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The Flight of the Bumblebee

Mark Crocker - February 5, 2024 - 0 comments

From the title you might assume that here at Optimize we have become fascinated with orchestral interludes and specifically the one written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for his opera The Tale of the Tsar Sultan. Now whilst we can certainly appreciate the work during which the magic Swan-Bird changes Prince Gvidon Saltanovich (the Tsar’s son) into an insect so that he can fly away to visit his father, it is the flight of the real bumblebee that we are more concerned with.

Some scientists have recently been studying the flight of the bumblebee in an effort to work out how the insects manage to remain steady in adverse weather conditions. Dr Sridhar Ravi, from Harvard University, filmed bumblebees as they flew in a wind tunnel allowing him and his team to control the airflow the bees had to contend with.

Dr Ravi said: “As we have all experienced, the wind speed and direction outdoors can be very variable, [so] maintaining stable flight can be extremely challenging. Yet, insects seem to be capable of flying even in extreme wind conditions.”

The team filmed the bees using high-speed cameras in order to replay their flight in very slow motion and discover how the insects adjusted their flight according to the airflow. Interestingly the footage revealed that the bees reduced their speed in unsteady winds, which seemed to allow them to expend more energy correcting their flight path.

“The bumblebees also seemed to be more susceptible to disturbances that pushed them sideways as opposed to up and down,” explained Dr Ravi. “The bees rolled considerably to change course and correct for the disturbances induced by the wind.”

He added: “We are currently conducting more experiments including flying other insects in similar wind conditions and identifying the influence of pollen and/or honey on the flight stability in the bees.”

Remaining steady in adverse weather conditions got us thinking about situational leadership and how leaders remain steady and on course in adverse conditions. In our mind the experiment with the bumblebees provides a metaphor for leadership.

Let’s be honest with ourselves and accept that it’s way easier to manage in good times than tough times and in tough times all eyes are on the leader and how you behave will have a tremendous impact on your people.

So what does it take to lead effectively in tough times? Research into leadership over the past 60 years, consistently shows that two broad dimensions describe effective leadership. The most effective leaders have strengths in both dimensions. The task management dimension has to do with the leader’s ability to set goals, organize efforts, direct activity, provide corrective feedback and set the general focus of efforts.

The people management dimension recognizes the importance of communication, motivation and encouragement. The ability to set the emotional tone of the workplace and inspire greater effort from others is the hallmark of a transformational leader. Operating in a stressful environment actually tends to increase the leaders impact. People look to leaders more in hard times, partly as a product of the ambiguity that adversity creates.

In addition to the task and people management dimensions, self-management is crucial to effective leadership. This includes not only managing your behavior in ways conducive to more positive morale and action from your people, but helping them to manage their own attitudes and behaviors towards appropriate outcomes.

It’s natural for people to feel powerless and victimized in tough times, so it is important for the leader to help his or her people shift from the mindset of the passive victim observing things from the sidelines to that of the athlete playing the game. Keep the team focused on the fact that we always have choices and that, although we may not always control the final score, we do control how we play.

Our final point, that may be the most central one to effective leadership, is the recognition that you are the role model. You set the tone. If you are positive, confident and optimistic, your people are likely to behave the same way. If you display focus and determination, they are likely to follow suit.

Just like the bumblebee buffeted by winds, we need to slow down and take corrective action, roll with the impacts and remain focused on our direction and goals.

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