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#OccupyWallStreet: A Leaderfull Movement in a Leaderless Time

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, November 14 2011

Thirty-one year-old Iraq War veteran Thomas L. Day wrote a powerful oped for the Washington Post Friday, expressing his "final loss of faith" in the wake of the Penn State child molestation scandal. In it, he lambastes his parents generation for what he sees as its many failures of leadership. Right now it's flying around the web, driven by links from the likes of Michael Moore, who tweeted, "If you read only one thing online this week, please read this." Day writes:

With the demise of my own community’s two most revered leaders, [Jerry] Sandusky and Joe Paterno, I have decided to continue to respect my elders, but to politely tell them, “Out of my way." They have had their time to lead. Time’s up. I’m tired of waiting for them to live up to obligations....

We looked to Washington to lead us after September 11th. I remember telling my college roommates, in a spate of emotion, that I was thinking of enlisting in the military in the days after the attacks. I expected legions of us -- at the orders of our leader -- to do the same. But nobody asked us. Instead we were told to go shopping.

The times following September 11th called for leadership, not reckless, gluttonous tax cuts. But our leaders then, as now, seemed more concerned with flattery. Then- House Majority Leader and now-convicted felon Tom Delay told us, “nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes.” Not exactly Churchillian stuff.

Those of us who did enlist were ordered into Iraq on the promise of being “greeted as liberators,” in the words of our then-vice president. Several thousand of us are dead from that false promise.

We looked for leadership from our churches, and were told to fight not poverty or injustice, but gay marriage. In the Catholic Church, we were told to blame the media, not the abusive priests, not the bishops, not the Vatican, for making us feel that our church has failed us in its sex abuse scandal and cover-up.

Our parents’ generation has balked at the tough decisions required to preserve our country’s sacred entitlements, leaving us to clean up the mess. They let the infrastructure built with their fathers’ hands crumble like a stale cookie. They downgraded our nation’s credit rating. They seem content to hand us a debt exceeding the size of our entire economy, rather than brave a fight against the fortunate and entrenched interests on K Street and Wall Street.

Now we are asking for jobs and are being told we aren’t good enough, to the tune of 3.3 million unemployed workers between the ages of 25 and 34.

This failure of a generation is as true in the halls of Congress as it is at Penn State.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration this week of our leaderless culture came with the riots in State College that followed Paterno’s dismissal. The display resembled Lord of the Flies. Without revered figures from the older generation to lead them, thousands of students at one of the country’s best state universities acted like children home alone.

Day's conclusion: "One thing I know for certain: A leader must emerge from Happy Valley to tie our community together again, and it won’t come from our parents’ generation."

While he may be right about the failures of the current generation in power, he's wrong in calling for "a leader" who will fix things. But it's understandable why he might see the world this way--having grown up in institutions that are all run as hierarchies--the Catholic church, the Army, the Penn State system--why expect anything different?

That same question could be asked of The New York Times' Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, whose column Sunday also was imbued with a plaintive and desperate search for leadership, specifically that of Occupy Wall Street, the political movement of the moment, and the one that might actually address the concerns being raised by Day in his Washington Post essay.

Admirably, Brisbane asks how the Times should report on the Occupy Wall Street movement, going forward, but like many of his peers, he can't let go of his notion of how political movements must work. "Who is Occupy Wall Street?" he asks. Though he quotes a reader who told him that the movement's lack of traditional leaders is part of its message, he can't let go of the idea that it must have some. "An investigation into [its] origins would lead to the identities of early leaders, at least, and the search for the broader leadership of the movement should continue from there," he writes.

A sampling of leading journalism educators that Brisbane polled, many of them former top newspaper editors, agreed. "Most said it was important to understand who the leaders were and what demographics they represented," Brisbane reports. "Leadership tells you a lot about a movement," Jerry Ceppos, the former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, told Brisbane. "But I can't I can’t cite the name of a single Occupy Wall Street leader. I know some members say the groups are “leaderless.” But I have trouble believing that this is an entirely organic movement that grew without a leader. I’d push hard to see if there are leaders and to profile them."

