What does a nerdy researcher who studies self-organizing work groups do in her spare time? Why participate in and observe other types of self-organizing groups, of course! This week it was a flash mob here in Seattle. Seven 2-hour dance rehearsals, one 7-minute performance, and tons of fun. It also involved about a dozen Advil over the week. And I’m still sore (although mastering the moves to “Beat it” made it all worth while).      

Typically I study small self-organizing work groups (spontaneous groups, created from within, to get work-of-the-moment accomplished). But this larger self-org group—a group that came together primarily to have fun, dance, and surprise themselves and complete strangers—was remarkably good at making visible what I’ve been learning about leadership across the smaller self-organizing work groups I’m studying. For example, five things I can see as part of these groups:    

  1. Leadership naturally moving around. Different people and groups step up and step back, depending on what they can see around them and intuitively sense is needed. People who didn’t know the dance steps well asked others to become leaders and teach them (which they did). People who didn’t know the dance moves well stepped to the center of the group, since all people on the edges became very visible leaders at the points the group turned in their direction. The leaders are people and groups:
    1. With needed-this-very-moment skill sets
    2. Demonstrating the most enthusiasm for what’s happening in the moment
    3. Close enough that you can see them really well
    4. Who morph into follower roles the moments A, B, and C (above) change

Woman in back becoming the leader the moment the group turned around

The “mob boss” learning dance moves along with everyone else (and bravely demonstrating that you don’t need to be a dancer to be part of a flash mob)

 2. Size-wise, like leading self and nearby like. For the most part, it appears that individuals lead themselves and nearby other individuals, not everyone; small groups lead themselves and nearby small groups and individuals, not everyone; and larger groups lead themselves and nearby large and small groups and individuals, not everyone.  

Guy in middle demonstrated deep love of the song “Vogue” and taught it during breaks. He didn’t have all the moves down, though, so the woman on right joined him. As a small group, they led this spontaneous small group.

3. People not needing formal leadership training:    

A. People naturally learning from themselves and each other. For example, anyone being inappropriately condescending, bossy, or not genuine was ignored by most. People close enough to see and hear this happen learned something from it. At least I did.  

B. People naturally looking out for nearby others. Chaos in these groups means more opportunity to be scared and therefore more opportunity to connect and offer comfort, support, advice, and ideas, and to lead others. Over 9 days of practice, I saw almost everyone around me provide support to nearby others—a guy in cowboy boots, a guy in a boa, a person in a fuzzy wig, moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, my friend who attended rehearsals with me, my husband, a woman who described herself as a “lover of order and analysis,” and me, not to mention a variety of people of various ages, shapes, sizes, colors, and styles. 

Offering encouragement to each other

Spontaneous small groups

4. People/groups close to the group becoming leaders too. Many nearby others are drawn to the group’s energy, move closer, and watch (some even participate). I watched bystanders trying some of the group’s moves, dancing with their kids to the group’s music, sitting down to watch, taking pictures and videos, running to tell nearby others about the group, and striking up conversations with strangers to talk about the group. At one point I watched an old man (who I later learned was a homeless man who lives in the park where we were rehearsing) tell my photographer husband where he could move to get a better photograph of the group (and I watched Daniel take his advice). BTW, Daniel took all these pictures. Thanks, love!!       

Moms and kids (in background) watching the group

People (in the background) staying to watch the group, even though we were on a break

People, groups, and dogs watching a self-organizing group

 5. People/groups everywhere becoming leaders. When I’m in these groups, I have the time and opportunity to notice that leaders are everywhere. For example, during one rehearsal, I felt that the DJ (whose face I never saw) and the people/groups singing the songs were being leaders. This flash mob involved dancing to excerpts from 11 songs from Queen to Madonna to whoever it is that sings the Macarena. This wasn’t easy for most of us. There was a lot of chaos. Sometimes people around me started to get stressed out. Once or twice (ok, actually every time I anticipated and thought about doing the “Beat it” moves) I got stressed out. Any time the music started, though, everyone relaxed, started dancing, and got a little more comfortable. I found myself thinking “Thank you Freddie Mercury!” “Thank you Michael Jackson!” and “Thank you Madonna!”     

Who are the leaders of this self-organizing group? As near as I can tell, every person and group in and near this group is a leader. Who did I personally recognize as the leaders? The people/groups closest to me, in the moment, who demonstrated with their whole beings that they know this.

 Here are some of those people and groups…