Occupy Wall Street and Post Heroic Leadership

Posted 10.10.2011

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?