15 February 2011

Leaderless, Not really. Emergent Leadership, Yes. Complex, Referent Leadership, (In)definitely!

Tunisia’s uprising and Egypt’s revolution, as well as the growing public unrest and heroic demonstrations elsewhere in the generally totalitarian-ruled Middle East, are often described as leaderless. Unlike, say, the Russian Revolution that helped define geopolitics in the modern era, there are no equivalents to Bolsheviks in Tunis, Cairo, Tehran, or Sana’a (Yemen); no Lenin or Trotsky out in front of the people spurring a disaffected proletariat to rise up against a privileged bourgeoisie. Contemporary technology that enables a UCaPP world has been both overly credited and debunked as a causal factor. Nonetheless, the use of so-called social media has loomed large in both the collective imaginations of the Western public and the conventional massmedia as a key influencer in what appears to be the characteristic attribute of contemporary revolutionary movements—that they seem to be without leaders.

University of Maryland sociology professor, Zeynep Tufekci, has a stellar analysis of the sociological factors of network-enabled revolutions, and why they don’t stay leaderless for long; it’s well worth the read. In particular, she describes two common behaviours of collections of people – human nature, you might call it – of how some individuals emerge to acquire leadership positions (preferential attachment), and how these individuals, once comfortably ensconced in their privileged leadership position, do almost anything they can to retain their privilege (the Iron Law of Oligarchy): Basically, take an organization. Any organization. Stir a bit. Wait. Not too long. Watch a group of insiders emerge and vigorously defend their turf, and almost always succeed. Example one could be Western democracies.

A very similar phenomenon occurs in start-up companies that initially grow “organically” (by which I mean something very specific). There is an overarching feeling of shared vision, shared sensibilities, shared values, and shared volition to action. It is this shared-ness that provides the impetus for both a start-up organization to achieve its requisite critical mass to sustain its critical first few years, and for a revolution to achieve its requisite critical mass of popular support to sustain its first dictatorship overthrow. In an organizational context, I describe this shared-ness or collectiveness as ba, specifically, organization-ba:
As the ba-form relationships become more pervasive throughout an organization, and interact with more complexity among the members, a greater sense of collaborative community, with common sensibility, appreciation of context, and volition to action develops. This unity and coherence I describe as “organization-ba,” a pervasive, encompassing basho [metaphysical “place”] that is a crucial, if not determining, emergent property of UCaPP organizations. The connection to Adler and Heckscher’s description of collaborative community becomes clear if organization-ba is construed as Weber’s suggested “value rationality.” In this, an environment of organization-ba becomes the enabling cause that yields “contribution to the collective purpose, and contributions to the success of others” (Adler & Heckscher, 2006, p. 39)*.

Referent leadership emergent from amidst organization-ba is a beautiful thing. I argue that referent leadership is significantly stronger (that is, more influential, persistent, and motivational to the membership) than legitimated leadership could ever be—think Gandhi, Mandela, or King, for example. Nonetheless, there is the matter of oligarchy’s iron law to which Tufekci refers. Indeed, I observed this occurring in near real time in one of my research participant organizations. It occurs to me, however, that the so-called iron law is one of those sociological artefacts of a prior (i.e., pre-UCaPP) cultural epoch that became well-entrenched in modernity. Like the epochal changes that preceded our time, rusting away of this iron law will take some not-insignificant time—some three centuries by my estimation.  

But it is possible with deliberation and energy!

Although, realistically, there is a snowball’s-chance-in-the-Sahara that some sort of privileged, oligarchic leadership will not emerge in Egypt, transformation of traditional organizations towards emergent referent leadership, and the continuity of a start-up organization’s “special sauce” is indeed quite possible. Just as Weber’s iron cage of bureaucracy can be undone by his notion of Wertrationalität, sociology’s iron law of oligarchy can potentially be undone through organization-ba in the complex environment of an organization conceptualized in Valence Theory.

One more thing: We are now in the 167th year of the (roughly) 300-year transition from the prior cultural epoch – McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy – to a fully UCaPP-realized world. A very few organizations are taking on increasing aspects of organization-ba to successfully become more-UCaPP organizations. Others are struggling to retain many of the UCaPP characteristics that originally made them great. Over the next fifty or so years, I fully expect the majority of organizations to become more UCaPP than BAH, as a generation of adults that never didn’t know the effects of massive interconnectivity take up their respective roles among workplaces around the world. Within the next century, I fully expect that there will be a popular political uprising against the oligarchic oppressions of traditional, Western democracy that will yield the very first instance of political governance based on complex, continually emergent, referent leadership. And that will truly be a beautiful thing indeed.

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