Cicadas and Leaders, An Emergence Story

Over the last few weeks, billions of cicadas, insects with large red eyes, black abdomens and orange wings, have been emerging across Eastern United States, after spending 17 years underground. Because of their periodical emergence, these species – among over 3,000 species of cicadas – are called periodical cicadas and are organized into Roman-numeral Broods. 2021 cicadas are from Brood X and have been spending the last 17 years underground, feeding onto tree roots, maturing before surfacing as adults in order to mate then die. Male cicadas make a lot of noise to attract a mate -cicada “songs” can reach 90 decibels, while female cicadas will lie as many as 600 rice-shaped eggs in woody plant tissues. Once young cicadas hatch, they will fall to the ground and eventually dig their way through to find roots. While their life cycle is long, their life as adults is short, with periodical cicadas dying within 2-4 weeks following their emergence.

Cicadas in Eastern United States

Such a fascinating feat of nature can certainly offer a few lessons in leadership and personal development:

Purpose requires maturity and patience: emerging into our destinies takes time, in the periodical cicadas ‘case 17 years. When we are unclear or uncertain about our lives, calling, next steps or we doubt the process, it’s easy to blame, call quits or sabotage ourselves or these around us. The condition for these periodical cicadas to emerge is a 17-year growth process underground, which marks these species ‘set point for adulthood and readiness. We cannot microwave maturity and leadership and more often than not, growth in these areas happen when challenges, uncertainty or hardship strike. Brené Brown notes in her book Rising Strong how “he or she who is willing to be the most uncomfortable is not only the bravest but rises the fastest“.

The power of coming together is in both number but also diversity: the swarming of millions of sound-producing cicadas on the clock, every 17 years, is inspiring and awing for more than entomologists. There is power in the numbers in which cicadas emerge, complementarity of their roles (female and male) and a common vision – in the cicadas ‘case, the whole process underpins the survival of these species. In both personal and professional lives, the power of like minded individuals and teams, of shared values and of a shared purpose can move mountains. Likewise, there is power in complementarity and diversity of roles, experiences and perspectives. When we come together and mesh our differences and strengths, rather than find fault or feel threatened, breakthroughs -at an individual, societal and institutional level happen.

Calling is about surviving and thriving: the emergence of cicadas has a clear purpose: reproduction and continuity of these species. Similarly, we all have our unique purpose. It takes courage and self-awareness to emerge into our purpose. Sometimes, it requires to let go of the expectations of others, find and follow our own voices and calling. Other times, it is letting go of limiting beliefs which no longer serve or have power over us. Many times, it’s simply daring to be, lead, stop, love, let go… Cicadas are showing us how it can be as much as a survival matter to assume our uniqueness and emerge into who we are called to be and who we are capable of becoming.

The cicadas emergence will happen again in 17 years. Who will we be? What will we do? How our planet and lives be 17 years from now? What if we lived the next 17 years with a strong certainty that no matter what happens, we will emerge because that’s woven in our human story? How would we act or be if we knew that irrespective of how deep we dig or fall, we will emerge into our calling?

Additional resource: A fun and educational video on 2021 Brood X cicadas

Published by Helene R. Johnson

Helene R. Johnson is a pseudonym. Living life as a mom and manager. Articles are also published on, a site dedicated to human resources with a focus on transformational change and development.

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