The flight attendant and the queen bee
Of the hundreds of flights I have taken, I remember very few. And of the few that I recall, only one did not concern high winds, lightning, or aborted take-offs or landings; that flight being a small commuter flight without a flight attendant on board. The person who I expected would accompany us, the person who made sure we all boarded safely and counted heads, had left prior to take-off. Now I am well aware that in case of catastrophic failure 25,000 miles off the ground, there would be very little that anyone could do to save us and that raising our seats to an upright position would be a cosmetic intervention at best.
Yet I remember this flight because I remember how I felt despite that awareness. I recall thinking, "Wait, you're not coming with us?" Just as we were to embark on a potentially hazardous, anxiety-provoking journey, the person who we counted on to be there and to whom we would look if there were troubles, was gone. It was very unsettling -- and only in the absence of the flight attendant did it become clear just how calming her presence was. I am not sure if the airlines know how valuable the flight attendants really are, and I am not sure the flight attendants themselves know.
I don't believe many executives realize their importance, either. After all, most executives are not the egotists that you read about in the news. They are ordinary people from mostly ordinary backgrounds: predominantly nice, decent people who happen to have a talent for business. As regular people, they can under-appreciate their importance to employees in their role as executive. If we reflect on why we need leaders at all, the likely response is because of the functional benefits they afford; they enable us to achieve ends we could not accomplish on our own.
Lost in these tangible functions, however, are the great intangibles of security and comfort. When leaders think that they cannot be immediately useful by fixing the cause of our financial pain, such as during the recent economic downturn, they falsely believe that they have nothing to offer. Still, more important than immediate results is the knowledge that the leader is there beside us. We want assurance that it will be all right, that we will persevere in time. We don't always expect answers right away; we just want to know that someone is there who is larger than us and who can help us to find our way.
This same need in a leader shows up in the natural world. In beehives, for example, queen bees regulate much of the colony's activities through the release of complex pheromones and esters. Everything works beautifully when the queen is around and sensed. Her true value, however, is manifested when she is not there.
Without a queen, the entire social order unravels rather quickly, and the prized cooperative value system falls apart. In the absence of the queen, each worker vies for control and tries to assume authority over the hive by producing offspring of her own. This means that the egg-laying of worker bees dramatically increases, but because the eggs of worker bees can only develop into male bees, such an occurrence is harmful for the colony.
Solitary pursuits rapidly displace an emphasis on community and sacrifice, ultimately provoking organizational unrest and decay. The agitated colony will eventually die. However, if you reintroduce the leader-queen, the simple fact of her presence will restore purposeful behavior among the colony. It is like raising the royal standard over Buckingham Palace--there is a pervasive sense of comfort knowing that the Queen is in and all is well in the kingdom. Peace and order return and the bees once again commence productive work.
It has been gratifying to see recent reports of executives re-engaging with their workforces as the recession recedes and economic order is slowly restored. Yet for many in the work-world, it is a little late. We needed you most during that small commuter flight when we were all at risk, not when we have landed and are stationed safely on the ground.
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