Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The 'Swarm Theory' article in Nat Geo (07/07) has redefined the way I view leadership. (Warning: this entry contains more than a little self-indulgence, prolonged perusal of which may cause headaches or narcoleptic seizures).

I was observing Mel today and couldn't help wondering how it was that she could initiate a project that would cost students nearly $100 each, and she still had over a hundred students sign up for it. Similarly, Amy just announces on the quiet, "Let's go watch Shrek," and 500 kids sign up, pay their money, and Eng Wah's never seen a better afternoon crowd on a Monday.

If I tried something like that, I'd probably get about 12 kids signing up in total, and 8 kids will call me on the day to tell me they're dropping out, and can they have their money back, please.

Now I see the answer possibly lies in our different styles of leadership philosophy, and paradoxically, while their styles are particularly suited to lead people, my style works more like how Swarm Theory works.

First, I'm actually quite horrified with the 'hive-mind' mentality. There's no individuality, no free-will, just mindlessly doing the bidding of a central intelligence that does all the pre-thinking for the collective. Star Trek's Borg collective, for example, purports itself as functioning under a hive-mind. There is only one Queen who makes all the decisions, while the individual Borg do whatever she tells them to do, then go back into their closets when they're done. Often, they wind up dead.

But, surprise! The above scenario is quite the opposite from how swarms operate! The scenario is more reminiscent of how human beings organize themselves. A central government, often under the leadership of a charismatic personage, that rules by limiting the choices of the people. And people, while in love with the illusion of 'self-determination', actually like to be told what to do because it takes the responsibility and burden of choice off their shoulders. Life, after all, is complicated enough as it is.

This sort of leadership requires careful planning on the part of the central deciding body. It anticipates problems; plans contingencies; allocates resources; draws up SOPs, rules and regulations; and concerns itself with the 'fairness' of job allocation (you can abuse people however you like, as long as they still have the inalienable freedom to complain).

Each stage of planning reduces the choices people can make. The more detailed the plan, the more structured and organized it is, the fewer options are left for the individual worker to deal with. Hence, people gravitate towards micromanaged organizations which make the masses move more or less forward towards a predetermined objective. Predetermined, that is, by the leadership.

While Mel and Amy set very admirable objectives that benefit their students no end, other less selfless leaders have used central control to build monuments to themselves at the expense of their followers, or leave legacies of horror in their wake. In situations where individuals need to exercise thought and moral consideration, central control switches off the individual's mind, and absolved of choice, the individual simply "obeys orders". Think of the central controlling agencies of the Nazis, or the blind obedience of extremists to fatwahs issuing from dubious authorities with questionable motives, and we see how the system fails its followers, and harms others that are not part of the system.

On the other hand, it is the characteristic of swarms to have neither management nor organization that is held within an exclusive group of individuals that sets itself above the mass. The Queen bee simply lays eggs, and doesn't "control" the movements of any other bee, worker, soldier or drone. Each individual simply does its job based on the need.

No individual has a collective "big picture". They only see what's in front of them, but this information is relayed in an ever expanding chain (of information and not command, mind you) so that the collective group "knows" what needs to be done, what actions need to be taken, even if the individual has no clue what's going on.

When decisions have to be made for the group, personal evaluations are made of the options given, a simple voting process takes place (see experiment with how the test bees choose their new hive) and the majority wins with no repercussions on the losing voters. By swarm intelligence, the decision is almost always the correct one.

It seems odd to me that in a swarm, every individual exists as an individual and is respected as an individual. Every individual is trusted to do what is necessary at the time it is needed, without having to be told what to do. There is way more freedom in a swarm than in a democracy. How about that?

Unfortunately, human beings cannot move like a swarm. People place too much vested interest in themselves and so they can never feel equal to anyone else around them. People either desire to rise above their neighbours and dictate their desires for the group to comply to, or they feel powerless and refuse to make decisions even for themselves.

I certainly am no leader of people. I am a swarm of one.

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