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Learning leadership lessons from insect larvae

October 29th, 2014

Learning leadership lessons from insect larvae

When we think of great leaders, speeches from great politicians and victorious sporting legends spring to mind. The famed leaders of human history have inspired and driven others to achieve success, but what can we learn from natural leaders of a different sort – those who have risen to prominence through natural selection in the animal kingdom?

Scientists recently discovered that good leadership plays a key role in the success of a particular species of insect. It turns out that the larvae of the Australian steel blue sawfly – known locally as the spitfire – can teach us a lot about the value of democratic leadership.

The larvae might only reach a length of 7cm, but en masse they are a force to be reckoned with. Grouping together in their hundreds, the diminutive creatures thrive by following a leader to forage for food. Unlike other species like baboons and wolves where the leader asserts dominance through taking a greater share of the food, both followers and leaders in these sawfly communities feast on the same amount of Eucalyptus leaves (yum). Working together, the insects can strip an entire tree of its leaves in a matter of days.

The larvae evidently value their democracy – they typically stay together in their large groups for the duration of the larval stage, about seven months. What’s more, scientists observing groups of the creepy crawlies discovered that groups comprised of all leaders and all followers were ultimately less successful than one with a mix of leaders and followers; it was found that in these mixed groups, both leaders and followers were better off than they would otherwise be.

In rapidly changing, dynamic work environments, democratic leadership of this sort is important. We must work together in these fast changing circumstances, recognising the value of collaboration. The leaders who do best here are those who accept the ideas of their colleagues, taking all options into account before making a decision for the good of the team, benefiting everyone.

If we can swallow our human pride, there are lessons to be learned from sawfly larvae – here are some tips to keep your team as democratic as a Eucalyptus tree that’s crawling with hungry bugs.

Keep talking

To be a true democratic leader, you must create an environment where everyone feels comfortable enough to offer their ideas. Democracy works best when everyone’s opinions are out and on the table, available for everyone to see so that feedback can be shared and ideas critiqued. Get your team talking, and you will be amazed at the range of options that lie before you.

Stay focused

With so many people’s ideas flying around, it can be difficult to focus on which course of action to take. Democracy does not mean anarchy – there needs to be a structure in the team, and it is down to the leader to keep discussion focused and on topic. Remind everyone of the goal at hand and keep steering the conversation back to the topic you set out on. If good ideas arise that are irrelevant to the current issue, come back to them another time.

Respect the process

It is impossible to expect people to agree with every idea that arises in a democratic team, but considering them all equally will show your colleagues that you want them to voice their ideas. Give it time, and a strong plan of action will arise from the process – when it does, your team will feel rewarded that they have played a part, collaborating and discussing a range of other ideas to reach success.

Commit with conviction

The best ideas will benefit your whole team. When they are found, it is the leader’s responsibility to follow through with it and stand by the decision. Do not feel bad that other ideas fell by the wayside – the very procedure of going through those concepts has led you to a winning plan. The next step is to make it happen.



Insight team


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