Is Occupy leaderless or leaderful: insights from Working Groups


Since the birth of the Occupy movement, there have been lively discussions about the meaning of leadership and how the movement can be successful without leaders or a leading idea. Occupy stands for different things for different people. For me it stands for us all stepping up to become and act as leaders in a leaderful movement. Seen through that lens, Working Groups are the ideal places to learn to become the new type of leaders who can move the leading edge of action, and inspire the leadership qualities in everybody to manifest, without the need for having “followers”.

The following snippets from a conversation that took place in an online forum of Occupy London offer some valuable insights about how this important issue plays out in the practice of WGs. The whole thread is accessible here.

 The danger of the lack of leadership skills

“What is interesting is that I can talk in business terms, in management and decision-making, in high-level corporate policy, and people do not have a clue what I am talking about. The process and strategy groups, which are supposed to be based around this very understanding, struggle with the idea that they have to operate on the same idea as a multi-national corporation or a non-governmental organisation. This is the real danger of working groups.

Although the Occupy movement doesn’t have leaders, it still needs leadership skills, and these are buried in various places throughout the movement if you care to look for them. But many people don’t know the first thing about leadership and strategy, because it is something they are inherently against. This means we are in a movement that is more or less like herding cats most of the time, because of a simple lack of understanding about the basic principles that we really need.”

“Ultimately, the Occupy movement must have leaders. However, these leaders must be each and every one of us in unison, as we self-govern ourselves. This is what leadership is about. Without it, the movement will struggle to gain traction.”

Jonathan Mathew Smucker in a forum for grassroots mobilization describes the difference between saying none of us is a leader and saying all of us are leaders?

He concludes: “We need a movement where we are constantly encouraging each other to step into our full potential and to shine as individual leaders who are working together collectively for a better world.  So, let’s all be leaders. Let’s step up and do this.”

Rotating responsibilities

To create a leaderful rather than a leaderless movement it was suggested to rotate roles in the WGs at regular intervals so nobody becomes the lead person for Occupy

“We should be strongly emphasising the importance of people sharing roles and power, rotating posts a strategic issue. The mainstream media and political establishment want very much to push us into acceptable (to them) representative democracy. …. Occupy makes a systemic and thorough critique of this system and as such will be experimenting with different structures. This avoids the danger of one person being identified with a particular role and the chances of their personal agendas coming into play more strongly than the others in the collective.”

“The issue with rotating roles is that a lot of roles in the working groups are based on expertise. Thus, the same people end up doing the same jobs in the same roles because of their expertise in that role. They become more efficient at it. It would undermine efficiency to force people to rotate to jobs with which they are not comfortable or lack the expertise for, unless they are willing to undergo some form of training for that role.The press team, for example, are likely to be the major spokespeople for Occupy London, and will be identified as such, simply because they are part of the press team. It makes little sense to rotate in a member from the Kitchen to do the duty unless it is relevant. With people in multiple work groups, there’s already a high degree of rotation anyway, but what is more likely is that you have a rotation of roles more than a rotation of people. Thus a person might be representative on one workgroup at one point, and then representative of another at a later point, and so forth.”

What to do when you know more

“Don’t ever let people tell you what you can’t do, think about how you can do it and suggest it…
If you’re clever enough to know, slow down and teach others
If you only help yourself you only help yourself. If you help others you help yourself.

People can do whatever they want to do. This is why there is no hierarchy in Occupy. There is still organisation. Occupy still functions very much like a business, and still has all the needs and requirements of one.

It’s just that rather than having people in fixed roles, with the idea of leadership and promotions, people can move about and do whatever needs to be done based on whatever skills they have or wish to learn. That is why the movement is fluid. We are all workers, executives, and chairmen.”

