Monday, May 20, 2013

Community Leadership and Lessons from the Hive

In order for honeybees to survive cold winters, the workers surround the queen in a ball, conserving heat by dense packing. When the bees on the outside of the ball get cold, they rotate positions with those on the inside, so that all can survive. Although operating on a different time scale, healthy communities are rather like healthy hives.

If you conceive of a community as a living organism there is a core of committed individuals that collectively comprise the heart, and I want to write about the relationship of the heart to the whole, and what it takes to maintain a vibrant heart.

In a healthy beehive there is exactly one queen at the center. If there are ever two they will fight until one dies or is driven out. If a hive loses its queen it will try to make a new one (by feeding larva royal jelly); if the larva are too advanced to make this adjustment, the hive will die—unless the apiarist is able to requeen it in time.

Communities, however, are more nuanced on the matter of leadership. To be sure, some have a single charismatic and inspirational leader, a la the beehive. While there is definitely trickiness in such groups to pulling off leadership succession without loss of vitality or dynamism—partly because strong queens tend to suppress the development of queen-like qualities among worker bees—it can be done if the reigning queen has sufficient awareness of the need to groom a successor, and there is enough quality material to work with among the disciples.

While the charismatic leader model is historically the most stable and long-lived in the sweep of the Communities Movement—think Oneida (John Humphrey Noyes), the Shakers (Anna Lee), and even Kerista (Jud Jerome)—most groups listed in FIC's Communities Directory today make decisions collectively, depending on the group's wisdom, rather than on the wisdom of any single individual. This model (which is almost the exact opposite of the charismatic leader model) relates to the beehive in that there is a cadre of members who hold the leadership center, and in a healthy group the composition of the cadre rotates over time.

Further, it is the responsibility of those in the heart to judiciously invite the outer bees into the center, rather than expecting them to fight their way in, or to wait until the inner bees die off. Thus, a healthy heart will not only pump a steady supply of nourishing blood to the entire corpus of the group, it will offer a permeable membrane such that there is a clear pathway by which newbies (new bees) are able to become the heart.

Like with a hive, in a healthy community every bee need not be highly skilled, fully integrated into the group's culture, or equally capable of leadership—they just need enough members with those qualities to establish a strong enough flywheel that the rest of the hive is pulled along. The leadership cadre, or heart of the group, needs to consistently articulate the community's common values and be walking their talk—incorporating those values into their everyday lives. The core sets a tone. If the note sounded is clear and melodious, harmony ensues, creativity flourishes, and joy abounds. Friction leads to compassion and resolution; rather than brittleness and divisiveness. Newer folks will respond to the positive modeling like, well, a bee to nectar.

The key here is that in a healthy hive the core bees take the initiative in welcoming the outer bees into the opportunity to serve in the core—not to be drones (or clones), but to make their own choices about what frequency to buzz at and what flowers to frequent in service to the hive. 

In community, it behooves us to be all we can bee.

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