Transform the System: A Work in Progress

6: Leadership

What forms of leadership are most effective?
Is leadership always defined by the ability to mobilize others?
Must leaders always be in charge? How should victims
of oppression have more voice in how to deal with it?

Traditional leaders mobilize followers to do what the leader wants. Collaborative leaders help groups agree on the problem they want to confront and facilitate decision-making to solve the problem.

When egalitarian hunter-gatherers moved into city-states, they established militaries to protect themselves and their food. Those militaristic societies needed top-down power to implement decisions quickly. Similar patterns have permeated ever since.

When industrial businesses developed, they established military-style bureaucracies to control their workers. Then, in the late 19th century, large businesses began to control the chaos of the free market by creating monopolies and oligopolies.[1] When governments established social-welfare programs to protect their citizens from the ravages of the free market, they too relied on military-style bureaucracies and top-down leadership.[2]

Descriptions of traditional leadership have included:

●      To lead is to direct the operations, activity, or performance of; to have charge of.[3]
●      A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.[4]
●      I’ll tell you what leadership is. It’s persuasion, and conciliation, and education, and patience.[5]
●      The leader has the vision and the rest is a sales problem.[6]
●      Leaders still need to set the vision and ensure everybody buys in.[7]
●      Leadership on the world stage ... allows you to define and set the rules of the game more than any other player, and to do so in a way that advances your interests and shapes the world to reflect your values.[8]
●      It is a prime responsibility of those leading change to always be clear about what’s on or off the table for discussion.[9]
●      The leader is one who mobilizes others toward a goal shared by leaders and followers.[10]
●      Leadership molds individuals into a team.[11]

Critics of relying too heavily on traditional leadership have said:

●      Most leaders die with their mouths open.[12]
●      Quit telling/Start asking: The best bosses accept that they don't have all the answers. They use a lot of open-ended questions that start with: How, Where, Why, When. When I meet a leader who thinks (s)he knows more than the collective team, I know there is a big problem. Either that person is full of himself or the entire team needs to be replaced. Not surprisingly, it's usually the former.[13]
●      That notion of leadership is bankrupt. It only works for technical problems where there's a right answer and an expert knows what it is.

The Leader to Leader journal publishes innovative work on leadership by numerous insightful writers, including Peter Senge, Daniel Goleman, Bill George, and John Carver. A particularly compelling piece was “The Art of Chaordic Leadership”[14] by Dee Hock. In that essay, Hock combined the words chaos and order to coin the term “chaordic” and concluded:

In the deepest sense, distinction between leaders and followers is meaningless. In every moment of life, we are simultaneously leading and following…. We were all born leaders; that is, until we were sent to school and taught to be managed and to manage. People are not "things" to be manipulated, labeled, boxed, bought, and sold…. We are entire human beings.... We must examine the concept of superior and subordinate with increasing skepticism…. It is true leadership — leadership by everyone — chaordic leadership, in, up, around, and down that this world so badly needs, and industrial age, dominator management that it so sadly gets.[15]

In Boards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations, John Carver suggests shared leadership, or partnership, between boards and staff. With a separation of co-equal powers between board and staff, boards can establish written goals to guide staff, delegate to staff the responsibility to implement those policies, and periodically evaluate staff.

Board members who agree on their primary mission come together as equals. Everyone can exercise leadership. At any one time, anyone might suggest a step that makes sense to the others and moves the group forward. The chair facilitates this decision-making, without necessarily guiding it. And the board-as-a-whole leads the organization.[16]

In recent decades, the corporate world has increasingly adopted various self-management methods. Holacracy, the best-known form of this innovation, defines roles around the work, not individuals, and relies on teams, with individuals typically filling several roles.[17] Authority to make key decisions is delegated to those teams, which self-organize. Everyone is bound by the same rules, including the chief executive officer. Rules are visible to all. According to a lengthy evaluation in the Harvard Business Review, the result is often

an organization that is responsive to the requirements of the work rather than to the directives of any powerful individual.... For such agency to thrive, both managers and subordinates must unlearn old behaviors…. Ultimately, and somewhat ironically, the next generation of self-managing teams is demanding a new generation of leaders—senior individuals with the vision to see where it is best to set aside hierarchy for another way of operating, but also with the courage to defend hierarchy where it serves the institution’s fundamental goals.[18]

Those lessons from the corporate world are relevant to grassroots political organizing. Grassroots organizing needs carefully structured democratic control. In the classic 1971 essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” Jo Freeman argued there’s no such thing as a structureless group.[19]  Power is hidden when it’s denied. A division of labor and clear lines of responsibility, with groups electing their leaders, is necessary for democratic accountability.

