I made my way over to Occupy Boston yesterday. Prominent on the wall overlooking the makeshift stage are a couple of posters boasting that the collective has “no leaders.”
This statement is simply not true. Occupy Boston has many leaders — if it did not, none of what I saw yesterday would be taking place. Some took the lead in setting up a meditation tent near the entrance, creating a space for quiet reflection and prayer. Some took a leadership role in bringing organizer and educator Marshall Ganz in to speak about movement building. Some (from the group Radical Reference) stepped forward to initiate the construction of the occupation’s library. And these are just the more visible results of leadership. Less obvious, but no less important, are the individuals who kept others’ spirits up when they were flagging, or who facilitated group decision making at General Assembly meetings. Occupy Boston, like the other occupations across the country, has a bounty of leaders, and that is exactly where its strength comes from.
What Occupy Boston lacks, with good reason, is hierarchy (or at least a hierarchy that is formal and static). It lacks individual “heads” that stand alone at the forefront pushing their personal visions. But it is a myth that this narrow definition of leadership is the only, or even the most effective, type of leadership. To define leadership as formal hierarchical authority is to miss the diverse leadership roles that people in all parts of an organization or a movement take. To envision leadership as the mythical “charismatic leader” that our social change narratives so often promote, is to fall into a story that is unsustainable at best, and disempowering at worst.
If there is only one lesson I have learned from years of working in consensus-based organizations, and director-less theater troupes, it is that collective decision making requires more leadership, not less. In order for it to work well, every person must step forward at some time and take the lead on something. The key is not to calcify leadership. The danger comes when only particular people, or particular groups of people, are regularly stepping into these leadership roles. Concerted vigilance is needed to continually spread leadership throughout the group or organization, lest those with more privilege, and more entitlement, unwittingly take too much leadership for themselves.
The danger in the myth that collective decision making involves “no leadership” is that individuals become reluctant to take on the leadership roles because they fear the slippery slope to hierarchy. They are hesitant to become leaders — but the last thing we need among the 99% is fewer leaders. We need many, many more leaders — leaders who can work collectively, who can take their own visions and meld them with those of others. Collective spaces like those created at Occupy Boston, and at other occupations, have the potential to help develop such leadership, but only if we don’t deny its existence.