Are You a Termite or a Squasher?
The Science of Change, Part 2

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

- General George Patton Jr


The Concept:
I was wandering through the business section of my local book store the other day when I noticed something amazing. Do you realize how many books have written on the subject of leadership? Hundreds of them - and this is just at my local book store. Books that teach the characteristics of a leader, books that discuss the “leadership mentality,” books that use sport analogies, books that use war analogies. Lots and lots of books about what it takes to be a great leader. I guess the thought process is that if you can just learn to be a more effective leader, business performance will improve and the organization will become wildly successful.

It occurred to me, looking at all those hundreds of books, how did we manage to lead successful organizations BEFORE all these books were written? Better yet, how do some of the most successful organizations - ones in which I’m quite sure their “leaders” have never read a single leadership book - manage to thrive under brutally difficult conditions?

In our experience with both very good leaders and very bad, we have witnessed strong evidence indicating that the way to increase organizational performance is not to study and emulate the traits of the great leaders of the world, but rather to study organizations that are highly successfully without even having formal leaders or leadership.

In a previous EIR, we explained how many organizations can be viewed as “Complex Adaptive Systems.” Complex systems have been studied by scientists in the fields of physics, biology, and ecology for years, but recently organizational theorists have begun to apply the science of complexity to business processes and organizational performance. The study of complex systems in nature teaches us quite a bit about how some “organizations” such as termite colonies organize themselves to achieve significant tasks with little or no “leadership” as we traditionally recognize it.

Is There a Termite “Bill Gates” Somewhere?

Let’s take the example of termites in Africa or Australia building a mound for their colony. As you can see from the image to the left [omitted], termite mounds can be rather large. In fact, some of the mounds have been measured at over thirty feet in height. These huge structures actually function as a set of “lungs,” moving air in and out of the termites’ home by harnessing the wind as it moves across the top opening of the mound1. Pretty impressive for such a tiny insect with no human resources organization.

How do termites organize themselves and muster the resources to build such complicated and massive structures? Do they have a single “termite Bill Gates” who locks the termite management team in an off-site room for three days to develop a “vision statement” to be published in the next newsletter? Does termite Bill’s termite management team come up with a “5-point plan” for mound construction each quarter? As far as we know, this is not what happens... Termite mounds are built according to a few simple rules of Complex Adaptive Systems.

First, all of the termites have a built-in set of instinctual rules which each follows. Something along the lines of “if I bump in to too many other termites, I should add a little space to the mound.” Nothing too complicated and certainly not a detailed, multi-page mission statement that has to be memorized by everyone. In this sense, no one “leads” the termites to built their home; each simply adds pieces and parts according to the rule set.

Second, Complex Adaptive Systems theory teaches us that many systems are “emergent” and “non-deterministic” in nature. In simple terms this means that (a) you can’t tell what the end result is going to be just by looking at all the individual pieces and (b) the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. In the termite world, you would never imagine by looking at a single insect that it could produce a thirty-foot tall structure, but when many termites work together the individual, tiny efforts combine to yield a tremendous end result.

Third, termites learn when and where to add to the structure by maintaining a high degree of connectivity to others in the colony. Using various signals left by the others, termites understand where the group is working, when work was done, where repairs need to be made, etc. Without this contact between individuals, each termite would randomly add to the mound and the single, cohesive structure would never emerge.

“Squasher” Management vs. “Termite” Management

Whenever I think of how the termites achieve this engineering marvel, with no leadership, no books, and a few simple rules, I begin to compare their experience to my own in corporate America. While working for a large, Fortune 500 company, I had the unfortunate opportunity to view - up close - two radically different management styles used by two different managers, what I like to call the “squasher” management style and the “termite” management style.

The “Squasher” Management Style:

The first manager was definitely what one would call a “squasher” manager. He strongly believed in a hierarchical chain of command, in one-way communication, and in making all decisions for the organization. At staff meetings, he always sat at the head of the table and delivered a one-way speech to his employees who were then expected to nod their heads and go forth to execute his wishes. Thoughts? Opinions? Options? No thanks - not needed here... Any ideas other than his own were summarily rejected. When we were given news, it tended to be such mission-critical information as “the local chapter of the ‘Telecommunications Pioneers’ have changed their name - they are now the ‘Telecom Pioneers’.” After that one, we quickly learned to find the information and updates required to do our jobs in other places from other managers.

Now, this might seem like a harmless one-time thing, but in fact, it was illustrative of his inability to share even the smallest useful details of the business with his team. In addition, he was unfortunate enough to have inherited many staff who were not used to this type of “centralized,” “squasher” management. As one of those inherited staff used to having ideas and opinions valued, you could feel the spirit, the morale, and the life of the organization die around you. After having ideas ignored a few times, people stopped offering them. Even when people could see major problems with a particular course of action he had selected, they carried it out anyway, knowing that alternatives would not be welcomed. When people were unable to find time on the manager’s calendar to review a particular problem, they simply stopped working the issue on their own - everything had to go through him. Working for a “squasher” manager was not a pleasant place to be and quite a number of highly talented people left in relatively short-order.

