Activating the Swarm - IEDP
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Activating the Swarm

Prof Wolfgang Jenewein on the necessity for leaders to build diversity into their teams and to harness ‘the intelligence of the swarm’


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In the management development sector we are faced everyday with the challenge to equip leaders to face the increasing demands that the business environment now throws at them; it is a truism we all know well, but is nonetheless worth restating, that no matter how talented the individual, solutions to today’s business problems have to be solved collectively and collaboratively – and with innovative, flexible thinking – the VUCA world will allow no other way.

With over 12 years’ teaching experience, primarily in executive education, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Jenewein is a Full Professor of Management at the University of St. Gallen as well as being the Director of the Executive MBA. Furthermore, Jenewein is the Director for the Center for Customer Insight (FCI-HSG) conducting research and publishing papers about various topics at the interface of marketing, branding and leadership.

Wolfgang Jenewein is clear that “the main answer to complexity is variety” and it is necessary for executive leaders to build diversity into their teams, not for any social or political reason, but because to create robust solutions to issues requires the wisdom of crowds, or as Jenewein phrases it ‘the intelligence of the swarm’. He continues that “it is the leader’s role to ‘activate the swarm’” and to achieve this requires three key steps:

  1. Firstly a leader must provide a clear purpose for why the team/department/organization or even society, is engaged in an activity. If the followers do not understand the reason for doing what they are doing then they will start to disengage.
  2. The modern leader must build on empathy. Having focused the followers on the higher purpose, the leader needs to understand the various drivers and concerns of the team members to ensure that they are motivated internally and not just by some external threat, that they ‘buy-in’ to the activity. This intrinsic motivation is essential to create continued momentum.
  3. The final element is to know the individual strengths and abilities of the team and how to harness those so that the individual inputs total something greater than the parts. That is that they each offer an optimal contribution for that particular team.

“Motivation is very important, but in fact perhaps 70% of a leader’s job is not motivating people, but avoiding de-motivation” says Jenewein. “There is a desire in people for a perfect formula between gaining intrinsic motivation and creating a structure that enables that… it is the dream of the machine. But in real life it does not exist, it is more complex than that” he explains.

In order to achieve this motivation Jenewein sees that people have to feel valued, they must feel important as individuals. “Only then will they be able to channel their energy productively into the activity”. Creating energy is one of those intangible abilities that some people can accomplish in others with little effort while others have to learn step-by-step.

One of the tricks that Prof Jenewein uses when coaching individuals and in executive education classes is to get people to reflect on their private lives. In their private lives they see where they are important, and understand their role and purpose. Most people’s private lives are pretty authentic – but at work this authenticity often gets discarded. “In their private lives they live up to this standard, but in management they behave differently”. Jenewein sees this tension between private and working lives as being destructive of intrinsic motivation, it destroys energy and is ultimately damaging to the organization. People excuse their different behaviour saying “in business it is not possible, my boss does not want me to be like that”.

The challenge, Jenewein admits, is that managers are required to deliver results on a quarterly basis, so have short-term horizons and that if teams are to recalibrate to a more authentic, collaborative approach to work it can take up to a year to see the benefits. So getting organizations to change their culture is a difficult process which must be sponsored from the highest level.

He quotes a discussion he had recently with a Board member of a leading German company who observed that for the last 30 years management’s focus had been on process and marketing, but this was no longer creating the change that businesses required, now it is much more about developing people and culture. Jenewein sees this transformation of attitude most clearly amongst younger employees, and his specialization in sports leadership has noted that football teams are much less dominated by alpha-male characters of the past. “Modern football teams, which are heavily skewed to youthful talent, are now much more collaborative and inclusive. The best teams such as FC Barcelona and Dortmund are fully committed – their success is driven by the abilities of the swarm…. This creates huge energy and enables them to deliver consistently high-performances” he observes.

In conclusion, Jenewein’s approach is that to tackle complex, quickly evolving issues requires the application of multiple abilities working together harmoniously and purposefully. It is the task of the modern leader to harness these diverse talents with clear purpose and create energy to do so. This is the challenge for leaders to now embrace – activating the swarm.


Our Executive Education programmes are characterised by its high level of relevance for current practical issues, by drawing on the latest results in research.

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