Will we need leaders in the future?

Rome is lovely in the summer. Warm sunshine, amazing architecture, tasty gelato and of course, sparrows. Evening skies are filled with millions of sparrows flocking to the city to find somewhere to roost. These flocks create the spectacular murmuration of the sparrows, appearing like a single living thing, changing shape and direction, moving through the sky as one.

Such large flocks with such beautifully complex patterns are possible because the birds follow three simple rules; if the bird next to me moves away move towards them, if the bird next to me moves toward me move away from them, but don’t fly into the path of another bird. No single bird tries to keep track of what every bird in the flock is doing, in fact they only pay attention to their seven closest neighbours, or tries to control where the flock should go. When every bird behaves in these ways, and reacts thirteen times more quickly than we can, we see the murmuration with it’s awe-inspiring wave-like appearance.

Sparrows can do this because sparrows follow the rules.

There are two ways to bring about and coordinate behaviour in large groups. You can have the top-down control, with some kind of leadership that knows what the group should be trying to achieve and has a strategy for achieving it. Or bottom-up coordination where the group is self-organising, has no agreed upon goal, and where the actions of individuals affect the actions of others. We call this stigmergy.

Invented in 1959 by the biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé to explain the paradoxical observations of how insects work as if they were alone while their collective activities appear to be coordinated, stigmergy helps us see that we might achieve things without the need for leadership. Stigmergy initially described how termites are able to leave a trail of pheromones showing each other where food sources are without any means of direct communication or centralised coordination. The term has since expanded in meaning to include ‘indirect, mediated mechanisms of coordination between actions, in which the trace of an action left on a medium stimulates the performance of a subsequent action’, and has come to encapsulate the opposite of ‘strategy’.

Stigmergy helps us see that not all behaviour in large groups requires top-down leadership with a strategy.

The principle is that the sign or trace left in the environment by the action of an individual stimulates succeeding behaviour and actions by the same or different individuals. Those that respond to traces in the environment receive positive benefits, reinforcing the likelihood of these behaviors becoming fixed within a population over time.

When the first Neolithic person blazed a trail from their settlement to a river with lots of fish they left behind signs that others could follow without the trail blazer having to tell anyone where the river is. As more people followed those signs they created a footpath for even more to follow. As towns were built and transportation invented that footpath became a road. The more the road was used the more was invested in making it easier more people to use the road, tarmac-ing it, installing streetlights. This is stigmergic behaviour through the generations. People’s behaviour leaving signs that guides other people’s behaviour.

For sparrows it’s quick reactions, for termites it’s pheromones, and for people it’s data that makes large scale behaviour happen.

Technology enables stigmergy on a scale and at a speed that we can barely comprehend. Forget ten million sparrows, we’re talking about the 4.6 billion people connected to the internet. And just as the sparrows show by only responding to the seven closest birds, we don’t need to be connected directly to everyone else in order for ideas and behaviours to spread and affect us.

These entangled technological systems, made up of all the ways in which data is collected, analysed and utilized, enable what Deleuze called Societies of Control. We are shifting away from Foucault’s Disciplinary Societies where people are coordinated and controlled by being enclosed within spaces (think about how schools and workplaces make such a big deal about people being in their seats on time) to a world where individuals are given the freedom to move around because it provides more data to power the systems.

The ‘app-ification of work’, whether by virtual meetings on Teams or Zoom or as an Uber driver being assigned a passenger or by updating a LinkedIn profile, shifts the power to the technology systems. Not to the worker, not to the manager, and not even to the organisation. With these systemised means of coordination and control there is no need for a manager to monitor attendance as the manager becomes one of those controlled by the systems as much as any one else. We are all connected always and everywhere.

When every business and government follows the same playbook of digitising their interactions with customers and citizens, then power is distributed across multiple technologies making it impossible to resist or challenge the affects of power. Control comes from the manipulation of flows of information.

But this is not a world of Big Brother or some other intentional centralised control imagined by Orwell. There is no one in charge. No political leader with aspirations of bending a country to their will. No master criminal sits in their evil lair planning how to take over the world. The apparatus of power can exert control over us precisely by letting us do whatever we want, and so there doesn’t need to a leader to control us or to rouse us to act.

We will have leaders in the future, but we won’t recognise them as leaders. Those who lead won’t be inspirational charismatic characters with lots of followers on Twitter, it will be those who programme the algorithms that caused all those people to become followers. It won’t be the presidents and prime ministers and CEO’s leading their people, it will be those who build the workplace apps and the messaging platforms that keep us connected. We will be led through the technologies that give us so much freedom.

Leadership of the future is distributed and decentralised across multiple interconnecting technology systems all responding to signs and prompting behaviours, and all without a centralised strategy or goal.