Occupy Wall Street and Post Heroic Leadership October 10 2011

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a friend of mine who works for one of the big banks.  If you saw him in his sharp suit and power tie, you’d guess that he’s a pretty big deal and you’d be right.  We were talking about leadership and he said something that both surprised me and made me think.  His take is that we need to deemphasize the trappings of the Presidency in the United States.  His point was that the 30 car motorcades, the theatre of the White House, and all of the attention focused on the President is non-productive because it raises the expectations that one person is going to solve all of our problems.

What my friend is arguing against is the heroic model of leadership.  In that model, people are looking for a savior who will be responsible for making sure that everything turns out great.  It’s what one of my early mentors, Ron Heifetz, at Harvard’s Kennedy School might call “work avoidance.”  His point is that the job of a leader is not to do the work but to help the group define the work that needs to be done.  The group has to do the work. That can be a messy and frustrating process so it’s not surprising that people tend to look for a heroic leader who can make it all better instead of doing the work.

Which brings us to the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement.  As a really interesting article in Fast Company explains, the Wall Street protests started in Lower Manhattan in August in a rag tag kind of way.  By early October, the protests had spread to other cities including Washington, DC.  It seems like one of the most frequently asked questions about the movement, “What do they want?,”  is also the most frequent criticism – “What do they want?”  I think their motto, “We are the 99 percent,” pretty much sums up what they want at the moment.  They want to be heard.

What’s fascinating to me as a student of leadership is that there is no single person who’s leading this.  There’s no Lech Walesa exhorting the shipyard workers in Gdansk.  Instead, there’s this participatory, radical consensus model of leadership organized online, through public events and often long and frustrating group conversations.  There’s no manifesto (yet) or daily talking points that everyone is repeating verbatim.  There are leaders and coordinators in the movement but it looks like they’re letting the group do the work.  It looks like post heroic leadership.

It will be really interesting to see where this goes.  Have you paid much attention to Occupy Wall Street?  What’s your take on what they’re doing and how they’re doing it?  If you were a business leader on Wall Street, how would you respond?  If you were the President, how would you respond?

4 Responses to “Occupy Wall Street and Post Heroic Leadership”

  1. Valerie Iravani says:

    Hello Scott,

    The advantage top the ‘grass-roots’ effort is that it involves people who are passionate and willing to act on their beliefs, that can get results over time.

    The negative to the ‘grass-roots’ movement in this case it that there is no unified leadership that is promoting a single message or action which can be completed – as a result of the protest.

    I see the groundswell on the upward momentum, but, as you ask in your blog, “What is the message and solution being promoted?”

  2. Dave says:

    The message is pretty clear based on even the little that I have heard. The figurative 99% are tired of the the figurative 1% running the country for their personal gain at a substantial cost to the American Dream. A large majority of the country wants our politcial and corporate leaders to settle down together and successfully fashion workable solutions that are in the public interest (including corporate health). It doesn't or shouldn't begrudge anyone the right to personal gain based on hard work, pluck and fair play. But it does hold accountable those who have gained from that freedom at a cost to those who hold little individual power. The 1% has largely failed in its leaderhip responsibilities. Occupy Wall Street is a collective, powerful approach to hold the corporate giants and political leaders accountable. Having no single leader may garble the message, but the message is there to see nonetheless. We expect our leaders to do what we elected them to do — craft worklable solutions in the interest of the American Public Enterprise.

  3. These movements tend to fizzle out unless they coalesce around a leader with a strong vision or an achievable idea. Look at Civil Rights and King or Indian Independence and Gandhi. Leaderless groups only tend to work in small numbers.

    Most protests in the US in the Internet age are defined by tons of small constituencies congregating around simliar ideas or common enemies, but there are no lasting bonds that tie the groups together, which is why they often get little accomplished. Think G8 protests.

    The Arab Spring protests may be examples of groups creating change without a leader as a rallying point, but it yet remains to be seen if that can somehow be transferred to the US context. I doubt it. The teachers’ protests in Wisconsin didn’t end up going anywhere and these probably won’t either.

    You’ll also notice the Arab Spring protests have a single, achievable goal: remove the president from power. As you mention, the goal of the Wall Street Occupiers is unclear for reasons I mentioned above. Disolving the US’s military-industrial and prison complexes, drastically redistributing wealth from rich to poor, creating environmentally sustainable practices – these are things that can’t be done overnight and are impossible to give as a result.

    I agree with your friend that we should stop looking to the heroic leader for all the answers. Instead we need leaders that show others how to create change and then help facilitate it.

  4. These movements tend to fizzle out unless they coalesce around a leader with a strong vision or an achievable idea. Look at Civil Rights and King or Indian Independence and Gandhi. Leaderless groups only tend to work in small numbers.

    Most protests in the US in the Internet age are defined by tons of small constituencies congregating around simliar ideas or common enemies, but there are no lasting bonds that tie the groups together, which is why they often get little accomplished. Think G8 protests.

    The Arab Spring protests may be examples of groups creating change without a leader as a rallying point, but it yet remains to be seen if that can somehow be transferred to the US context. I doubt it. The teachers' protests in Wisconsin didn't end up going anywhere and these probably won't either.

    You'll also notice the Arab Spring protests have a single, achievable goal: remove the president from power. As you mention, the goal of the Wall Street Occupiers is unclear for reasons I mentioned above. Disolving the US's military-industrial and prison complexes, drastically redistributing wealth from rich to poor, creating environmentally sustainable practices – these are things that can't be done overnight and are impossible to give as a result.

    I agree with your friend that we should stop looking to the heroic leader for all the answers. Instead we need leaders that show others how to create change and then help facilitate it.

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