Editor’s note: Pete Laburn, one of TomorrowToday’s associates and contributor to this blog is a vociferous reader, and an excellent summariser. This contribution first appeared on his website on 6 October 2011. You can buy the book he refers to at Amazon.co.uk
Honeybees and Locusts
A business case for Sustainable Leadership
Bee colonies consist of a queen and many specialists, such as drones and foraging workers. Under ideal conditions, a colony of honeybees can produce more than 90kg of surplus honey a year. However, the bee’s most significant contribution is pollinating plants that affect about one third of the human diet and much of what animals and insects eat. Without bees our lives would be impoverished by a general lack of fruits, vegetables, flowers and other plants. Honeybees are essential for maintaining a large part of the ecosystem. The honeybee is not only productive, but is a symbol of cooperation, thrift, diligence forethought and healing, and stings only for defence purposes.
The locust is usually a solitary insect with a lifestyle much like a grasshoppers. Alone they are relatively benign. However throughout history humans have feared the devastation that locusts can bring when they form swarms. Under favourable environmental conditions that produce many green plants and promote breeding, millions of locusts congregate into thick, ravenous swarms. Ravenous swarms can devastate healthy crops and cause major agricultural damage. This results in misery through famine and starvation because each locust can eat its own weight in plants every day. Although locusts have survived as a species, the cost to other life forms is high and the impact on the environment can be catastrophic. In a similar way, honeybee and locust behaviours illustrate two leadership philosophies with very different outcomes for a business and its viability.
Locust vs Honeybee leadership
There are two forms of capitalism that prevail in the business world today ‐The Locust approach and the Honeybee approach.
The prevailing belief underpinning the Locust approach is that business has one purpose only – to generate a continuous stream of profit and growth for its shareholders. On the face of it, this sounds reasonable. However, the drive to deliver regular profits, growth and shareholder dividends, quarter by quarter, has engendered a particular approach to leadership. The hard balling within locust leadership requires managers to be tough and ruthless and to do whatever is necessary to perform well in the short term. The immediate rewards that flow from locust management can be very enticing for those receiving them and these rewards reinforce the locust philosophy, encouraging a focus on the short‐term.
Under the most extreme form of locust philosophy, managers achieve their objectives by polluting the air and water wherever they can get away with it. Locust executives will send competitors out of business, pay pittance wages or devise elaborate tax evasion or avoidance schemes. Locust philosophy is based on the idea that one’s advantage can be achieved only by making others suffer – this is a zero sum game.
Locust philosophy has been fostered by financial analysis, academics, journalists, management consultants and many investors. Many people do not know or believe that there is any other way of doing business. However, mounting evident suggests that the locust approach is not the most profitable and sustainable resulting in more and more people questioning this philosophy.
There is a destructive flaw in the short‐term locust model, even when fraud is not involved. This flaw stems from the sole focus on the short‐term interests of investors, rating agencies, fund managers, the stock markets and their analysts. Most of these groups are not interested in a particular business’s future. They are concerned about making quick money from relatively short‐term deals. Over‐emphasising short‐term profits discourages long‐term investing and planning, which are key contributors to an organisations future.
This short term view leads locust organisations to treat their staff as a dispdisposable resource that can be hired and fired according to the cost cutting needs of the financial quarter. Because of this, locust organisations do not develop staff or equip them in any meaningful way as they will probably not be with the organisation long.
Charismatic CEO’s are usually hired from outside the firm to lead locust organisations as locust companies believe the CEO is the hero who leads from the front and sets the direction for the firm from the top. Executives face a conflict of interest if they are rewarded financially for pursuing short term goals. A locust CEO can improve the next quarterly results by immediately cutting staff numbers. By the time the negative consequences of this action show up financially, this CEO will have collected his bonus and moved on.
Under locust philosophy, corporate social responsibility takes a back seat to short term profits. The locust belief is that a company already serves society well by providing jobs and generating wealth for shareholders. Locust philosophy has it that shareholders and owners have one interest – to get a good return on their money. Therefore, the only obligation the enterprise has is to ensure a healthy quarterly return for the shareholders.