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Categories: Direct Democracy, Identity & Strategy, Social Innovation, Working Groups

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4 Comments on “Is Occupy leaderless or leaderful: insights from Working Groups”

  1. February 13, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

    I’m concerned about the business model of empowering everyone to be a leader. It still sounds corporate and hiearchical in a way. Can we not find another word? Isn’t role enough? We can be fluid, and maybe a more horizontal rhythmic model is more helpful. The leader can become the led and vice versa as the situation demands.
    We have different roles at different times, most of which involve skills and abilities that some have more than others. Many roles CAN be rotated, others need specific imput. Other roles can easily be taught. Chairing meetings for example can be taught even if some people find it easier. Many social movements of the past have done this. When the intention of equality is clearas in the Occupy movement, chairing is not always needed…..except….. Egos can come in too much of course anywhere. Loads of people just need more confidence.

    Jocelyn – Serpent Institute

  2. February 13, 2012 at 9:00 pm #

    Dear Jocelyn

    It is good to hear your reflections on this central and evolving topic. As Occupy is creating a wave and new discourse, I agree that we need to be mindful about the language we use and how words are loaded with meaning.

    I am curious what ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ means to you and would appreciate to hear your definition and experience associated with it.
    For me ‘role’ doesnt include the accountability, courage and forward moving energy that I associate with leadership. However, being fully present to a conversation or to whats happening around me is also a very important aspect of (trustworthy) leadership from my experience. It seems when these 2 aspects of good leadership come together, they create the best conditions for transformation and change. Maybe leadership can be re-defined to appreciate the different energies.
    Maybe leaders are people and/or groups who enjoy riding the wave.

  3. February 13, 2012 at 9:32 pm #

    Leaders, just like anybody else exist at different altitudes of personal development. I’m a fan neither of the authoritarian, nor the so-called democratic leaders, as in our (un)representative democracy.

    My fave ones are the evolutionary leaders who are no-kidding committed to the evolution of themselves, their communities/organizations and society, all at once.

  4. February 14, 2012 at 6:05 am #

    Indeed, George. As you would call them – “servant leaders.”

    It is nice seeing that my comments have been used to inspire such a powerful article, despite having been called “an elaborate troll” on those forums. Much of this has been because of discussions about challenging identities, which relates much to Jocelyn’s scepticism of the idea of using business language to describe Occupy, which has been shared many times by many different people.

    However, the terms are employed by business where they are mostly utilised, but actually come from all sorts of sociological backgrounds. These are models, which are used to provide insight, rather than definition, of the structures going on in society around us. We change these structures, and thus the models, every day. A lot of the issues we face are because people are trying to constrain society and people to a model, instead of adapting the model to society.

    Society is changing exponentially faster all the time, and only the most organic and adaptive organisations will survive. We can no longer afford to be self-limiting, and constrained by preconceived notions and identities. We need to use every tool at our disposal, and then some, just to keep pace.

    Occupy itself is going through this “identity crisis” – because it was born out of an identity crisis in society. The society of the 99% is so diverse and so fractured, that it disintegrated, but Occupy needed to happen to bring people and society together. It has done this, and will continue to do this, but the question remains – bring people together as what?

    We need to look to what we all have in common, and that is our humanity. The very essence that makes us human is our awareness and capacity for self-control, respect, and co-operation. We all need to be leaders and followers, because we all need to be willing and able to lead and follow as appropriate.

    This includes both formal leadership, in terms of control, power, and hierarchies, but also informal leadership created by responsibility and deference. A big part of leadership is responsibility – to take responsibility for actions, and to be a point of contact to deal with issues and the fallout from choices made.

    So we must not only learn about how to be leaders in order to be able to cover self-control, take the initiative, and to learn to negotiate, and where necessary to direct others as respectfully as possible, but also how to handle the fact that we all have to take responsibility, not just for our own actions, but the actions that are taken in the name of Occupy.

    The failures of current representative democracy is that our elected representatives currently seek the power of control, but shirk the responsibility that comes with it. They cannot be held accountable for their actions, and are therefore often above the very controls they implement on others. It is only by making them subject to those very same controls that we can restore the system and begin to make them accountable and responsible, but it is unlikely that they will do this themselves.

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