leadership lessons from ants

Posted on October 30, 2010


this was a really interesting article around leadership/corporate culture – most interesting were the comments at the end of the post.

how do you work like ants, where everybody knows what needs to be done and there is no specific need for a single leader to direct interactions. how do you build an organization where there is a common objective and where everybody leads.


from HBR

2:37 PM Monday October 4, 2010
by Ndubuisi Ekekwe  | Comments (86View)

A few years back, I planned to build a networked digital library where theses from African universities could be stored. I wanted to find a way to make these contributions visible to the whole world. It was a hobby, not a job, and I took the time to personally craft it to my taste. The project took weeks, then months, and years. Finally, I gave up: no time.

Then, driving to New York for an IEEE Leadership Workshop, a few weeks ago, I stopped at a rest area in Connecticut. As I was resting, I noticed some ants in action. I observed that when one finds food, others immediately gathered to help pull the food to their storage. I decided to disturb the pattern, which unfortunately, resulted in wounding one. Quickly, they came together and evacuated it. Then they re-organized and continued on the line they had created. I saw no form of supervision, yet they were accomplishing tremendous tasks, such as moving pieces of food that were about 30 times their individual sizes.

As I watched them, the theses project flashed to my mind. Wouldn’t it be good to trust others to help you? Right there, I made the following decisions on the project:

The ants worked as a team: I will form a team, bringing professionals together.

The ants trusted one another: I must do away with the notion that only by working alone can I ensure quality.

The ants were open: I will share the idea with like-minded people. I later got a Boston area professor to lead the design. When ants discovered food, they informed others, who came along and helped.

The ants were partners and of different sizes: I will bring help and make the task our project, not mine. As much as possible, each team member will get assignment based on his capability.

The ants were diligent and focused: The team must keep working, even slowly. Deadlines will give us focus.

The ants regrouped: I will be open to try new ideas if present ones are not working.

It is about a month later now and the project is progressing well. We hope to launch it in November, from Ethiopia, the seat of the African Union.

Peter Miller has written that swarming animals, like ants, can teach us a lot about planning, military strategy, and business management. They make decisions as a group and depend on one another to survive. Samuel Haldeman had already observed that these small creatures live in unity, are hard-working, prudent and disciplined. It is no wonder the Biblical Solomon rebuked the lazy man: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!

For small business owners, especially, there is a major lesson here. By engaging everyone in the organization, and trusting people, you will have more success. You must not think that only you can close the sales, install the products, and fine-tune the design all by yourself. Give others the opportunities to fail or succeed, and always ask for help. I have learnt to forward emails on the projects to others, instead of hoarding them for days. I also share project progress and challenges to all team members. The more people know where we are, the more they come up with solutions. You never know which member of your staff has information or networks that can unlock future growth opportunities unless you share and communicate with the team. It means understanding like my ancestors that “The ant-hills are not built by elephants, but by the collective efforts of the little rejected ants.”

Ndubuisi Ekekwe is the founder of non-profit African Institution of Technology. He recently edited Nanotechnology and Microelectronics: Global Diffusion, Economics and Policy.


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