What ant colonies can teach us about leadership

Ants helping each other out
© frank60/Shutterstock

Ants live in incredibly complex societies ... with no one ant in charge.

If you've ever watched ants, you've probably marveled at their incredible coordination. You might even imagine a master ant telling all the "soldier" ants what to do, but the truth is far more mysterious ... And might even help humans coordinate themselves better.

People may talk about "queen" ants, but in reality, there is no master ant barking out orders. Instead, each ant figures out what to do by watching the ants around it, creating feedback loops that let ants build huge mounds, forage, defend their colonies and dig intricate chambers and nests.

Ant colonies provide an example of 'emergence,' or the way complex systems emerge from interactions of smaller and simpler components.

ants helping each other lift a flower© Dwi Yulianto/Shutterstock

Ants don't have a monopoly on emergence; in fact, their methods could teach us to design differently. Rather than using top-down approaches that start with a fixed design idea, we could consider decentralized design processes that use diverse local inputs and establish feedback systems building on local knowledge. This could help us avoid some of the wildly unsustainable designs we see all too often, such as heavily air-conditioned buildings with huge HVAC systems.

Emergence may also have something to teach us about how we operate our own anthills — our buildings, communities and countries. "Smart" buildings already ensure that their components react to information. For instance, people have invented blinds that automatically move to block mid-day sun.

Perhaps if we took decentralization further, we could build networks that share information the way ants do and create more coherent structures and societies.

This has been a guest post by Roy Brooke.

What ant colonies can teach us about leadership
Ants live in incredibly complex societies ... with no one ant in charge.

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