Managing and developing the herd’s collective intelligence – an essential leadership activity

As the Leadership Cafe series came to an end, you are aware that looking to animals to provide metaphors for leadership behaviours continued through the emerging themes.

A few weeks ago in Cwmbran with @TheSatoriLab we had quite a discussion about collective intelligence and how “herds of animals” do actually build and shape and change (as required) their collective intelligence so that they all move as one, trusting each other and the herd, with clear individual roles, a shared sense of purpose, with shared knowledge. They all “get” what they are about and how they contribute to protecting the young, to hunting for food, to building skills and developing young animals into confident and skilled adult animals that can then lead independent adult lives and build their future teams (families) and so on.  This is succession planning in real life!

If learning the skills of “dispersing the elephants in the room” to ensure that open and honest conversations can take place is one essential leadership skill, surely “melding the team” so that they operate with “collective intelligence” is another essential leadership skill? To build collective intelligence is about knowing and having empathy with each team member in order to build trust, skills, knowledge, and shared processes, providing each one with clarity of their own role and contribution and ensures that the team have the capacity to “fill the gap” if one of their team (i.e. herd or pack) is ill, has family commitments or leaves. The conversations that build collective intelligence also provide feedback for learning and improvement and as well as releasing creative thinking and encouraging all to have a voice and input into decision making and hence helping shape better decisions.

What is “collective intelligence”?

One definition of collective intelligence is that it is a “phenomenon in sociology where a shared or group intelligence emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals and appears in consensus decision making”. (Source: Wikipedia)

How do leaders help shape and share the team’s “collective intelligence”? Interesting question isn’t it?

Thomas W Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the founding director of the MIT Centre for Collective Intelligence. Their research has revealed the following top 3 factors affecting “collective intelligence” of a group:

  • The level of average social perceptiveness of group members – the higher this was the higher the group emotional intelligence, making the group intelligence higher as a whole.
  • The quality of conversations in the group – groups that had conversations with contributions coming from all members rather than one voice dominating where more intelligent collectives.
  • The collective intelligence of the group was significantly correlated with the percentage of women in the group. More women were correlated with a more intelligent group, but more because of a higher level of social perceptiveness rather than because of gender.

In a nutshell, social perceptiveness, emotional intelligence and quality conversations (which are open, honest, direct and inclusive) are the essential leadership skills that contribute to the development of the team “collective intelligence”. This also means the development of the skills (as well as knowledge and motivation) of each team member and ensures that when that leader moves on to his / her next role, the team is able to continue successfully and a new leader will emerge as and when required.

This looks like an important lesson from the animal kingdom for us, as mere human beings, to take on board?

Time to make that nomination of the leader you know who disperses elephants, melds the herd, builds trust and knowledge, helps build the next generation to go forward independently and confidently and is open to new ideas via open and honest conversations.

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