Thinking about leadership

When I was in theatre school, I regularly participated in the ‘collective creation’ process. This involved collaborating with my fellow students to create a short play or scene. There were no directors or playwrights. Everybody contributed to the project, and we reached a consensus on what work to keep and what to throw out. The process was slow-moving, feelings regularly got hurt and the results were unilaterally awful.

The rise of the Occupy movement this fall reminded me of working on collective creations. Occupy Wall Street and its cousins around the world actively eschewed leaders, and relied on a community-oriented consensus model to reach decisions. This ostensibly leaderless approach got me naturally thinking about leadership.

In every project in which I’ve been involved–creative, corporate, volunteer, non-profit–there was always a person in charge. Whether or not that person had an authoritative title or anybody acknowledged it, they had final decision-making power. A group always needs to look to somebody to own big decisions. That’s what a leader is there for.

Whether we’re talking about theatre, an unconference or revolution, there’s always a leader at the heart of things. Like it or not, we’re a hierarchical species. It’s how we get stuff done.

Which is why I’ve been interested in the intentional leaderlessness of the Occupy movement. There’s a cliche about Generation Y that they were raised on teamwork and consensus building, where everybody got a ribbon on Sports Day and nobody counted goals at their soccer games. Does Occupy reflect these values? Or is it merely a coincidence? I suspect that, in truth, each Occupy protest had their fair share of leaders who, at the end of the day, drove and owned decisions.

Here’s another thing about leadership that I’ve learned over the years: most people don’t want to be leaders.

In rereading this little post, it seems like I’m rather aggressively reinforcing the status quo. A feminist reading of this post might accuse me of taking a very traditional, masculine line of thinking. I should emphasize that I’m not writing off other ways of organization, but I can think of very few truly leaderless projects. Can you think of examples?

UPDATE: A friend sent me this interesting article by Micah L. Sifry. It frames Occupy Wall Street as a ‘leader-full movement’. I’d need to read more about this idea to get my head around it. It’s a pity that, in the conclusion, Sifry demonizes traditional leadership by writing “a world of top-down leaders who use hierarchy, secrecy and spin to conduct their business”. He hasn’t earned that claim with evidence elsewhere in the article, and so it cheapens an otherwise thoughtful piece.


  1. re: leaderless projects

    How about the Vancouver Canucks’ Mike Keenan years?

    Thanks for writing this, Darren.

    Wondering your thoughts on the notion that Occupy more resembles the decision making tendencies of the web as opposed to the hierarchical traditional structures that we’re used to and that’s why it seems so directionless and weird.

    That rather than decisions being dictated from a central figure or cluster of influence there’s a more dispersed or networked approached to moving the group from one action to another.

    I agree that Occupy challenges the notion of leadership and it certainly has its problems but I note that you didn’t speak to the webbishness of Occupy and I’d be interested to hear what you think about that.


    1. If we look at web-centric organizations like Avaaz or, they still have leaders–both on staff and among the supporters. They may crowdsource a lot of decisions, but ultimately the responsibility for executing those decisions falls on individual leaders or small groups.

      I see the web as a great way to democratize decision making, but when it comes to the actual ‘doing’, I mostly see that driven by individuals.

      That said, I’m eager to see counter-examples.

  2. I think there’s a difference between being a leader and being an autocrat, and in the desire to prevent the latter they will do away with proclamations of the former.

    For instance, in my exposure to being a facilitator as part of my training as a planner, facilitation is often times helping the group better understand how it already thinks and feels.

    I don’t think the absence or the presence of a leader automatically leads to good things. Both can be used by individuals as excuses to do things that do damage or impede functionality, i.e. to act as assholes.

    So is leadership necessary? Sure. Does it always look the same, as something that a hypothetical mainstream media outlet can call as a leader? No.

    I see “everybody gets a ribbon” as a hyperbolic example of coddling. I remember getting ribbons in school but I can’t tell if this was because I wouldn’t have gotten anything else otherwise. Being an advocate and general fan of social inclusion, though, makes me a little concerned that it gets derided so much, considering the issues we have out there with bullying and bigotry.

    As for most people not wanting to be leaders, IMHO that comes down to people wanting or needing some kind of permission to be actively/creatively engaged in decision-making even if it doesn’t look like traditional leadership. I can narrow down to the year when I started acting as if I didn’t need permission. For others I could imagine that turning point also coming when they learned to listen and ask good questions.

  3. Good thoughts, Darren. And I might add, an important consideration for the Occupy movement. While the romantic notion of leaderless leadership may be appealing, I fear it’s a misguided response to corrupt leadership. Leadership isn’t inherently bad; corruption is.

    And to add to your Gen Y connection, let’s be honest. Those ribbons hold no value, and every kid knows the score.

  4. karen, i agree with your comment regarding confusing “leader” with “autocrat”.

    i really like the idea of servant leadership and have experienced tremendous personal and organizational growth both in executing it and in having servant leaders as bosses.

    why do people not want to be leaders? that is a great question. it is certainly an observation that i have made all my life. at least once a week i find myself in a situation where no-one wants to move on something and then i just take the bull by the horns and go for it.

    i think part of the reason is that people a) do not want to stand out (we are herd animals, after all) and b) do not want to take risks. also, often it also looks like laziness although the concept of “lazy” has never sat well with me.

    do people do better with permission, as karen said? i wish that was my observation but it isn’t. ok, they do better – but rarely good enough for that to translate into leadership.

    the occupy movement, at this time, seems rather tragic to me. and it may very well be because of a lack of true leadership. my hunch, though, is that the movement will not die and everntually leaders will grow out of it. hopefully good ones.

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