The Beetle, the Bird, and the Boot

The following text is an abridged passage from my forthcoming book Corporate Citizen. In today’s episode our hero learns a thing or two about leadership.

Corporate citizen front cover

The Oracle’s eyes were like wells into which a thousand years of wisdom had been poured. “I have heard your question many times before”, she said with a voice that reverberated with knowledge from a million encyclopedias and more. “Many kings and queens come before me to ask how to control their kingdoms. I do not grant them the answer, but I do offer three useful questions in return, two of which have already been answered by your science.” She wrinkled her nose a little at the word science, as if there was a bad smell attached to it.

 “The first question is related to the beetle. Such an insignificant creature with much less brain power than most leaders…yet it has six unruly legs to control in order to scurry around in search of food and shelter. It is quite successful in getting where it wants to go. How does it manage?” I knew this one: “The answer is that it doesn’t synchronize all legs simultaneously”, I said. “Instead, it uses simple movement patterns for some of the legs, and controls them individually when exceptions occur – a much simpler computational task where each leg basically minds its own business while still being under central control.”

 “You are quite right”1, said the Oracle. “Also, with so many legs I suppose that falling on your face is actually harder than to keep running. Let me now ask you the second question. A large flock of birds fly at neck-breaking speed in one direction. As if controlled by a single mind, they suddenly break the pattern and instantly change direction. Still, none of the thousand birds collide. How is that possible given their tiny brains and limited perceptive skills?” Again, the answer came flippingly easy since I’ve studied birds for oh-so-many years. “The answer is that the birds in a flock adjust their direction based on three simple rules. First, every bird tries to avoid getting too close to the other birds. That’s separation. Second, they try to steer in roughly the same direction as birds in the vicinity. That’s alignment. Third, the birds look at the whole flock and figures out the position where most birds are heading. That’s cohesion.”


 “You are quite right”2, said the Oracle. “Since you are so strong in science, I’ve decided to give you a more philosophical question: An army of conformists are walking across a field of dreams. As they move across it, their boots crush most of the dream flowers, but some of the seeds are carried away by the wind. When they land, chances are they might grow strong and eventually defeat the army with a magnificent blow of disruptive thought. How can the army’s commander calculate where the seeds will fall to prevent that?”

I was dumbfounded. What kind of question is that? Frustrated with the trick question, I said: “There is certainly no command and control model detailed enough to allow for such level of analysis. It’s quite impossible to simulate, to model, and to predict. Once a system grows big and complex enough, you can no longer understand every detail. You don’t even want to. It’s a really bad question.”

“You are quite right”, said the Oracle.


1. Of course, according to contemporary science this is not really correct. However, at the time for this conversation the world was still flat and therefore terrestrial locomotion had quite different dynamics going on.
2. Modern leadership models, I mean, computational models for flocking, include other parameters such as elements of fear and sleeping at work. However, those are more related to herding than flocking, and since sheep cannot fly well they are excluded from this metaphor.

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