Business Day (Nigeria)
The leadership lessons of ants
CONNECTING few years ago, I had the idea to build a digital database for theses written by students at African universities. I wanted to make their work visible to the greater academic community. The project took weeks, then months, then years. Finally, I gave up: I simply didn’t have the time.
Then, at a roadside rest stop in Connecticut, I found some motivation.
I was driving to a leadership workshop and had pulled over to rest when I noticed some ants in action. I observed that when one ant found food, others immediately gathered to help pull the food to their storage area. I accidentally wounded one of them. Quickly, they all came together and evacuated the wounded ant. Then they reorganized and continued on the line they had created. I didn’t observe any formal supervision or ant hierarchy, yet they were accomplishing tremendous tasks, such as moving pieces of food that were about 30 times their individual sizes.
Ahave told us that animals, like ants, can teach humans a lot about planning, military strategy and business management. They make decisions as a group and depend on one another to survive.
As I watched, my thesis archival project came to mind. “Wouldn’t it be good to trust others to help you?” I asked myself. Right then, I made these decisions about the project:
— The ants worked as a team. I would form a team, bringing professionals together.
— The ants trusted one another. I would do away with the notion that working alone was the only way to ensure quality.
— The ants maintained open lines of communication, so they could help one another and share the bounty. I would share my ideas with like-minded people.
— Ants of all different sizes worked as partners. I would reach out to others and make the task our project, not mine alone. As much as possible, each team member would receive assignments based on his individual capabilities.
— The ants were diligent and focused. I would encourage my team to keep working, even when it was slow-going. Deadlines would give us focus.
— The ants regrouped after crisis. Rather than quitting as I had before, I would be open to trying new ideas if the old ones did not work.
For small business owners, especially, there is a major lesson here: Success is much more easily achieved by engaging everyone in the organization and trusting workers at all levels. You must not think that you alone are capable of closing the sales, installing the products and fine-tuning the design. Give others the opportunity to fail or succeed, and never hesitate to ask for help. I have learned to forward emails about the project to others. I also share progress reports and challenges with all team members. The more people know about where we stand, the more they come up with solutions. You never know which member of your staff has the information or networks that can unlock future growth opportunities unless you communicate with the team. This means understanding that anthills are not built by elephants, but by the collective efforts of tiny ants.