Decision making in locust organisations is hierarchical, with managers simply proclaiming their decisions. Locust firms are highly controlled and staff are continuously monitored and supervised to ensure quality and efficiency. Because locust staff members are less able to work autonomously, locust teams are more manager led and limit the capacity for teamwork in locust cultures.
In stark contrast, Honeybee leadership, or sophisticated, stakeholder‐orientated, social and sharing approach to leadership, focuses on the long‐term and delivers its outcomes more responsibly for more stakeholders. Honeybee leadership assumes that a company can be sustainable only if its operating context is sustainable and if the basic needs of all involved parties are taken into account.
A sustainable enterprise considers all its members as well as the interests of future generations. A business led under honeybee philosophy cares for and develops its people, tries to protect the planet, cares for the local communities in which it operates and protects its image and brand through ethical behaviour.
A vast amount of research now establishes that the long term honeybee approach is generally more sustainable than locust short‐termism. There are 23 key factors that underlie Honeybee/sustainable leadership. One of these is a focus on developing and retaining staff over the long term. Honeybee organisations value a skilled workforce and invest heavily in training and developing staff. They see their staff as the heart and soul of the enterprise and try to retain staff in the long term, even through difficult economic times. At these times they might retrain staff and redistribute them within the organisation as opposed to laying them off. Honeybee organisations also plan for the future by conducting succession planning and prefer to promote people from within the firm wherever possible. In this way they are able to grow their own managers from junior levels within the organisation. In times of growth when they need to hire workers from outside the organisation these new workers are carefully selected to fit the culture and values of the company and orientated into the policies and procedures of the organisation. Honeybee organisations value their employees and generally provide outstanding employee benefits and recognition that exceed those of competitors.
A team based leadership approach characterises honeybee executive teams with the role of the CEO can be either that of speaker of a group of equals or as the final authority. A team focus at the top promotes sustainability by ensuring that strategy, decision‐making, corporate culture and management styles continue seamlessly in the event that something happens to the CEO. Regarding ethics, honeybee organisations seek to deter wrong‐doing by embedding ethical behaviour in the organisations culture. They require their people to do the right thing, binding people to a set of principles, codes of conduct and values that support ethical behaviour.
The honeybee model values the long term. Honeybee firms accept that results in some reporting periods will be outstanding, while in others only modest. When honeybee managers are compensated with shares or options in the company, these rewards are based on long‐term returns. Honeybee leadership encourages and rewards continuous improvement, but does not mindlessly adopt new fads. Major change is a considered, systematic process whenever possible because honeybee leadership is concerned about reinforcing and protecting the firm’s strong culture and reputation.
A major difference between the locust and honeybee leadership philosophies lies in the perceptions about who has obligations to whom, whose interests the enterprises actions impinge upon and how these obligations and interests can be reconciled in a mutually beneficial way. The honeybee view is that the interests of shareholders and owners can best be met when the interests of all those who need to contribute to the task of enriching the shareholders are taken care of. This includes employees, customers, suppliers, managers, board members, patrons, the media, government, regulators, alliance partners and future generations. Honeybee enterprises consider a far wider range of stakeholder interests than locust leadership.
Honeybee organisations strive not to be hierarchical but to disperse decision making to the lowest level within the organisation, empowering staff to make decisions and come up with solutions and innovations – allowing ordinary people to make extraordinary things happen. For honeybee leadership, the focus is not on a few designated individuals who wear the mantle of leadership, rather it is on the organisation, with all its members operating as part of a broader system. Under
this view well‐educated and skilled workers do not need to be instructed in how to do their work. Employees engaged in work that appeals to them do not need motivating or controlling by a manager. Honeybee companies also have a strong team orientation. They draw on highly skilled individuals who know each other well, are committed to a strong corporate vision and culture, are willing to share information and knowledge and are highly trustworthy and trusting of each other to form flexible innovative working teams.
These important honeybee traits work together to drive innovation and excellence in honeybee organisations. Their staff are engaged and motivated, resulting in better customer service and satisfaction, productivity and efficiency and overall better organisational performance.
Honeybees and Locusts
Precis of book by Gayle C Avery and Harald Bergsteiner
ISBN 978 1 74237 393 5