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ants with a tree leave

I find the phenomenon of “emergence” one of the most fascinating marvels of nature. Understanding and appreciating it can change your perspective on a LOT of things.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the "emergence" of a butterfly from chrysalis or the "emergence" of the sun after a long rain. This is about the kind of emergence you have witnessed in the flocking of birds, the shoaling of fish, the herding of animals, and in the colonies of ants.

Emergent behavior - or an emergent property - can appear when a number of simple entities operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviors as a collective: when a certain "order" emerges out of chaos.

The greater entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own, properties or behaviors that emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole.

This isn’t limited to animals: we humans demonstrate emergent behaviors when we get in groups as can be easily seen in work cultures that can differ from one organization to another.

So how does emergence work and what can we learn from this?

The ant colony provides a simple demonstration.

As individuals, ants may not be particularly “smart” but in large groups they exhibit remarkable “intelligence.” It’s a wonder how thousands of ants organize to build the nest, support the queen, protect the eggs, bring food, remove waste, fight off intruders, etc., in a well-organized and efficient manner.

How do they do it? Who orchestrates the show? Nobody!  

The queen does not issue orders nor is there a command-and-control structure for communicating tasks. In fact, every ant is fully autonomous!

We won’t get into the details but here is a wonderful short (7 min) video if you want to know more:

Here’s the point: we can achieve a collective “meta” organism with far greater intelligence than any individual, but it all depends on the guidelines by which we agree to operate.

Emergence doesn’t even require large numbers: two is enough. Just look at the relationship of any two people who operate with mutual respect, sharing, and open-mindedness versus a relationship where they act with judgment, negativity, and selfishness. There's no question that very different relationship behaviors will emerge!

Now imagine how that same shift would impact our relationship with ourselves, our colleagues at work, and society at large.

So, what kind of world do you want to see?

It can seem daunting to create change on a large scale. But, like the ants, we only have to follow a few agreed-upon rules of engagement to create a profound change in emergent behavior.

If there were one fundamental shift that would create the overwhelming impact in a relationship, a company, or society, it would be to think less about our individual selves

and more about the whole. That’s it!

In organizations, leaders would focus less on fiefdoms, “silo” thinking, and control: instead, focus more on empowering a culture of collaboration, inclusiveness, and co-leadership at all levels.

I believe a new level of human consciousness is wanting to emerge: having people appreciate and embrace that greater perspective would (and will) change everything.

Hey, that's how the ants did it – considering they’ve been around about 6 million years and modern humans only about 200,000 . . . we might take some cues from our little friends!

For more examples of emergence - including life itself - take a look here: 

Another good article is here:

And you can listen to yours truly talk about it in the 3-minute segment:

What's your take away "aha" from all this? Share in the comments at the bottom!


As an executive coach, I work with leaders to transform their influence and impact on their organizations and the world. You can reach me at  

Transformation transformational change agent thought leadership certified development coaching 360 qualitative assessments organization business corporate enterprise los angeles 


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