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.