SOCIAL SWARMING: Leadership Lesson from the Komen Debacle

FastTime® Leadership Blog Post

Social “swarming” is when a disparate group suddenly moves en masse in the same direction. The rapid, collective motion of a large number of self-propelled people has enormous power.

The social swarming was fast and intense when the pre-eminent breast cancer advocacy group, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, announced it was stopping its financing of Planned Parenthood. The reaction was a swarm of unbridled fury fueled by Facebook and Twitter. Over three days, there were more than 1.3 million tweets mentioning Planned Parenthood, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation and related terms and hashtags.

Unlike what sometimes happens in the C-suite—paradigm paralysis—the leaders in the Komen foundation quickly got the message and reversed their decision. The Komen brand lost a little luster, but it will be regained because they responded rapidly and unambiguously.

A flock of auklets (penguin-like birds that can fly) in "swarm" behaviour

Social Swarming is like the behavior of flocking birds and schooling fish and it is turbocharged by social media. It is an emergent behavior with no central coordination. It appears to be the result of three unconscious patterns: 1. Intuitively and fluidly moving in the same direction; 2. Staying close together, but avoiding collisions; 3. Rising above the surrounding circumstances.

The lesson for leaders on the receiving end of a positive or a negative swarm is same: think strategically about the implications and respond quickly. Smart decisions followed by rapid actions win in the New Normal.

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7 Responses to SOCIAL SWARMING: Leadership Lesson from the Komen Debacle

  1. GroupMgr@FastTime® says:

    Larry Levin wrote:
    I think this is a great blog post. Only thing that I might add is something about how you can create greater “swarming-like” behaviors in your organization — are you in touch with the “buzz” in your informal organization about decisions? If there is informal and natural alignment among your employee body (say a decision is not popular or has unintended effects) can you respond quickly enough to change the direction of the swarm? How do you best influence the positive directionality of a swarm to get more people moving in the same positive direction?

  2. GroupMgr@FastTime® says:

    Nancy Adler wrote:
    This is hugely important. I think your blog is very clear and to the point. However, I am concerned about a social swarm that is “wrong”. What are the implications of the social swarm deciding to discriminate against a person or group of people? Isn’t this the new, and more powerful form of mob lynching? How does society deal with social swarming when it is mob lynching? What happens when the majority is very, very wrong (for whatever reason). I don’t have the answer to any of the questions I am raising, but if you can address them, it would be great (or cite other people who you respect who are dealing with them, it would be equally good). In the current example of the Susan G. Komen Fdn reversing its decision, I am, of course, delighted. But what if it is an action by the swarm that horrifies me?

  3. The Komen fiasco was indeed a great example of swarming. And certainly Komen was wise to quickly reverse itself. The CEO’s disastrous interview with Andrea Mitchell– a long time supporter but a great journalist who wanted real answers- made it clear that Komen could not sustain it’s decision. Not just because of the swarm, but because the underlying rationale kept shifting and did not add up. I believe an organization can push back against the swarm if it has a legitimate make to make. If not, bow to the inevitable within 24 hours.

  4. Leland- Social swarming aside, the Komen “brand” lost more than a little luster. While they may have responded rapidly, I would not call the response unambiguous. In fact, they changed their story more than once, losing both credibility and integrity, and generally muddying the waters as to what the brand represents.

    Sadly, this latest story did not surprise me. This is a “brand” that lost its way a long time before this latest trip up. I remember a few years back when they “sold” their pink ribbons to KFC, displaying them “proudly” on their buckets of fried chicken!

    What a bunch of hypocrites and what a great MBA textbook case on how not to do “integrity.” I certainly hope that C-Suites don’t emulate their behavior.

  5. I appreciate the simple, direct clarity of your post and the fitting way that your example demonstrates the power of this new phenomenon. I’m guessing there are many examples in our daily physical reality, perhaps even the Superbowl… The speed and scale of the Susan B. Komen response is, however, a dramatic expression of swarming in our “screen reality.”

    I concur on the concerns expressed about potential for evil swarms. It will certainly happen at times. Life will be multi-dimensional as always.

  6. Jim Kouzes says:

    Social swarming is a immensely important topic. Thank you for stimulating this discussion.

    I share Nancy’s concern about the “mob lynching” potential of this phenomenon as well as its powerfully positive catalytic potential. And Barbara is spot on with her comments about the credibility of the Susan B. Komen for the Cure organization. It will take a lot more than this one decision to atone for its questionable decisions in the past.

  7. I had my Tweetdeck tuned to #Komen and #KarenHandler for the peak of Twitter’s social swarming on the Komen decision. While I was pleased that Komen seems to have reversed its Planned Parenthood decision and that PP filled its coffers as a result of the backlash, I was disturbed to see the swarm turn on Handler with vitriolic ad hominem tweets-demanding that she be fired. It felt like cyberbullying and I think hints at the “potential for evil swarms” to spin out of control.

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