware food-hunting ants quickly switched to another task – taking care of the little ones. Ants are able to succeed because they embrace change. Humans can and should do so as well. Embedding change in the organization drives innovation and productivity.
Team work. Ants focus more on the needs of the colony than their own individual needs. They take care of their queen’s babies, help other ants build and bring food, and fight for survival of the team. Humans can and should adopt a similar approach. Working for a benefit of self can be detrimental to the overall performance of the team or the entire organization. Humans should focus on the team, rather them themselves. Most people believe they already do a lot for the team. However, research shows that most people are self-centric, even if they believe otherwise.
Process ownership and doing the right thing. Why would ants take care of someone else’s babies? Because it’s their job! Because it’s the right thing to do. Humans like to question what is and what is not their job. They like to point fingers and create excuses. They don’t like to own their jobs. Ants, on the other hand, are accountable for their actions. In fact, their performance is flawless. They don’t do what they like to do. They just simply do the right thing! By doing the right thing, humans can increase their own performance and the level of customer service they deliver. Why? Because they care about the deliverable, not themselves!
Peer review. Ants perform peer reviews all the time. They constantly smell each other to see if they belong to the colony. They teach each other to work and hold each other accountable. Of course they do it a little differently from humans. If you don’t work, you will probably end up with your head bitten off. But this concept represents an interesting approach to checks and balances. Providing peer review and holding team members accountable is what brings performance to the team. If you don’t comply, you are out! Humans use leaders to do the dirty job, but peers can be even nastier.
So, what is the bottom line? Humans can improve their organizations by focusing more on teams and less on leaders. Teams should form based on the right people in the right positions. They should establish and agree on strategic intent, create a system of peer based checks and balances, socialize for performance, and live constant change. Humans should approach their work and communications naturally, but they shouldn’t forget their team goals and always do the right thing. They should coach and motivate each other. They should help each other with getting tools needed to execute.
If humans were to build highly productive teams and program these teams to do the job a leader typically does, they wouldn't need leaders, or at least the leader's role will be diminished.
Another way to look at this solution is this: create a culture of people that lead themselves and create a team environment that reduces mistakes and ensures success.
We rely on leaders too much. No one is perfect. If a leader makes a mistake, his team may get affected. According to CareerBuilder, 75% of the people leave their bosses, not their companies. This means that the problem of poor leadership is huge.
By eliminating leaders and getting people to work in teams and lead themselves, we achieve the following:
1. Superior performance
2. Fewer mistakes
3. Better accountability
4. Reduced employee turnover
5. Cost efficiencies (fewer people to do the job)
1. Do NOT sell this idea to the management team. Get it to work first. This will look transparent to the more senior people. They will simply see it as investment in team work.
2. Focus on team work rather than your job. Build a perfect team.
3. Empower your team and have it work the "ant way."
4. Slowly step out. As a matter of fact, the job of a leader is to get out of his people's way.
I developed this hack, but I got an inspiration for it by reading Henry Mintzberg's "Managing" book, where he mentioned that leadership isn't natural.