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Occupy Wall Street: A Leader-full Movement in a Leaderless Time

The OWS movement is personal democracy in action, where everyone plays a role in shaping the decisions that affect our lives.

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The decider is on top; the worker bees are below. Everything about our industrial age institutions, from schools and churches to corporations and government, trains us to think of leadership as top-down, command-and-control. Give the right answer, get into the right school, get a good job, work your way up the chain of command, win the good life. But today, more and more of us live in a sea of lateral social connections, enabled by personal technology that is allowing everyone to connect and share, in real-time, what matters most to them.

And at a moment when so many traditional political institutions appear bankrupt, incapable of reforming themselves and paralyzed in the face of huge challenges, the result is an explosion of outsider movements for social change whose structure looks more like this:

Tahrir Square on February11

Or this:

Madison protest

Or this:

Occupy Wall Street Washington Square Park 2011 Shankbone

Indeed, I think there's a reason we keep seeing this recurring image of a filled circle rather than a hierarchy in today's protest movements: all the points on a circle are equidistant from the center. Everyone faces each other, rather than many facing just one. Spots in the middle are hubs, but no one hub dominates. Resilience is built through the multitude of lateral connections between all the points in the network, so if any hub fails others can pick up the slack. And thus today's networked movements are not only highly participatory, with many leaders instead of just one, they are also much stronger than movements of the past that could be stopped or stalled by the discrediting, arrest or killing of their singular spokesmen.

Last June, movement organizer Adrienne Maree Brown made a similar point in the context of the work she does training activists in Detroit who are trying to rebuild that city. Asked on  Tavis Smiley and Cornell West's radio show if what she was seeing develop there was a "leaderless" phenomenon, she answered,

"I love the term of  a leaderless revolution but I don't think it's a realistic thing. I believe it's a leader-full revolution. Every single person I interact with, I approach them as if they are the next person who is going to transform their community, and that they're going to transform me. One of the most powerful things about most of the organizers in Detroit is that every single person gets approached as a point of leadership and as a point of community responsibility and strength...that's only possible when everyone is being respected and heard and uplifted."

Adjusting to a leaderfull world full of self-starting network weavers, transparent and accountable about their actions--from a world of top-down leaders who use hierarchy, secrecy and spin to conduct their business, will take some getting used to. But the Occupy Wall Street movement, like the Tea Party before it was captured and turned into a marketing vehicle for the Republican right, represents the flowering of something very deep about our networked age. It is personal democracy in action, where everyone plays a role in shaping the decisions that affect our lives. We may face huge challenges, but while some of our material resources are in scarce supply, we have an abundance of leaders coming.

Maybe Thomas L. Day will be one of them.

[Photo credits: Tahrir Square on February 1, Jonathan Rashad - CC 2.0; Madison protest, Lacrossewi CC-BY-SA-3.0; Occupy Wall St Washington Square Park 2011, David Shankbone CC-BY-3.0]

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