Numerous labor and activist organizations have established bottom-up methods for membership control. Worker-owned cooperatives have demonstrated that horizontal structures can work (and help prevent businesses relocating to other countries). The Next System Project, a project of the Democracy Collaborative, is doing important work as “a research and development lab for political-economic alternatives.”[20] Since 2010, thirty-three states have authorized “benefit corporations” that commit to serving their workers and the public interest as well as earning a profit, which nurtures greater democratic accountability.[21]

Kingian nonviolence seeks reconciliation. Nonviolent direct action aims to build enough pressure to bring opponents to the negotiating table in search of compromise. The intent is not to defeat “enemies.” There’s no assumption that the activist group holds enough wisdom to force its opponents to do everything it wants. No individual or collective has the final, complete answer.

Collaboration is key. A collaborative process helps to gain “buy-in” from members, who are more likely to actively support decisions because they’ve had a real voice in making them. And participatory democracy helps to dissolve the deep-seated tendency to automatically submit to authority.

Professional political organizers often convene workshops on how to talk to potential supporters to mobilize them. And they conduct training sessions on how to conduct initial interviews to surface new members’ interests. But organizers rarely convene workshops on how to really talk with members, day by day. Real dialogue involves listening.

Democracy accepts “the wisdom of crowds.” When a group is careful and deliberate, it can generally make wiser decisions than any one person can. “Two heads are better than one,” and three are better yet. Humans often think best when they think together. There’s no guarantee, of course, but the odds are improved, especially when the group is diverse rather than homogenous.

Diversity provides a wide array of information and perspectives, which can be incorporated into decision-making. The greater the diversity, the more likely the resulting decisions will be wise. Since all people are affected by every issue, everyone is entitled to a voice in helping society overcome its many divisions.

When a group is addressing an issue that focuses on a particular group, such as domestic abuse that victimizes women or police brutality against black and brown people, it makes sense to have representatives from those populations more heavily represented in the decision-making about how to address the problem. They’re likely to better understand the issue, and others would be wise to pay special attention to their recommendations. But to expect others to always follow the recommendations of victim-group representatives would reinforce the System’s pattern of nurturing domination and submission. 

Moreover, everyone has multiple identities. We’re positioned differently on multiple “ladders of success,” and those ladders intersect one another. Individuals may hold a different degree of power on each ladder. To say that you should defer to others who are more disadvantaged on one ladder may miss the fact that you are more disadvantaged on another ladder.

One example of this complication, which is often overlooked, relates to whether someone has a college degree. The one-third of Americans who are college-educated gain arbitrary advantages due to their schooling. They often discriminate against those who have no degree. And those without degrees are often resentful toward those with degrees. That creates a major barrier to social unity. But many professional, college-educated community organizers don’t deal with that issue or even acknowledge it. Their own bias blinds them to an important problem.

Leader-full democratic collaboration is not easy. But it can cultivate one key form of leadership: the power of example. And it’s essential if we are going to transform the System.

NEXT: A Mutual Support Method



[1] Wikipedia, “History of United States antitrust law,” Retrieved from

[2] "Capitalism’s secret love affair with bureaucracy," Financial Times, March 6, 2015.

[3] Retrieved from

[4] John C. Maxwell, Retrieved from

[5] Dwight Eisenhower, Retrieved from

[6] Ronald Heifetz, Retrieved from

[7] Ken Blanchard, Retrieved from

[8] Daniel Krauthammer, "What Makes America Great?", Retrieved from, Retrieved from

[9] Robert Gass, Transforming Organizations, 103.

[10] Gary Wills, Retrieved from

[11] Retrieved from

[12] "Most leaders die with their mouths open," TechRepublic, April 5, 2011.

[13] "Most leaders die with their mouths open," TechRepublic, April 5, 2011.

[14] "The Art of Chaordic Leadership," Leader to Leader, 2000, by Dee Hock.

[15] "The Art of Chaordic Leadership," Leader to Leader, 2000, by Dee Hock

[16] Carver, John and Miriam Carver, "The Policy Governance® Model, Retrieved from

[17] Retrieved from

[18] "Beyond the Holacracy Hype," Harvard Business Review, July-Aug 2016.

[19] Wikipedia, "The Tyranny of Structurelessness," Retrieved from

[20] Retrieved from

[21] Wikipedia, "Benefit corporation," Retrieved from


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