Real Leaders

The Day I Learnt About Leadership From Bugs

As the day entered the twilight zone and a sticky breeze accompanied a transforming mountainous view, my cloudless, introspective mind indulged in the beauty of a roasted marshmallow sky. At an elevation of about 4,500 feet, almost halfway to the “top of the world,” I was captivated by a microscopic world before me. One encompassing teeny tiny crawlers. A bug’s world. What initially fostered this fascination, and a further unexpected learning experience, were my fellow classmates studying at Kopan Buddhist Monastery in the middle of Kathmandu, Nepal.

For the first time in my life I witnessed people (yes, plural) consciously saving bugs and insects. To many, a fly swatter equated to a pistol, the forceful flush of a toilet was understood to be as catastrophic as a natural disaster and insect repellent was parallel to poisonous gas. To a Buddhist, the belief that we shall not kill includes any living organism. While I was at a Buddhist monastery this vow was obeyed completely.

I saw how people were cautious about where they sat, a wrong seat may lead to the funeral of an innocent bug. People became tour guides for insects by escorting them back to their natural habitat. Additionally, they took on the role of lifeguards to save drowning bugs in a body of water (i.e., a pond, the toilet bowl, the sink, a puddle).

My compassion for insects, which matured during our retreat, was refreshing and motivating. It made me reconsider my baseless apprehension of insects. Two years ago, when I spent time in the Amazon, I would have been considered a serial bug killer. I devalued the importance and beauty of a bug’s world, stomping on the little creatures without purpose other than my own selfish fear. Living among a world with no escape of flying creatures, squirming snails, lanky spiders or buzzing bees, it made me confront fear in the face. I literally looked at my fear and ate it, to make it disappear: I consumed a maggot. Overcoming this fear certainly was not an easy one. Yet, it was advantageous in the long run.

By releasing my mind from deceptive thoughts about the nature of tiny organisms, I was able to realize and appreciate the world in a completely new way. Being in Nepal facilitated my entry to the next level. It was a transformation from disgust to neutrality, to a state of fascination and excitement. Being surrounded by people who cherished the beauty of what I used to claim as terrifying, initiated an expanded acceptance of the bug’s world.

That night when I looked out into the fading sky of fluff, a peculiar event changed my outlook. I found a number of ants frantically crawling along a concrete wall. As my fascination increased, I began to realize that these little creature’s behavior was much more complex than originally perceived. Rather, their actions personified their systematic, logical, empathetic, collaborative, determined, and strong qualities. At the center of this occurrence, was the astonishing effort of a team – about 25 ants carrying a dead bee. I was most dumbfounded by the mere fact that even if all these ant transporters were combined into one bug, this new creature would still be smaller than the size of the bee itself. These tiny, itsy-bitsy insects were carrying something that would be classified as overly obese in the ant world. Humans would be unthinkable giants to them. I stared. I watched. I contemplated.

How is it possible that these miniscule bugs could effortlessly escort something that is massive in comparison? As these ants marched across the wall for a meter or so, I first thought about the power of fear and secondly considered the strength of collaborative efforts. The bee may have been seen as overwhelmingly large in relation to the ants, yet from a desire to join together, these ants made the unthinkable possible. No matter how big or small our goal or obstacle, we are able to accomplish what we put our mind to. There is always a way.

It may require an extra person and their relative skill set, or maybe just a conversation that stimulates a ping pong game of creative thought. Personally, I used to hide when people offered a helping hand to my non-profit endeavors. I wanted to claim full responsibility and retain control. If only I knew back then that when we join forces, we become more powerful than before. Perhaps my “team” could have tackled major funding barriers, or reached a 12-month goal in 6 months. I refocused my attention on the ants. Surrounding the staggering group with the bee were about 75-100 additional ants, scrambling and strutting up, down and around the main attraction. The ants had their own path, not linear or circular, but a pattern none the less. At this point, I started to consider how our personal and professional processes go beyond the people who are directly involved. There is much “behind the scenes” that facilitate the efficiency of our activities.

Maybe the “surrounding ants” in our life are our mentors, role models, conversations or interactions. Together there are many elements, which compose our progress and ultimate success. One ant would not be capable of moving a bee single-handedly. Two ants? No, not even close. Collaboration was their only means of success. The ants marched one by one, the leaves swayed as the breeze washed over the trees and I pondered how I was even able to come to these conclusions.

There were two themes that continued to filter through my mind: letting go of our fears and embracing collaboration. The fear I once held was a blockade, but once I released that distress, it turned into a vehicle for inspiration, beauty and internalization. Fear once clouded my mind and distorted my ability to see beyond. That old-time fear guided me to recognizing and appreciating much more than I ever did before. I was able to find meaning, purpose and insight from a realm that previously terrified me.

When we let go of our fears, I have found that we are better able to take a chance, explore our curiosity and fulfill a step in the path to success. For me, my liberation enabled new practices, new knowledge, and a new appreciation. My experience helped me to realize the significance in working together, rather than pure competition which hinders other players, and also oneself.

I began to understand how our interactions with our social and physical environment all contribute as a stepping-stone to achievement. We live in a multifaceted world that consists of multiple networks, systems and relations. When we connect the pieces together, the process of understanding and achievement is simplified.