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The flight attendant and the queen bee

Michael O'Malley
A social psychologist and beekeeper, Michael O'Malley is author of The Wisdom of Bees: What the Hive Can Teach Business About Leadership, Efficiency, and Growth

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.

By Michael O'Malley

 |  May 14, 2010; 1:03 PM ET |  Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I' sorry ,but this analogy just doesn't hold water.Flight attendants are not leaders,they're servants,like worker bees. The passengers could be likened to the brood ,being served. I wouldn't object nearly as much to the pilot being identified as a leader,but even so the analogy is less than cogent. Human hives are organized differently than insect hives. The Queen's dominance serves the long term survival of the hive,the pilot's the short term interests of the paying passengers ,getting from point a to point b.
As for poor corporate leadership,and bloated middle management; I'm amazed at the inefeciency in big corporations. Cant understand why some conservatives seem to think big biz is any better than big gummint.I do think we could learn a lot from bees,they produce honey.Seems like the main thing our organizations produce anymore is paperwork,which rapidly becomes trash.

Posted by: Sambacomet | May 18, 2010 6:58 PM

I love this analogy as one can take it in so many different directions and interpret the hive in both the good as well as in the bad qualities it holds. Even the outcome of the hive's production however, is a function of the observer's value, not of the insect. Take honey for example. We humans, and perhaps some bears, would covet the honey as the 'product' of the bee. The bee itself might look at its honey supply as a battery of energy to be drawn down after the summer blooms have faded. It is the bee's desire to prolong death that is engineered into its genetic code which results in honey production. There are no schools, no lessons, no 'bee-ternet' telling it what to do. Are human organisms capable of selecting the right spot in an industrial park, collectively assembling a hive, select the drone to fertilize the queen to produce workers, killing off the extra queens and drones and then forcing newborn workers to extract and produce honey from their saliva and others into attendant bees and others into guardians to protect the corporation? Yes, we can. But only if some bees work in public relations to deal with the worker bees at The Post.

Posted by: Farnsworth1 | May 18, 2010 5:54 PM

Mr. O'Malley's analogy fails because he is discussing executives, not owners, and there is only one authority in a bee hive, with zero executives. The US has the remarkable abundance of one company owner in every 40 people, a huge ratio. Imagine the difference if the ratio was one in 50, for instance, or one in 30. The vast majority of company owners in the US have no employees, or less than 10.

Corporations of thousands of people are aberrations, truly like towns or cities, not bee hives, and they are obviously ineffectual and inefficient. I pity the soulless drones that would want to work for a corporation. What an empty, meaningless life, compared to working with less than 10 people, like a family, or the sheer joy of working alone for yourself. Clearly, we are not bees, and most of us survive a plane ride without an attendant without feeling any fear whatsoever.

Posted by: Home412AD | May 18, 2010 5:41 AM

The only leadership the colony will tolerate is capable leadership, and it is the workers who decide.
You could hardly have described a system less like American capitalism if you had tried.

Posted by: swmuva | May 15, 2010 7:59 PM

Death is an unfortunate end state for us all. The bees, however, pace themselves. They measure their cost-benefits on net versus gross terms as a means to preserve their lifespan and wings (which wear out). The goal is to gather as much as they can with the least expenditure of energy as possible. Mike

Posted by: michaelomalley | May 15, 2010 12:00 PM

First, we are genetically programmed. That doesn't mean we don't exercise choice. Bees make choices, e.g., where to settle; which flowers to harvest. Second, if businesses made long term survival a goal, they would make more prudent short-term decisions. The foremost rule of the hive is to protect the future -- bees are not short-term maximizers. Their measure of efficiency is over an extended period and broad geographic area. Third, the model bee for the book is apis mellifera lustica: bees are different depending on type. I do not anthropomorphize bees in the book: I simply take what they in fact do and apply it to organizations. They are a highly successful organization and we can learn from them by understanding their behavior. As for the argument in my article, it really is simple: what kind of leader disappears from view just as conditions begin to deteriorate? I have become fascinated by why we have leaders and leadership at all. Presumably since the beginning of mankind we have had leaders and my conjecture is that the functional benefits would be too transitory and unstable to account for all the advantages of leaders and the reason why leadership exists -- and we are willing to accept it. The reason, I suggest, is that leadership is grounded in basic human values and one of those values is to feel safe and assured. If I'm on the front lines, the guy next to me just doesn't fulfill the same needs as knowing that a superior is fighting on the front line with us. Mike

Posted by: michaelomalley | May 15, 2010 11:54 AM

It just struck me - the hive (the queen and all those hard working workers) literaly work themselves to death in order to produce honey which the beekeeper removes, leaving them just enough to keep going.

Of course this is beneficial to both the hive and the beekeeper, yet Karl Marx (for one) would read something into this situation that perhaps isn't there.

