Movements and Leadership: A Critique

Bill Mckibben recently published this blog post on 350.org titled “Movements without leaders.” McKibben is one of my personal idols, and his work has inspired me since I was a Freshwoman in high school. However, I disagree with his framing of movements and leadership.

Bill describes a shift from hierarchical leadership to distributed and specialized leadership. I agree with this wholeheartedly because the scale of the problem is such that we need leadership in every community and because our interconnected world enables us to share knowledge and leverage networks.

BUT…

it’s wrong to call this a “leaderless” movement. This is not a movement without leaders, and Bill’s framing is misleading. This is a new kind of leadership–a distributed leadership that represents a global innovation.

We need to understand more deeply how we enable and nurture this emerging phenomenon and how organizations like 350 can do the same. There are decades of research on the old kind of hierarchical leadership, but few have explored this new kind. The better that we get at understanding the praxis of this leadership, the more effective we can be in building a mass movement. 350.org has the potential to be a pioneer in this effort and share their learning with other organizations. This could be a vital part of their legacy.

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2 Comments

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  1. i don’t think we actually disagree–i called for a ‘leader-full’ movement, of which there are thousands affiliated with 350., and just thought the idea of big L leaders wasn’t all that key. but glad to have opened a conversation anyhow.

    • I know that we agree in substance and principal! I simply think that the framing of “movements without leaders” or the “leaderless movement” takes us down the wrong path and is contradictory to the “leader-full” idea that you advance in the body of your piece.

      I think that what you described so powerfully is not the coming of a leader-less movement but a wholly new kind of “distributed leadership” that we need to study, understand, nurture, support, and learn how to make more effective.

      Your words are eloquent and carry so much weight…these distinctions become really important. I saw this contradiction, and I was motivated to write a blog post to share my thoughts.

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