Humans work together to survive. Our prominence on the planet is living proof that collaboration can beat brute force. But what about organizational life–so often a brute force in itself. Does Nature provide clues that can help evolve leadership?

We humans are intrinsically social creatures. Every day, thousands of people risk their lives to text and drive: it’s that important to us. A human without others is naked and defenseless, like an ant without a colony, or a coral without a reef. Each of us is part of a larger super-organism. We can’t even drink a cup of coffee without hundreds of people growing, harvesting, roasting, delivering, and even brewing it.

Over a million years ago, our ancestors were going head to head with professional carnivores. Big ones. But we didn’t have slice-and-dice claws or pointy teeth, cheetah speed, or furry protection. How did we possibly compete against them for those big juicy mammoth steaks?

We did it by working together: intelligently, with communication, in teams. Everyone had a job to do. The spotter on the hunting team, the scout in the gathering department. The water bearer and the nutty shaman. But ultimately, it was our early human social network that made it fly.

Wolves hunt in packs, but super-organisms like us give teamwork a whole new meaning. Take the cellular slime mold, Dictyostelium, for instance. It forages alone, underground, as a free-living, single-celled amoeba. Each individual cell independently leverages the power of it’s own knowledge and the speed of lone decision-making.

But when the going gets rough, and food is scarce, that strategy changes. Suddenly, one hundred thousand to one million of these guys heed the chemical alarm bells, coming together to merge into a slime-wrapped slug with newfound superpowers. The slug slimes to the surface, through soil and over leaves, foraging as one body.

Together, these amoebae can even find their way through a maze—with no brain at all. Finally, they climb onto each other like circus freaks, linking pseudopods to form a towering stalk, and toss the lucky ones to the wind as spores to grow the next generation.

My point? A super-organism can do things an individual could never do on her own.

Workplace wisdom—it’s all about collaboration

Which brings us to the workplace. Collaboration creates opportunities that weren’t there before, especially when resources are patchy, scarce, and unpredictable. That’s because the wisdom of the crowd gives use more eyes and ears, diverse abilities, viewpoints, knowledge, and experience.

For instance, beneath the soil you walk on lies a pulsing nutrient highway. It’s the ‘mycelial’ fungus, constantly on the search for rotting plant matter to digest.

Like the slime mold, every individual is on the lookout. If a meal is out there, someone will find it. And when they do, those nutrients will flow through the system to where they are needed most, because the fungal bodies are physically fused together. The whole is more than the sum of the parts: everyone gets more than they would have on their own.

A single leaf cutter ant colony can harvest half a ton of leaves a year this way, creating the perfect compost for their favorite fungal food. Other ant species herd aphids like cattle, milking their sugary honeydew. As in human enterprises, the members of insect colonies have specific jobs: foragers or farmers, builders or breeders, scouts or soldiers.

But do they have leaders?

Not so much. Super-organisms don’t go in for top-down structures because they don’t adapt well to change. Perversely, these hierarchies get more rigid under stress, exactly when we need them to bend. It’s difficult for these organizations to adapt, because those with the most to lose hold the information and resources. Change threatens the very structure, so leadership gets nervous when things aren’t under control.

Much energy goes into keeping everyone in place, and making operating procedures standard.

Without adapting to change, the hierarchical society crumbles, empires fall, and businesses fail.

This is the deer in the headlights approach to leadership. The brain isn’t telling the body the right thing to do.

Parting ways with top-down leadership

Today, our communications form a dense pulsing web, not unlike a slime mold or the underground fungal mycelial threads. We are networked creatures too, and we don’t need those top-down, command-and-control centers to get things done. Which is great, because we’ve created some patchy, scarce, and unpredictable conditions that require quick action. But as we move into the Networked Age, our clunky, top-down relics are still with us. We need to engineer the transition.

Social insects (like ants, termites, wasps, and honeybees) provide us with great insight on how teams can leverage decentralized sense-and-respond networks.

When a honeybee hive needs to find a new site, for instance, the scouts go buzzing out into the world. When one finds something she likes, she comes back and ‘waggle dances’ for the hive, telling everyone just which direction to go, how far, and how good it is. If she really boogies down, her sister-bees fly there and check it out for themselves.

Lackluster sites fade from the dance floor, and hype builds for the favorites. Suddenly, one site hits critical mass, and the whole hive departs for the new spot. Nobody is in charge. It’s just simple interactions, based on local knowledge and diverse experience, amplifying and building into tipping points that massively trigger action.

Ants are similar. They lay down chemical pheromone trails when they scout for food. When one finds something, she doubles back along the trail, doubling the pheromone scent. Other ants follow, sticking to the stronger smelling fork in the road. Cooperation is cumulative: the colony gets smarter the more information is gathered and shared. No leadership required here either.

How to reign supreme

Is there really no place for leadership in a super-organism? We all know instinctively that good leadership is critical to organizational success. Surely there is some example for us to follow in these networked societies.

Indeed there is! The queen plays a vital role, though she does not tell the colony what to do. She is its heart and soul, and it cannot survive without her. Her pheromone signals attract the male drones (fresh DNA) and maintain connection among the workers. But mostly, she provides a purpose that unifies action.

Of course, that’s a simplification, and there’s a lot more than meets the eye. As a biology geek, I could go on about many of the mechanisms of super-organism leadership, and how we can learn from them. But for now, I leave you with just one.

Emergence. This is when order mysteriously appears from many seemingly chaotic actions. When everyone does their own thing around a shared goal, with a few simple rules and densely networked communication, there is a moment when disorder gives way to something unexpected: a pattern, a decision, a change in direction.

The simple rules and structures you put in place as a leader are the backbone of your company’s DNA. But by unifying action around a vision, cultivating diverse talent, and facilitating trust and transparency, you just might find, like the colony queen, that something far more valuable than the sum of the parts emerges.

Find this essay intriguing or have your own ideas about how leadership should evolve in the future? Join us for the, Collaborative Leadership Lab: Developing Change Agents March 19-20, 2015.