………….third in the series from DownUnder. Enjoy!!!
Sitting on the lawn of Stanley’s Safari Lodge in the heat of the African afternoon under the shade of the Jacarandas with their 40cm hard green pods swizzling in the breeze as though hung there for just that purpose, I noticed an effervescent black line heading diagonally from the stone steps ascending from the pool.
Intrigued, I moved to the front of the narrow, arrow straight line to inspect hundreds of shiny black ants each perhaps a centimetre long, and watched as a leadership team of about six ants headed the procession. The ant out in front seemed to know exactly where he was going, heading without deviation towards the garden bed in front of the main building of the Lodge.
Despite the difficult terrain the line moved very quickly until it reached a spot just before the garden where the leader stopped dead in his tracks. Swiftly he was surrounded by a pool of black as the column compressed around him, the activity slowing noticeably as the ants now wandered around in a disorganised state, spreading out in every direction, not knowing what to do but not wanting to stop moving either.
Immediately I was reminded of what happens when leaders stop leading, and I saw on the ground in miniature what I’ve seen so often in groups of people in full scale life.
When leaders stop leading activity slows down, momentum is lost, people move off in every direction in a state of mild confusion not knowing exactly what they are supposed to be doing.
Leadership stops when there is a change of person, or when the goal has been achieved, or when adversity strikes, or when focus shifts from a single common goal. The change in group dynamics in business or charity is as noticeable as it was in ant dynamics in Zambia.
Seeing the difference between a group with strong clear leadership and the same group without leadership provides a stark contrast. Sadly for many groups of people they have never experienced strong clear leadership.
The problem is most obvious in small business – where I currently spend most of my time. Often the owner has never been lead and so has never experienced what its like, and therefore doesn’t know how to provide it. Many small businesses and charity groups look like the African ants after leadership stopped – everyone is busy doing their best and yet there is a general feeling that progress isn’t being made.
Sometimes they feel they are going backwards. There is a sluggishness, a dogged determination to grind through the day or the meeting without any real hope of getting anywhere.
I left my ants to their confusion and returned to my chair to write down my thoughts, staring into the distant Mozi-Oa-Tanya – The Smoke that Thunders from Victoria Falls in full flood. I almost missed the return of the ants, just catching the tail of the line as they returned to the stone steps. Closer examination revealed that each ant was carrying a piece of something roughly five times its own size. As I followed the line Desai appeared and I showed him what I had seen.
He explained that these ants “always have a program.” The scouts had been out and finding a food source, had returned to the nest to lead the workers to the place so they could bring it back.
Leadership hadn’t stopped at all, the group had come to the place of the food and had gathered it, turned around and once again under the definite leadership of a few, returned directly, energetically, and quickly to their nest. Job done. Program completed.
And again I was reminded of my experiences with leaderless groups when a leader has finally emerged – once a direction is set he/she begins organising everyone towards that direction, and soon “things start going off.”
Momentum is quickly created, energy returns, people move more swiftly, results are achieved. Its more fun to be part of a such a group, its more satisfying, people want to stay, others want to join. And sometimes the “smoke and thunder” generated by these groups attracts observers like me hoping to learn something we can pass on.
When I first read the gospels I imagined that Jesus was aimlessly wandering around bumping into people and reacting to circumstance. I didn’t see him as a leader at all, I thought his disciples were just a disorganized spontaneous group.
Closer observation reveals that Jesus had a very clear purpose and direction, he left nothing to chance, and whilst his leadership and organisation of the disciples can appear to be casual he managed to get them all exactly where they needed to be exactly when they needed to be there.
Even a very brief glance over human behaviour reveals that we all need leadership – life is more fun when we feel part of a group that’s going somewhere. By contrast life can feel boring and hard work when we feel we aren’t part of a group or that our group is going nowhere. Smoke and mirrors don’t fool us for long.
May Peace be with you,