Management is about facts, analysis, and issues of the head. Leadership is about intuition, values, and issues of the heart. Logic is the language of management. Imagery is the language of leadership. Imagery is fuelled by metaphors, parables, analogies, stories, and examples. It’s how we’ve learned from each other and passed along our accumulated experiences and collective wisdom for thousands of years.

Nature’s intricate and highly refined systems provide examples and metaphors that we can learn much from. Thomas Seeley, Professor of Biology in Cornell University’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, provides fascinating team leadership lessons from the world of honey bees in his Harvard Business Review blog post, The Five Habits of Highly Effective Hives. Not only does he provide intriguing insights into the very sophisticated world of honey bees, he extracts highly relevant and practical applications for team building.

Seeley’s five key lessons we can learn from the hive are really about raising a team’s collective Emotional Intelligence (EQ). He calls it raising their IQ, but I’d argue that it’s first through increasing their EQ that their IQ increases. His EQ raising or leadership lessons are:

1. Remind the group’s members of their shared interests and foster mutual respect, so they work together productively.
2. Explore diverse solutions to the problem, to maximize the group’s likelihood of uncovering an excellent option.
3. Aggregate the group’s knowledge through a frank debate.
4. Minimize the leader’s influence on the group’s thinking.
5. Balance interdependence (information sharing) and independence (absence of peer pressure) among the group’s members.

These team leadership and team building behaviors are exactly what extensive research shows how effective team leaders build top teams. They are deceptively easy to understand – and remarkably difficult for many supervisors, managers, and executives to apply.

As empowerment, employee engagement, and teamwork grows in popularity, some managers have decided that they had better play the game to get in on “this team building stuff” and all its benefits. And that’s been their undoing – playing the team building game. These manipulative managers see teamwork as one more lever to be pulled, another string to be yanked. They put on an involvement act unsupported by inclusive values or personal development of team skills. They might, for example, bring people together to “decide” on a course of action that they have already set. The transparency of this kind of “involvement” soon becomes evident to all. So as the manager pretends involvement, his or her group members pretend commitment.

We continually find that the extent to which supervisors and managers embrace the movement toward an involved, team-based organization is heavily influenced by the strength of their team leadership skills. When supervisors and managers can confidently use team leadership skills to rally people around a problem or process improvement opportunity, they do so much more often. They understand that one step by one hundred people is much more effective than one hundred steps on their own.

In way too many (generally struggling) organizations, “heroic management” reigns supreme as team members stand by and watch their (harried and overwhelmed) weak team leader fight the fires alone. Ironically, many weak team leaders believe that frequent meetings are a sign of weak management! Solutions to problems are initiated by management – as are the rescue efforts, because team members, on whom the plans depend for success, never owned them in the first place.

The general manager of a mid sized computer company we worked with was extremely frustrated because his many attempts to bring his senior management group and their management groups together into a solid team had failed. He recounted all that he had done: wilderness retreats, team building exercises, building a matrix organization around key initiatives and project teams, and the like. “We even wrote a manual on the need for teamwork and how to make it happen,” he lamented. But teamwork wasn’t happening. Further investigation revealed the reason: the general manager and his managers knew the whys and wherefores of team leadership – they could almost wax poetic on the virtues of group dynamics – but they didn’t have the skills to put their good intentions into action. And since they didn’t see the need to go through the time consuming process of developing those skills, they didn’t. And the teams didn’t come together any better over the next year – about the time the general manager was fired.

So if you want to build a stronger team, “bee” wise and apply the leadership lessons of the hive!