Leadership Lessons from an Unlikely Source—the Slime Mold

If you’re reading this, you’re probably pretty baffled by the title. What on earth could slime mold, a single-celled organism, have to do with today’s complex leadership problems? What could possibly be gained from observing such a simple and humble organism? It turns out, quite a bit.

In one memorable experiment conducted by researchers at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, a group of slime molds were able to generate a map of the Tokyo rail system in just 26 hours. The researchers used food to correspond to population centers in and around the city in order to see how the slime molds would prioritize access to each food source. Shockingly, the structure the slime molds produced was nearly identical to the human-generated rail system. The Tokyo rail system is one of the best-designed and most efficient in the world, the result of countless man hours. So how is it possible for a collection of single-celled organisms to do the same?

In The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle writes, “For years, researchers presumed that the behavior [of slime molds] was a result of an ‘organizer cell’ that functioned as a kind of biological drill sergeant . . . This organizer cell, it turns out, does not exist. What does exist is something more powerful: a simple set of rules called heuristics that drive behavior.”

So how can leaders harness the power of heuristics to create better proficiency in the workplace?

The key is creating your own set of heuristics that highlight the core values of your organization. Coyle explains, “Many leaders of high-proficiency groups focus on creating priorities, naming keystone behaviors, and flooding the environment with heuristics that link the two.” These heuristics can be as simple as catchphrases (think “the customer is always right,” for example).

You may not be able to ask a slime mold to solve your problems, but a coach can help you create heuristics that will enhance the proficiency of your organization. What are your core priorities and values? I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to get in touch, you can contact me via my website, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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