Are Leaderless Organizations Practical?

Jeffrey Neilsen, in an op-ed piece in the SLTrib (26 Oct 2011), describes some recent examples of leaderless communities:

  • the Arab Spring in the Middle East,
  • the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and even
  • the Tea Party

    Wall Street Movement Protesters

While I find these examples less than convincing, I’m intrigued by the concept of a leaderless organization.  Nielsen describes how one might operate:

I believe a community, or reform movement, can succeed without leaders if they organize to perform the essential tasks through peer-based, or leaderless management vehicles; namely, peer councils, rotational stewardship positions and mentors.  In such a leaderless community, authority and obligation originate in our mutual accountability mediated through a process of ongoing, participatory dialogue.  Fortunately, we see the emergence of these vehicles in the leaderless movements occurring today.

There are historic examples of leaderless organizations.  In an earlier blog entry, I mentioned the Gnostics (an early Christian group).  According to Elaine Pagel:

 . . . when they met, all the members first participated in drawing lots.  Whoever received a certain lot apparently was designaed to take the role of priest; another was to offer the sacrament, as bishop;  another would read the Scriptures for worship, and others would address the group as a prophet, offering extemporaneous spiritual instruction.  The next time the group met, they would throw lots again so that the persons taking each role changed continually.

It should be noted that in the case of the Gnostics, orthodoxy (Catholic or Orthodox) prevailed and Gnosticism is now a very minor religion.  Hierarchical churches have historically survived in the real world better than less structured ones.

But today we have better tools for making leaderless organizations work:  e-mail, chatrooms, wikis, blogs, social networking, and similar technologies, and the rapid expansion of the Internet.  Drawing lots and Internet confabs open up a whole new world of possibilities for group sessions.

Even though Nielsen promotes leaderless organizations, it turns out that he is a bit pessimistic:

. . . few have been able to figure out how to do this intentionally or over long periods of time. Consequently, every revolution and reform movement has eventually collapsed into some leadership hierarchy and betrayed the goals that inspired the movement in the beginning. One system of unequal power relationships simply replaced another one.

All of which reminds me of the great Who rock anthemn, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

The antithesis of the “leaderless organization” concept are the companies of Steve Jobs.  According to Lev Grossman and Harry McCracken writing in Time magazine (17 Oct 2011):

. . . [There] was another facet of [Jobs'] genius, the least attractive one:  he understood how to get people to do what he wanted, to give him more than they thought they could, even when they really, really didn’t want to.  And he was willing to do it.  He dismissed people who didn’t impress him–and they were legion, inside and outside Apple–as bozos.  He tormented hapless job candidates.  Jef Raskin, the originator of the Macintoch project, said Jobs “would have made an excellent King of France.”

And this is a man that the Time authors call “the most celebrated, successful business executive of his generation.”  Jobs’ biographer, Walter Isaacson, writes that “History will place him in the pantheon right next to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.”

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This entry was posted in @n@rchy, anarchism, Organizational Dynamics, Social Justice, utopianism. Bookmark the permalink.

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