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How is it possible for a small number of newcomers to displace a well-established group of leaders?

That’s not just a question for military organizations wanting to overthrow governments; it’s a question for political parties controlling national debates, new products displacing well-established market leaders, and flocking birds following leaders to new food sources.

Social scientists have studied the nature of effective leadership for centuries with limited success. Physicists, on the other hand, are new to the party, which gives them a chance to nab some low-hanging fruit. Today, Hai-Tao Zhang at the University of Cambridge, in the U.K., and a few buddies say that they have grabbed a particularly juicy piece by revealing a key strategy of effective leadership.

One way to model leadership (or flocking, as ornithologists call it) is to create a computer-based swarm of individuals who follow the average movement of those around them. When you introduce a small number of leaders who all move in a certain direction–to the right, say–the swarm tends to follow the leaders.

How, then, can a smaller number of left-moving leaders take control of the swarm? At first glance, it looks as if they can’t. But Hai-Tao Zhang and buddies prove otherwise. They identify two new qualities of leadership that determine the result. The first is the ability to distribute a leader’s influence to as many followers within a given time. The second is the ability to be sufficiently persuasive to change and hold the allegiance of followers who they can influence.

When these factors come into play, the balance of power depends on the distribution of leaders. What Hai-Tao Zhang and pals show is that it is possible for power seekers to spread their influence to as many followers as possible in a given time and to accumulate enough power to govern these followers. This allows the power seekers to defeat the dominating leaders solely by optimizing their distribution pattern, even when they are fewer in number than their opposition.

So the key to seizing power, or at least gaining a significant foothold, is the effective distribution of a small number of leaders within a larger group. “A better distribution pattern has larger influential region and greater clustering factor, which can equip the leaders with the capability of influencing more followers in a given period and strengthening the persuasion power on the followers as well,” says the team.

That’s an interesting idea that may explain the effectiveness of Internet-based grassroots campaigns, both political and commercial, which we have seen in recent years. The take-home point here is that it’s not just what you’re saying that’s important: it’s how you distribute your message.

This kind of thinking could have a profound effect on everything from grassroots movements to guerrilla marketing to the way that big companies are run.

And of course, there may be an interest in the next iteration of this idea in which established leaders ask how they can maintain a status quo given the infiltration of a small number of power-seeking interlopers.

Fascinating stuff.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0907.1317: Effective Leadership in Competition

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