I’ve been talking to Alfred my burly physiotherapist about leadership and teaching. Like me he’s quite chatty and we often drift off in to strange side conversations that in a roundabout way influence my thinking for the day, I started physio at about the same time as this module and its always scheduled on the morning of one off my days off, so one of my PG Dip days so I guess now they are inextricably linked in my head. Once I brought up the topic of manipulation in Organisations (I didn’t say it like that it was more of a whinge about restructuring and how when you know someone is using a tactic on you it makes you feel manipulated) he responded by talking about the massive levels of manipulation that goes on in the world of professional wrestling (he’s a wrestler). Story lines within story lines, manufactured drama (the burning platform) and real drama all played out around and within the ring.
He recounted the story of one professional wrestler whose name escapes me, who successfully managed to persuade his company to, as a publicity stunt, pretend they had kicked him out while still paying him so he could play the part of the opposition. He then went to work for one of the opposition companies and persuaded them the same thing. In the end, he was paid by all three of the big wrestling foundations simultaneously each thinking he was their mole.
None of this ever made it on to the stage and during this period which I believe was at least a year he was listed as independent. That’s some damn fine manipulation.
In the end the federations realised he was playing them and he was resigned to his original company as his career had spring boarded and he had become a popular nemesis figure inside of the ring as well as outside of it.
Also too I guess, because in the end in wrestling, recognition of the theatre of the game is as important as the game itself and he played the game magnificently.
I was telling Alfred that I needed to organise a presentation. where I talk about my ideas of leadership and structure , and we were talking about the art of speechifying. He suggested that I talk about ants.
He also suggested that I find an ant species with a large bad ass name like the Southern fire ant and talk about how a leader sets a trail with pheromones which all the other ants follow. He said that’s a nice way of talking about leadership because either the leader is right and the trail is a good one leading the best route to the best outcome or the leader is just someone who is dragging his butt along the floor like a dog ….
I think of ants as generally, a system of many leader ants creating pheromone trails but only one queen on whom all the other ants dote on and work for, she is the glue, the raison d’être. If the Queen dies the colony collapses. If the overall health of the Queen and the nest is well the colony splits off and makes other new ant organisations. Colonies are dependent on their food source so there is always a balance between organisational size and what’s available in the environment to sustain it. No food makes a smaller hardier colony; more sustenance means more growth and expansion. Scout ants leave chemical trails as they forage, the more ants that find a suitable source of food, the more the trail is marked and more ants will follow that trail so good routes are chosen and reinforced by a kind of chemical democracy, without need of a leader giving orders, paths are chosen by the community through the strength of their jointly made chemical trails. This organising process is both simple and powerful.
If you want to learn more about the self-organising systems that ants use, then I suggest the documentary Ants: Natures secret power on YouTube. It’s quite an interesting idea for organically structuring an organisation, well, right up until about halfway through the video, when the ants just keep going about their tasks even while fire rages around them and they boil inside their little exoskeletons. There’s probably a lesson in the danger of mindless activities in that too…
So what if that central hub, that Queen is not a person like in current hierarchical leadership models. What if the Queen is an idea or a goal? A purpose or a mission? Then you have a network of workers or leaders surrounding a central figure. A network of leaders and followers who interchange roles when needed but can also specialise where they need to. Speaking of specialisation, I recently came across the little flat faced turtle ants one of a type of ant who build their nest inside the abandoned tunnels left by wood boring insects.
This little guy has specialised as a living door. His plug face seals the nest entrance, he knows what he is good at and what he is there for. There is always room for that inside an organisation.
Another wonderful thing about ant’s nests is that their structure is created from a central point but shifts and changes depending on the terrain, new tunnels are created when needed and some nests get so large that they need multiple queens in different areas. The structures are tunnelled around obstacles like stones or tree roots.
There are some ant species like the Black Carpenter Ant who will tunnel through their obstacles but this leads to weakening other structures around them like the houses they are nesting in which is not good long term, as your nest is destroyed if you undermine the structure holding it up for too long. So it seems that letting your environment determine your shape in a reflexive way may be the best long term solution.
Doesn’t this idea of an organisation being people structured around a shared goal already exist? Whitecliffe for example has the shared goal of teaching art type things to students. Isn’t that the true core of the business? Maybe, I hope everyone else feels that way. Sometimes I wonder though, in any organisation if by building a hierarchy around a leader, the common goal is sometimes forgotten, or is not given a chance to evolve. Maybe ego comes in to it too, the leader thinks it all revolves around them and success is directly linked to them personally. Sometimes I wonder if building a linear and firm structure around something chokes the nature of it, maybe as scary as it sounds a less firm foundation allows for a more flexibly shaped organisation.
Recently Alfred and I also talked about learning through osmosis. Again, like the wrestling talk it was more random than that, we were actually talking about how plaster walls soak up everything in a room like smells and dampness, but then got on to imagining if the walls of the physio room could soak up all the information, all the knowledge that it had heard over the years, a kind of if the walls had ears moment or if the walls had memory retention. I think in the end that that’s what would happen working in a more collective model, that skills could be shared and learned in a kind of osmosis situation of “influence and refluence”. If the right kind of environment was created, it could build on itself in a way, and benefit all the members of the team, and then extend even further out into the audience. Like the chemical communication used by the ants, knowledge can be shared and used by all.
The queen releases a chemical perfume throughout the organisation that broadcasts her health to every member. When ill health is felt, measures are taken to support the system, maybe even a new queen is produced. Communication and knowledge sharing is constant and open, from all directions. What Mary Parker Follett called “a ‘plus matter’; where people are continually learning from each other and adding knowledge together for the sake of the overall enterprise, ‘the common purpose’ “.
As New York Times writer Jeremy Gordon said when writing about the charms and fakeries of wrestling; “The audiences and the creators labor [sic] alongside each other, building from both ends, to conceive a universe with its own logic”
For Gordon those invented worlds, “however false they may be, nevertheless feel good and right and amusing to untangle”. That is part of wrestling’s “half Shakespeare, (slide half steel chair shots”, smack talk artifice, its theatrical charm. Fakeries and invented worlds are its stock in trade, its mission, its performance. Untangling its intricacies is part of the fun, much like untangling the intricate pathways made by ants in their home structures.
Both are constantly in flux, organically building on previous paths or narratives in new directions, around obstacles like stones and tree roots, around previous storylines remaining true to their common purpose. Is that our lesson here for arts industries to remember always what the common purpose is and to maintain its authenticity, let it drive the vehicle. Don’t try to be the Queen ant but organise yourself around her and tend her for she is the reason you are there in the first place.
N.B. My apologies for not doing image captions and references. However, each image is titled with its download link so easy to trace backwards.
Bathurst, R. J., & Monin, N. (2010). Shaping leadership for today: Mary Parker Follett’s aesthetic. Leadership, 6(2), 115–131.
Gimloidzz. (2011). Ants: Nature’s secret power (full). Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/Z-gIx7LXcQM
Gordon, J. (2016). Is everything wrestling? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/27/magazine/is-everything-wrestling.html?_r=0
Thaler, W. (Director, Producer), & Mayer, A. (Co-producer). (2001). Ants: Nature’s secret power [Documentary]. ORF Enterprise, Vienna, Austria.
Wojic, J. (2017). Aberrant ants. Retrieved from http://bogleech.com/bio-ants.html
Im just gonna leave these here…