The temptation to abandon one’s faith in “sustainable leadership” is always niggling, and can become overwhelming. It’s a notion that only broaches when the collapse and disappearance of leadership – the role and impact of a leader – becomes a real possibility in an organization, project, or movement. Otherwise, why worry about sustaining? We usually don’t in routine organizational settings, with their established cultures and standard operating procedure and predictable career paths. It’s when things are closer to the edge that this becomes of real concern: organizations in conflict, growth, mergers, bankruptcies, leadership transitions, social change movements, political campaigns, and so on.
“We’re not a leaderless movement,” enthused one of the participants in an Occupy Coordination conference call in November, “we’re a leaderful movement!” This attractive idea seems consistent with what some have observed in the OWS communities: collaboration, inclusiveness, emotional maturity, a warm spirit of welcome and camaraderie. Is this evidence of “sustainable leadership” in OWS?
The opposite has also been in evidence. At a working group meeting at 60 Wall Street in late October, before the occupation was busted up, and when the lobby swarmed with such meetings all day and every evening, it was clear that sustainable leadership skills were in short supply.
A guy had a proposal for the group that involved adopting a vision he had articulated, and then following his process to develop a strategy and action plan. This person, who appeared to have been a regular participant in the WG’s meetings, had brought some hard copy for the group, and it had apparently been available online for a day or two. Despite the best of intentions, the group’s process lurched from one dysfunction to another. There was confusion about whether the group was obligated to examine and decide the proposal or not. There was confusion about the meeting’s purpose. There were several false starts in terms of who would facilitate. For over half an hour, the group debated its own process, with impatience rising and tempers starting to flare. (It was evening, and a number of participants would be leaving early to attend the 7 PM General Assembly at Zuccotti Park.)
With a tone that gradually shifted from assertive to irritated, the guy pushed his agenda. He was offended by the fact that a previous meeting had allegedly reached consensus about an earlier version of his proposal, agreeing to put it on today’s agenda, and that all prior momentum seemed to have now stalled. I had not been at the last meeting, but his frustration appeared genuine. He had clearly put some work into the proposal.
Finally, as the meeting wandered off into a muddle about how the stack was supposed to work, the guy stood up and threatened to walk out. This got everyone’s attention. Within minutes, he would be gone, but what he did fascinated me, and has remained on my mind as an example of the mismatch between MBA-style managerialism and the OWS movement’s leadership needs.
Holding up his proposal, he assured us that he had an MBA and had done lots of this sort of vision/strategy work for corporate clients before. He also was a CPA. If the working group did not adopt his vision and proposal, he was “outta here,” and knew there were many other clients who would value his contributions instead. This was it. Take it or leave it.
The meeting, which consisted of about a dozen people, was in no position to respond. It was a Luhmann-ian does-not-compute situation. He was offering a challenge in an individualistic, I-am-empowered-to-negotiate fashion to an organizational entity that only understood the logic of collaboration, commitment, and inclusion. The meeting could not respond as a single-minded superorganism, nor could it respond through a person empowered to represent it (i.e., a spokesperson or chair), and neither the facilitator nor the stack-taker could speak for the meeting.
Through the guy and the meeting, two profoundly different paradigms of society clashed for a few minutes more – individualistic, expertise-based managerialism vs. collaborative community – and then he disappeared into the cool autumn night, pissed off and outta there. The facilitator admitted he felt that the guy’s walk-out was a “failure,” and there was a brief sense of regret. The meeting then muddled on to other matters, more harmonious now, and actually got a few things done before most folks ran off to the incipient GA.
What was accomplished, and what price was paid? Did OWS lose an expert because of its organizational inefficiency and chaos, its obsession with process over effectiveness? Does this pattern portend the ultimate failure of OWS as a movement because its collective hostility to managerialism, expertise, and discipline continually prevents effective action, burns people out, and chases away the competence it needs? As someone who saw a nascent US green movement in the 1980s remain nascent partly because of its organizational gridlock (e.g., the endless, inconclusive pursuit of consensus), I take this fear seriously.
Listen, for example, to a recent post by Sandy Krolick about his experience at a similar meeting two months later:
[M]y visit to the Big Apple indicates that the OWS movement is now officially on life-support. At my brother’s urging, we wandered into an organizational meeting of New York’s OWS crowd in the Atrium Building at 60 Wall Street, which, post-9/11, now houses more than 4,500 employees of Deutsche Bank, New York. There were approximately twelve generally disheveled and incoherent OWS comrades in attendance, and screaming over one another. The big issue of the evening appeared to be the question of who was going to be eligible to receive free subway metro-passes, an issue that never seemed to be resolved. Yet, several folks were pushing a side agenda aimed at ejecting one of their “members” for failure to cooperate. Can you imagine that… non-cooperation, in America? We can’t even get protest right; we must organize into general assemblies (a subordinating move itself), because we do not naturally understand cooperation. I could sense that this was not Tahrir Square in Egypt.
OK. I did not witness anything that trivial. Perhaps the caravan has indeed moved on, leaving few organizers or thinkers remaining in the cold, echoing spaces of 60 Wall Street. But, even in the heyday of OWS circa October 2011, many visitors to the atrium would have been forgiven for making similar observations.
I don’t believe that the greater “purpose” of OWS is to replace “management.” The guy should have stifled his Mr. MBA/CPA ego, realized that there would be other places and other times to contribute his expertise productively, and stayed at the meeting. Given his supposed expertise, he should have calmly participated, looking for real opportunities to apply meaningful leverage, and not reacting to false ones. What was really at stake: the progress of the OWS movement or his professional bravado/ego? He was offered a supreme opportunity to exercise sustainable leadership – leadership in expertise that he could sustain, as well as the working group – and it seems he passed it up. How often is this repeated? Is America so individualistic that almost all of its crop of potential sustainable leaders is destined to wither on the vine whenever they confront the logic of collaboration and mutual solidarity? (Or morph into warp-speed individualism-managerialism when offered non-collaborative opportunities to perform à la ENRON or Goldman-Sachs?) Is truly collaborative, sustainable leadership emerging nonetheless on the activist fringes of society, in the occupations and campuses and informal organizing where social change is relentlessly pursued?