Visions, leaders and ants – feeling my way

If army ants are wandering around and they get lost, they start to follow a simple rule: Just do what the ant in front of you does. The ants eventually end up in a circle. There’s this famous example of one that was 1,200 feet long and lasted for two days; the ants just kept marching around and around in a circle until they died.

James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds

We learn a lot from ants. “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise.”  (Proverbs 6:6). The death mill of the ants remind us of another biblical truth, that “where there is no vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18). Helen Keller remarked that “the most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision.”

The lesson we learn from the ants is that blindly following our leader is no guarantee of better times. We might just be going round in circles. The person in front of us might not have a clue where we are heading. Call him/her a leader? I don’t think so. But in bad times we will look round for the people we think can get us out of the mess. We will not always search out the same person. Someone who can get us through a forest of emotions may not be the same person to get us through deep water.

We talk about vision in leadership as if there is only one vision to be had, and as if there is only one person to have it. But we don’t have a single vision, we have visions. Some of those visions are immediately relevant, but other visions will only be useful once we have got over the hill we are currently climbing, for which we are depending on someone else who can help pace our climb and who can help us envisage cresting the hill. A community will thrive on the visions of its visionaries, not on the vision or hallucinations of its appointed leader.

Intelligent living means picking up information from the data around us. Where have you been? What have you seen? What have you found? Why do we see what we see? Why do we see it that way? These questions of curiosity shape what we see into something wiser. Vision is 360 degrees, and arises from looking all around us. My own work is supporting ministers in their parish ministries. Looking all around is so important for them if they are to be numbered among the visionaries (and leaders) of their communities. They have to look behind them to be aware of how they have arrived at their current position and to appreciate the journeys made by the people who make up their communities. They have to look round them to listen to the visions of those around them and the longings they represent. And they have to look forward with all these horizons in their mind’s eye to try to discern their foci.

David Runcorn underlines the importance of looking backwards in a sermon he preached at Lee Abbey. He comments that the best pastoral counsellors have learned to be “careful historians”.  We all live in and from our history and none of us can leave our past behind. He said: “The need for understanding and healing of memories; to be reconciled to people, events and hurts there, remains one of the most commonly expressed needs. It is also vividly illustrated through the experience of asylum seekers and victims of abuse or torture in our time. Before they can embrace any kind of new life they must find a way of recovering their past from the horrors they have endured. What is not remembered cannot be healed.”

There are many histories, longings and visions in a community. Vision needs to be celebrated as a complex process. It should not be reduced to a leadership task but should be allowed to develop as the height of intelligence.

What we learn from the ants is the importance of independence. According to Surowiecki “independent individuals are more likely to have new information rather than the same old data everyone is familiar with. The smartest groups are made up of people with diverse perspectives who are able to stay independent of each other. Independence doesn’t imply rationality or impartiality, though. You can be biased and irrational, but as long as you’re independent, you don’t make the group any dumber.”

Oppressed communities have leaders and views imposed on them, but when we are free we are able to choose the leaders who will help us. Those choices aren’t based on position and status. Instead we turn to those who have deep knowledge and understanding of where we are. They are our wise guides. In their hands we feel safe. They will help us find our way.

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