Follow the Leader

Steven Murphy, Executive Director

September 5, 2014

I was researching new approaches to generating ideas and building successful strategies. During my reading I came across this story of the Pine Processionary caterpillars.

A famous French naturalist, Jean-Henri Fabre, conducted an interesting experiment with Pine Processionary caterpillars. He took several caterpillars and placed them in single file around the rim of a flowerpot. Each caterpillar’s head touched the end of the caterpillar in front of it so that the procession formed a full circle. Fabre placed pine needles, which are the favorite food of the caterpillars of this type, in the middle of the circle formed by the procession. What makes a Processionary caterpillar special is the instinct to blindly follow the caterpillar in front of it. All caterpillars went in circles hour after hour, day after day, night after night thinking that the caterpillar in front of them was heading to the food. In 7 days, all the caterpillars died from hunger and exhaustion although food was just 6 inches away from them and the only thing they needed to do to get it was to change the direction of movement. The procession died simply because when the strategy of finding food didn’t give results, the caterpillars didn’t change it.

Sedniev, Andrii (2014-07-25). The Achievement Factory: How to Fulfill Your Dreams and Make Life an Adventure (p. 62). . Kindle Edition.

This story brought into focus a critical issue we face as leaders. Success is based on our willingness to fail, learn, and move forward. But how much harder is it for us to realize when an existing strategy, one that worked, no longer provides the required outcomes. How sure are we that like the Processionary caterpillar, we are not also blindly following the lead of tradition. Does that make us unable or unwilling to seek out the new ideas, to risk new strategies.

Even if we recognize the need to step out of line, what do we do about what we have, and who we are? This is the great question for leaders of organization where successful traditions of the past are not productive strategies needed for the future. Even for those willing to step out and seek a new direction, that process is inevitably anchored to existing structures, products and people. Sadly, that commitment limits investment or diminishes outcomes of new strategies. In an effort to “support what we have” new ideas and strategies may not grow to scale sufficient to ensure survival.

The wonderful news for Sertoma is that we do not have to be concerned with what we do, or who we are. We are people of service, and we help others and our community. There is no need to leave that path. What is not working as well is some of our strategies for “how.” Universally service clubs of all brands are experiencing diminished results from many successful strategies of the past; club building, membership drives, and attendance at meeting and conventions.

As leaders, we have the difficult task of balancing traditional and new strategies for our service and philanthropy. That is not easy, as much of our identity as a service club is tied to how we function. But if we each thought about those moments when we were truly proud to be Sertoma,my guess is those all have to do with helping someone in the community. Along as we create those moments that make us proud, we can face the change needed to make that happen. So when following a new direction seems too hard, just remember why – “I’m proud to be a Sertoman.”


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