Leadership lessons from the scarab

A colleague here at Southern Polytechnic State University gives a speech about “Think like a bee.”  Her point is that groups of people (like bees) can accomplish things by working together that individuals cannot, and she makes a great point.  But after hearing a piece on NPR recently about another insect, I think dung beetles also have much to commend themselves.

The report cites a study on how dung beetles navigate and the discovery that they use the stars to plot their routes.  (We already knew that they use the Sun and Moon.)  Being able to chart a straight-line path is an important survival tool for dung beetles.  When they score material in a fresh dung pile, the beetles shape some into a sphere and roll it away before another beetle steals it.  This new study explains how the beetles are able to roll their balls in a straight line on a dark (but clear) night by using the Milky Way.  Here’s a link to the transcript: http://www.npr.org/2013/01/29/170588505/scientists-discover-dung-beetles-use-the-milky-way-for-gps.

In truth, learning from dung beetles is not a new idea.  One of my fellow associate academic vice presidents at Cal Poly Pomona was an entomologist who specialized in dung beetles.  Within Academic Affairs at Cal Poly, Dave was responsible for faculty issues, which meant he spent most of his time working with the faculty union, personnel issues, and related topics.  Dave introduced all of us in the office to the concept of the “24-hour crust,” which he applied to difficult situations in the office.  (Lots of things, including dung balls, are easier to handle if they are allowed to sit for a day.)

Based on the information in the NPR report (from research published in Current Biology), we know that those little guys can roll their dung balls (up to 10-20 times their own weight) in a straight line because they are using the heavens to navigate.  In this case, individual stars don’t seem to be the key, but rather the white smear that billions of stars in the Milky Way create in the night sky.

One of the ways the researchers pursued their work – to be sure the beetles were really navigating by the heavens – was to put little cardboard hats on the beetles, so that they couldn’t see the sky.  The result?  They wandered around in circles.  I was, of course, curious about what a dung beetle looks like wearing a hat, so I located a photograph from the original paper.  In truth, I like my mental image better, but you can judge for yourself.  Here’s a link to an online summary of the original research article, which includes a photo of a beetle with a cap:  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982212015072.

My friend Dave would also point out the role of dung beetles in art.  Scarab is just another name for a dung beetle.  The ancient Egyptians drew a parallel between how the Sun god rolled the sun across the sky and how the scarab rolls its dung ball across the ground.  (And this was long before anyone knew the beetles were actually using the Sun to navigate!)  The scarab amulet was thought to bring good luck.

So – dung beetles more than pull (or push) their own weight.  They focus on their goal.  They frequently stop and look around to evaluate their environment.  They can do celestial  navigation.  They can work in teams.  They model efficiency, patience, and persistence.

And if we take only one lesson from these beetles, this is a good one:  Stop every once in a while and look up at the stars.

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