What Honeybees Taught Me About Leadership

If you’d have told me a decade ago that the secret to a successful, thriving and happy, well-balanced business lies in nature, I very much doubt I’d have believed you. Despite growing up in the countryside and loving nature with almost all my heart, I never thought that there could have been significant lessons of worth or value for humans in, for example, the work and life of the honeybee – let alone something that could be applied to leadership for the better of an organisation.

For the past 13 years I’ve worked as a keynote speaker at conferences and Behaviour Insight Advisor for businesses in all manner of sectors, from pharmaceutical to engineering and from defence to finance; small businesses and global outfits and with everyone from board level senior leadership to sales teams and even entire conferences where the maintenance and cleaning staff were a part of the message delivery.

In that time I’ve delivered training workshops, consultancy programs and shorter presentations to help leaders (“managers” don’t exist in my book; the definition is “to cope”, which isn’t a great start for inspiring those in your charge) develop cultures to make workplaces happier, more efficient and more effective.

When we bought the dilapidated small farm and set out on a journey to become honeybee farmers to assist in reversing the decline of the bee in Britain, I was vicariously afforded the privilege of observing these remarkable insects and rewarded with an insight into what prevents 80,000 honeybees, living in such close proximity (literally back to back) from fighting, killing each other and destroying the group structure. You learn quickly (if you don’t like getting stung) how to respect their natural behaviours, requirements and understand the innate, natural secrets of harmony, ultimate efficiency, productivity and (assumed by virtue of their calmness) happiness, or at the very least content acceptance.

The relevance to leadership is that it all starts – and ends – with the Queen Bee. A honeybee queen characterises the colony: if you’ve got a genetically narky, narcissistic, angry queen, the entire colony adopts that trait. They are quick to defend, on edge and anxious. As the queen lays, she passes these genes on until you have an entire colony of bees that fly at you, attempt to sting, are noisy and buzzy and not at all pleasant to be around. There’s an obvious alertness and negative vibe as you approach the hive. You may well be able to relate to that with a previous workplace or boss you’ve experienced. As soon as you replace the queen with a calmer, less anxious or genetically mixed one, the colony calms and is more enjoyable to be around and handle. Over time she will then replace the entire colony with her eggs and the temperament, characteristics and productivity of the colony changes. Our behaviour directly impacts and influences that of others. Effective leaders understand that self-awareness empowers and that, next to physical survival, the greatest need of any human being is psychological survival: the need to be valued, respected, wanted and to be understood, affirmed and appreciated.

But what of the 80,000 or so honeybees within the colony, all working together? There, too, is a marvel. The Queen Bee – in an act of consistent leadership – ensures there are plenty of eggs being laid, int he empty cells that have been cleaned and prepared for her by the worker bees. This ensures the long-term survival of the colony. Dead bees are removed from the hive in order to maintain cleanliness and prevent disease; young bees take on the duty of feeding larvae; older bees guard the hive entrance and defend the colony; the Queen Bee has bees who ensure she has sufficient food and is kept warm, dry and safe; the general populous of bees forage, flying as far as three to five miles from the hive to find pollen and nectar to bring back and feed their young, feed themselves, create honey and store. surplus food. However, the important lesson is learnt when things go awry; when disease strikes, or food supplies drop: the colony pulls together, realigning their individual tasks to match the needs of the overall colony: they all chip in for the benefit of everyone – team work at it’s absolute best.

In my experience, leaders generally aren’t selfish; they aren’t ignorant and they aren’t insensitive. Not intentionally. They are, however, human and with the brings distraction and sometimes a lack of focus on the seemingly insignificant – it is, after all, very often the smallest changes that can create the most dramatic results. Never get bored of the basics as this is where consistency and stability are derived from: the everyday things.

Jez Rose is a broadcaster, honeybee farmer and award-winning author. He is invited to speak at conferences in the UK, Europe and USA. His new book, ‘LEGACY’ is due out 2019.

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