Leader of the bee world

I posted an article on LinkedIn recently and  wanted to share it here for posterity’s sake. Working in the corporate world, I think about how honey bee colonies might represent well-run corporations. This is one such musing. Enjoy.

R1 Queen

The queen of our first Russian hive on Apr 26, 2015. The green dot means she was a 2014 queen (from the Fall, according to our supplier). This was the first time we saw the queen on our frames, so was very exciting.

Are leaders necessary? Lessons from the beehive

Most organizations have leaders. Companies have CEOs, ships have captains, manufacturing plants have managers, and software teams have team leads. Still, I wonder sometimes if leaders are necessary. Could an organizational structure support a lack of well-defined leadership, and could workers self-organize in a way that eliminates the need for a defined leader? If leaders are necessary, how can they best support the organization?

As a beekeeper and a CTO, I think about how the behavior of honey bees translates to well-run organizations. Worker honey bees make most of the decisions in a hive. They collectively decide how big the brood nest should be for raising young, where to find the best sources of food (water, nectar, and pollen), and when to reproduce the hive by swarming.

In this somewhat idyllic social order, you might think a leader is not required. Yet a queen is essential, and without a queen a hive becomes lethargic and will eventually die. So what does a queen do, and how does this translate to leadership? The two key functions of the queen may provide some insight.

The first role of the queen is to define the culture. Every organization, a bee hive included, has a culture. When a leader actively shapes the culture, good things can happen. Workers move with more purpose and direction on behalf of the group. A well-shaped culture creates a common language, and workers swap ideas, manage resources, and build for the future.

In biological terms, the queen shapes the hive’s culture by emitting chemical substances. There are several chemicals involved, though a critical one is called queen substance. This queen substance is passed from worker to worker until every bee knows there is a queen at the helm. They calmly go about their business, raising young, guarding the nest, building comb, and foraging for food. Their purpose, one might say their mission, is to survive and prosper.

A good leader, perhaps, actively builds the culture in their organization. They define the rallying cry for survival, the reason for the organization to exist. Every worker (employee) understands the culture and works to uphold it. Given a purpose, teams can achieve a shared goal, and shared goals across multiple teams can achieve great things. It begins with the right culture, the right substance, supported by the right leader.

The second role of a queen is to build for tomorrow. In the hive, this means laying eggs, which workers cultivate into the next generation.

In leadership teams, the queen’s eggs to me represent ideas for the future. Creating new ideas is a shared responsibility, and it is critical for success. Successful companies that become stuck in an approach, from Kodak to Borders Books to Blockbuster, do not survive. It is the leader that allows new ideas (eggs) to germinate, and encourages the organization to grow them into future value.

What doesn’t a queen do? A queen has no idea how to find nectar or guard the nest, just like leaders should not generally work the production line or secure the network. A hive has workers that know what to do and when to do it, allowing the queen to focus on sharing the culture and building the organization.

Are leaders necessary? The most successful organizations in nature would say yes. If we believe the honey bee, leaders should focus on defining and spreading a shared culture throughout the organization, and encouraging new ideas for the future.

Leader of the free world

Our title comes from the well-known phrase used to refer to the President of the United States. According to Wikipedia, during World War II the Allied powers viewed themselves as the free countries against oppression of the Axis powers. During the Cold War this evolved into the phrase “free world,” and the “leader of the free world” was used to describe the United States and later the U.S. President.

For this post, I was looking for an idiom with the word “leader” on the FreeDictionary site, and this one seemed appropriate.

May you prosper and find honey.

5 thoughts on “Leader of the bee world

  1. Thanks for another interesting and perceptive piece. You present an interesting analogy.
    You represent the hive as a flat organization, but that does not quite transfer to human organizations, which are inherently hierarchical. I’ve long puzzled over the lack of middle-managers in the hive. Although biology probably explains much of role transitions (housekeeping, guarding, foraging) do you have thoughts regarding how tasks are managed (who swarms? where does the colony add the next bit of comb?) and labour decisions are made without mid-level directors? These seem to occur spontaneously among honey bees but not among people.


    • Yes, well, hierarchy would be another post 🙂

      Tom Seeley’s and other’s research have found feedback loops in the hive around foraging and other resource management, something our organizations may lack. The hive seems to have built-in mechanisms to “kick off” activities based on inherent triggers, including the notion that if the colony gets too big they should split up (swarm) to be more efficient as two different entities. In human societies, the number 150 (Dunbar’s Number) seems to have some significance in this regard, and beekeepers go to great lengths to keep their bees from swarming through reversals, supering, and other manipulations.

      So there is probably a story/analogy to tell on this, will have to think on it.

      Thanks for the comment, Ron.

      Liked by 1 person

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