The “Termite” Management Style:

In stark contrast to the “squasher” manager was a very different executive with whom I also had the opportunity to work. This manager preferred to delegate many aspects of the business rather than running the daily operations under a microscope. As a result, he happened to turn the group into a little termite mound of his own. We had simple rules (no surprises, own the problem, etc.) that we all knew to follow. We had regular and effective communication that actually informed us about the state of the business. We received constant feedback on what we did right and what we did wrong. Like the termite mound, something wonderful and quite unexpected began to emerge. Our small, 25 person group expanded over time to 250 people. Our purview grew from 40 projects in one small corner of the business to 2000+ projects crossing organizational boundaries and touching every area of the corporation. We expanded our role to take on projects that would have been unthinkable a mere year prior. When the management team was not available, the staff identified issues and implemented solutions on their own. Unlike the “squasher manager,” this manager was not interested in gate-keeping or taking credit for every single idea. He was interested in getting solutions and results from wherever they came - and this meant sharing ideas, information, and workload.

Like the termites, out of the simple rules and de-centralized management, we built success.

Applications for the Executive:

As a business leader, what can you learn from the example of the mound-building termite colony? How can you use the science of Complex Adaptive Systems to make your organization more effective? Here are three techniques that you can use to capitalize upon the de-centralized, leader-independent nature of the Complex Adaptive System:

Instill a mission or purpose
The first key to applying the lessons of complex systems to leading a successful organization is to instill a sense of “mission” in your team. This is NOT the same as writing a lengthy “mission statement” which, quite frankly, we believe to be nearly useless. Instilling a sense of mission means that you must ingrain in your people a purpose, a meaning, goal for which they strive. The best way to do this is through simple, consistent reinforcement of the message, whatever it happens to be. If your goal is to “provide the best project management” to the rest of the company, then every newsletter, every meeting, every all-hands meeting should focus on the stated mission. People must be rewarded and, when necessary, removed from the organization based on their ability to understand, communicate, and “live” the mission of the group. Like termites who have no formal, written plan for building their home, you must make the organizational mission instinctual for your team.

Spot & reinforce emergent patterns
Have you ever noticed how new behaviors, ideas, and ways of operating just seem to emerge? New groups spontaneous form, new methods of reporting can appear out of nowhere, and without formal direction seemingly insignificant systems may gain a life of their own. Sometimes these behaviors are beneficial to the business and sometimes they are not so good. Termites use this “emergence” principle to build bigger and stronger nests by reinforcing sections of the mound that are going in good directions (up and out perhaps) and letting other, less useful sections die off.
As a “termite leader” you need to be extremely sensitive to emerging patterns and trends in your group. If you see things such as an employee developing a new, more effective format for preparing reports or people forming weekly sessions to discuss new technology trends - reinforce and praise the behaviors. If you see things like employees gathering in the smoking area to exchange gossip about other employees - you might want to discourage the behavior. The employees of your organization can be an enormous source of excellent, creative ideas for improvement. Recognize and foster these ideas whenever you see them. The “next great thing” could come from one of these unintended, unplanned emergent ideas, and by paying attention, you will end up at the front of the parade.

Establish “connectedness”
Without frequent, timely, and accurate information about the environment, what has already been built, and the areas which need work, the termite mound will die off. The same holds true for organizations. Just as I experienced with my “squasher” manager, when leaders withhold information about goals, issues, and other business situations, organizations experience a type of death. People begin to feel under-utilized and unimportant, morale sags, and gets a surge in traffic.

“Connectedness” however, is not just about making people feel good, it is about improving organizational performance. As employees understand more about the business’s current situation, they are better able to recognize potential issues and possible solutions WITHOUT the need for direct intervention from management. Just as leaders must be able to spot patterns, employees need to as well and communication and “connectedness” is the primary mechanism to allow this to occur.


Using the principles of the Complex Adaptive System and termite techniques does not mean that you no longer need to lead your organization. Rather, it means that you must use a different approach to leadership. In this new approach your primary mission is not to direct every action, but rather to instill purpose, encourage creative behavior, and reinforce communication - key elements that better allow the organization to lead itself.

The corporate world is chock full of squasher managers and employees that have grudgingly learned to live with their fates. They have stopped trying to improve, stopped adding their ideas and opinions, and stopped looking for creative solutions to the myriad of problems they face in their jobs daily. As a result, the organizations in which they work limit opportunities for improvement to only those ideas coming from the management team.

Don’t let your organization wither and die while squasher managers stifle creativity by parsing out information like it is gold or by micro-managing. Try using termite leadership techniques - encourage employees to tap in to their own skills, abilities, and creativity - and you might be surprised at how quickly improvement will come.


About the Author:

Kevin Smith is a co-founder and managing partner at NextWave Performance LLC.

© 2007 NextWave Performance LLC