Why this insistence on finding the supposed leaders of Occupy Wall Street? The reason goes beyond a desire to understand the movement's goals, I think, into something more existential. For many traditional political observers like Brisbane and his colleagues, the notion that a political movement might arise without charismatic leaders is inconceivable. Every previous movement, after all, has had its figureheads. Think of Gandhi, King, Mandela. Or, at the less exalted level of recent times, think of Ralph Nader, Al Sharpton, or Michael Moore on the progressive left, or Sarah Palin, Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin on the Tea Party right. The same question was raised, if you recall, around the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which were often described as "leaderless." A movement can't be leaderless, right? Who would we feature on the front-page? Who would we put on the Sunday talk shows? Who would we negotiate with? Who is the saviour that will rise from these streets?

No, political movements can't be leaderless. The Occupy Wall Street movement is, in fact, leader-full. That is, the insistent avoidance of traditional top-down leadership and the reliance on face-to-face and peer-to-peer networks and working groups creates space for lots of leaders to emerge, but only ones that work as network weavers rather than charismatic bosses. Ilyse Hogue, a progressive activist who was on the staff of MoveOn for many years, recently put it this way, in one of the first uses of the term "leaderfull" that I have seen:

"We should all strive not for leaderless movements, but for leaderFULL movements. The former trends towards autocratic loudest voices dominating. In their best manifestation, the latter creates equitable space to raise up all voices, create mechanisms for group decision making and accountability, and to catalyze self-responsibility and empowerment."

Most of us come from a world and a generation that only knows one kind of leadership, the one whose organizational structure looks like this. The decider is on top; the worker bees are below. Everything about our industrial age institutions, from schools and churches to corporations and government, trains us to think of leadership as top-down, command-and-control. Give the right answer, get into the right school, get a good job, work your way up the chain of command, win the good life. But today, more and more of us live in a sea of lateral social connections, enabled by personal technology that is allowing everyone to connect and share, in real-time, what matters most to them.

And at a moment when so many traditional political institutions appear bankrupt, incapable of reforming themselves and paralyzed in the face of huge challenges, the result is an explosion of outsider movements for social change whose structure looks more like this:

Tahrir Square on February11

Or this:

Madison protest

Or this:

Occupy Wall Street Washington Square Park 2011 Shankbone

Indeed, I think there's a reason we keep seeing this recurring image of a filled circle rather than a hierarchy in today's protest movements: all the points on a circle are equidistant from the center. Everyone faces each other, rather than many facing just one. Spots in the middle are hubs, but no one hub dominates. Resilience is built through the multitude of lateral connections between all the points in the network, so if any hub fails others can pick up the slack. And thus today's networked movements are not only highly participatory, with many leaders instead of just one, they are also much stronger than movements of the past that could be stopped or stalled by the discrediting, arrest or killing of their singular spokesmen.

Last June, movement organizer Adrienne Maree Brown made a similar point in the context of the work she does training activists in Detroit who are trying to rebuild that city. Asked on Tavis Smiley and Cornell West's radio show if what she was seeing develop there was a "leaderless" phenomenon, she answered,

"I love the term of  a leaderless revolution but I don't think it's a realistic thing. I believe it's a leader-full revolution. Every single person I interact with, I approach them as if they are the next person who is going to transform their community, and that they're going to transform me. One of the most powerful things about most of the organizers in Detroit is that every single person gets approached as a point of leadership and as a point of community responsibility and strength...that's only possible when everyone is being respected and heard and uplifted."

Adjusting to a leaderfull world full of self-starting network weavers, transparent and accountable about their actions--from a world of top-down leaders who use hierarchy, secrecy and spin to conduct their business, will take some getting used to. But the Occupy Wall Street movement, like the Tea Party before it was captured and turned into a marketing vehicle for the Republican right, represents the flowering of something very deep about our networked age. it is personal democracy in action, where everyone plays a role in shaping the decisions that affect our lives. We may face huge challenges, but while some of our material resources are in scarce supply, we have an abundance of leaders coming.

Maybe Thomas L. Day will be one of them.

Bonus link: This Wednesday evening in Washington, DC, the New Organizing Forum will focus on the topic of "LeaderFULL movements."

[Photo credits: Tahrir Square on February 1, Jonathan Rashad - CC 2.0; Madison protest, Lacrossewi CC-BY-SA-3.0; Occupy Wall St Washington Square Park 2011, David Shankbone CC-BY-3.0]