Posted by: shadowmagician | May 15, 2010 11:34 AM

Repeating a previous poster - Human beings, obviously, aren't bees. Bee queens and workers (and drones) are genetically programmed to their respective roles in a hive, with the continuation of the hive as the ultimate goal. Is the continuation of a business or "going concern" the main motivation of our "leaders" these days, or is it self interest and personal bonuses?

Also, Mike, how would the behavior of the Cape Honey Bee worker in an African Honey Bee hive fit your analogy? Bees are fascinating critters but perhaps not the ideal model for the workplace.

Posted by: shadowmagician | May 15, 2010 11:15 AM

You're right; 25000 miles is really high. My fault, not WP. I was referring to a condition in the hive known as anarchy -- when the queen is absent, egg laying among workers accelerates, and that is a very bad thing for the hive. But the one commentator is correct; the workers try to replace the queen through emergency queen rearing by developing cells and feeding select larva a special diet -- bees become what they eat. A couple of points on other issues. First, the hive is a fierce meritocracy, and that applies to the queen. When she is no longer productive, she is replaced. The only leadership the colony will tolerate is capable leadership, and it is the workers who decide. Second, the gender is immaterial. This just happens to be the way this society developed. Third, the hive is successful because the workers don't take orders -- most of what workers do is based on local cues and requirements. The hive is highly decentralized. In fact, most organizations couldn't empower workers the way bees do because they don't have as rich communication networks, knowledge systems, decision processes, coordinating mechanisms, and the like. Fourth, the best leaders aren't ruthless; they are confident and insistent, and people will much prefer to follow the latter than the former. As for me being a moron, I'm sure there are people out there who would agree. I try hard not to be. Mike

Posted by: michaelomalley | May 15, 2010 10:42 AM

"Now I am well aware that in case of catastrophic failure 25,000 miles off the ground,..."

25,000 MILES off the ground??? Obviously another example of how nobody proof reads anything at WaPo anymore.

And the biggest problem with this country's workforce is how it's grossly over-bloated with useless "middle management" instead of a stronger well paid working force and functional core group of true management. Nothing will get better until this is corrected but that would mean upper management, who've become fat and lazy, would actually have to "work" again instead of passing the buck down to their sub managers. I certainly don't see THAT happening any time soon.....

Posted by: franklinone | May 15, 2010 9:36 AM

I want my Mommy!

Help is on the way. America is well on the way to becoming a matriarchal nanny state. As it is now the only real men in America are women -- and black men.

Posted by: politbureau | May 15, 2010 1:58 AM

I like the idea of an archetypal queen returning to society. Mothers in homes are the queen bee archetype, and, you are right, they have been disappearing from society -- and I am a career woman who loves having a career. The queen of England is also a mother, and some natural authority comes from such. In Western society, where women are rightly celebrated in the work force, which is powerful, we are also, in a way, exchanging away our roles as queens -- traditionally so. I think that how a woman succeeds in politics, for instance, should look different than how a man would. I've never seen Queen Elizabeth in mens wear (and I love jackets, etc. -- but my point is made). The true queen archetype is feminine and powerful, not only sexual and simultaneously like a man. Mothers are the perfect archetypes of queens. And, as an educator, I can testify that when mothers are attacked, the hive does not know what to do.

Posted by: brenanderson2002 | May 14, 2010 10:14 PM

Mike: You're an odd sort of beekeeper. Worker bees react if the queen weakens or dies by feeding "royal jelly" to a larva, which then develops into a princess bee.

I suppose the real world analogy would be that a worker leaves for another job if they decide their "leader" is a disaster. Which is as it should be - except that 8.4 million jobs/positions have been outsourced or off-shored by these same leaders.

Those old-time leaders who stood by their workers as a substitute parent figure have been replaced by the Gordon Gekkos, only interested in the last quarters' performance and their subsequent bonus; or ways to "flog the peasants harder so more potatoes will be harvested".

Posted by: shadowmagician | May 14, 2010 6:07 PM

What a moron.

Posted by: CatMan1 | May 14, 2010 5:45 PM

Human being, obviously, aren't bees. Bee queens are genetically programmed to be leaders, just as worker bees are programmed to take orders, not give them. The human reality is that there are far too many people in executive positions who seem to actually believe their leadeship status is genetically conferred. Very unlike the world of bees, there are human organizations that function extremely well not because of good leadership, but in spite of poor leadership. The worker bees know what to do, how and when to do it best, and the like. In these kind of situations where top management is ineffective, or worse, the organization works best when the so called "leadership" just stays out of the way. Trust me, you have no idea just how many of these "worker bee led" organizations are out there.

Posted by: clfrdj | May 14, 2010 5:18 PM

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