What Can Caterpillars Tell Us About Leadership?

By William A Cohen

 

A French professor by the name of Jean Henry Fabre was an entomologist. That’s the technical way of saying that he studied insects. He became curious and began to study a strange insect called a processionary caterpillar. What makes this species of caterpillar so unusual is the way it travels in a physically connected line with its tribe, each caterpillar clinging to the one ahead of it in a line. The leader caterpillar is the first and sees where the entire line of caterpillars is crawling and makes the decision as to direction and when to stop for a coffee break for the entire group. He controls every thing including the vision of the group. The others simply hang on to the caterpillar immediately in front of and each has a view limited to that caterpillar’s rear-end. Since the group travels in a procession; thus, the name processionary caterpillar.

Professor Fabre wondered what would happen if there were no leader and hence no caterpillar with the vision and responsibility to decide where to go and what to do. At first, he simply removed the lead caterpillar. Number two took over as leader. When he removed number two, number three took over and so on down the line until the last in line remained and he performed, leading only himself.

Fabre then developed a plan to continue his experiment of a leaderless caterpillar organization. He hooked the leader caterpillar up to the rear of the last caterpillar, forming a circle. Then, he placed the connected group of caterpillars on the rim of a flowerpot where the circumference exactly matched the size of the circle of caterpillars. At the bottom of the flowerpot, he placed the mulberry leaves, the processionary caterpillar’s favorite food, along with water. Now there was no leader, but the entire group of caterpillars thought that there was, since each was comfortably attached to another caterpillar’s rear. Fabre wondered, how long a leaderless group would continue traveling in circles without food or water, despite having these essentials close at hand and easily attainable.

The poor caterpillars continued going around and round the flowerpot rim until they fell unconscious for lack of sustenance. Yet, food and water were always only a few inches away.

Nature has provided us a valuable lesson here. Every now and then you hear about some form of leaderless leadership which is supposed to be “cutting edge”. Someone promotes the idea that a leader is unnecessary and that the group can best decide what should be done in any situation. According to them, function of a leader is to be primarily a cheerleader, and little else.

My doctorate professor, Peter F. Drucker, known worldwide as “the father of modern management” said that there is no such thing as laisse fare leadership. “Without a leader, there is only chaos.” The leader is the one essential element for accomplishing any task in any organization and attaining its vision. The leader’s style or whether he or she is inclined to be authoritarian or participative in leading is of less importance than that the leader accepts the responsibility for leading and do so with integrity.

Drucker further warns us that making the decision to be a leader is the most important decision that a leader can make, and further that a leader can make a lot of mistakes and retain the moral authority to lead so long as he or she maintains his or her integrity.

The book of Proverbs in the bible reminds us that “without vision the people perish”. This is also a lesson from the processionary caterpillar and apparently true of it as well.

 

About

Dr. Cohen is a retired Air Force general who has led many organizations in and out of the military, including an accredited non-profit graduate school. He earned his PhD from Peter Drucker, who became his friend after his graduation. His books have been published in 23 languages. His latest book is Peter Drucker on Consulting: How to Apply Drucker’s Principles for Success (LID, 2016). He is currently president of the Institute of Leader Arts which does training and consulting internationally. He can be reached at wcohen@stuffofheroes.com.

 

Categories: Managing & Leading,Opinion

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