horizontal leadership

Effecting Systemic Change

21 September, 2020

In the wake of George Floyd’s death support for the Black Lives Matter movement surged, as people around the globe registered their rage and despair at the pervasive systemic biases which underpin so many societies. These problems are built into the fabric of societies – economies, laws and philosophies. Organisations and individuals, including Cranlana, in the weeks and months afterward committed to doing what they could to bring about systemic change.

Traditionally, enacting this kind of change has been slow and painful. Proponents of change aren’t just up against the obvious and well-defended interests of power and tradition, they’re also battling system justification, the non-conscious tendency to defend, bolster and justify aspects of the societal status quo.

In response to these seemingly insurmountable problems, and in an effort to effect change at a rate faster than the current glacial pace, many grass-roots movements emerged, from Occupy Wallstreet in 2011 to the Black Lives Matter movement and Extinction Rebellion. These movements offer a way for individuals without the power to effect change on their own to come together as a powerful force to challenge the entrenched status quo. Unlike protest movements of the past, these have embraced a non-hierarchical approach to organisation and leadership. Sometimes described as leaderless movements, it would perhaps be more accurate to describe them as having coordinated decentralised leadership, or horizontal leadership.

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: ‘We did it ourselves.’’’

Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism

The global Black Lives Matter network, for example, is based around the idea that everyone involved should be encouraged to step up and become leaders.

Black Lives Matter emerged in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2013, founded by Alicia Garza, Patricia Cullors and Opal Tometi. The group’s first official organising came with the Ferguson Unrest and Ferguson October protests in 2014 in response to the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Eventually, the co-founders created a chapter structure to connect activists and organisers, and chose to waive formal leadership titles, unlike predecessors in the Civil Rights Movement.

The Black Lives Matter’s leadership structure allows chapters to contribute independently and interdependently with others. As a result, the global BLM network structure allows anyone to take responsibility for leadership tasks. It also enables multiple members to lead at the same time. While online protest and organising has resulted in some confusion, social media and the decentralised leadership structure has also empowered individuals to spark social change in ways not previously possible.

But while this adds an element of egalitarianism to the movement, it can create problems too, including confusion about what the movement stands for and what its messaging should be. It has even led to contradictory activity on occasion.

Extinction Rebellion organises in small, autonomous groups distributed around the world. Their relationships with each other evolve as they work to build a movement that is participatory, decentralised, and inclusive. The structure aims to empower anybody to act as part of XR, as long as they agree to follow the ten core principles.

The 2019 anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong saw millions of people take to the streets in June, mobilised by a decentralised network of leaders from Civil Human Rights Front, student unions, labor unions, neighbourhood groups, Telegram chat groups and more. Authorities found these protests difficult to suppress as, following Bruce Lee’s maxim to “Be formless, shapeless, like water”, they rapidly gathered and dispersed.

These movements have created new, evolving forms of leadership in response to age-old problems. Their untraditional models offer the traditionally powerless channels to effect societal and systemic change by bringing to the attention of global media the inequities and injustices which pervade every nation, and pressuring organisations and governments not to continue with ‘business as usual’. However Paolo Gerbaudo, a political sociologist at King’s College London, cautions that “we shouldn’t expect from social movements that which social movements cannot deliver,” noting that it’s not their job to solve the problems that spurred them. Rather, it’s “to raise questions that were not previously on the political agenda [and] to show that there is a large section of the population that doesn’t feel represented.”

It’s for leaders in the political and corporate spheres, who can influence systemic change, to hear and acknowledge these questions, and the millions of people calling for solutions, and take action within their sphere. It will be difficult, and uncomfortable. They will meet opposition. They will need to honestly examine their own biases, have hard conversations, create accountability, and inspire action. Leadership requires courage.

“…extremely uncomfortable… — that’s almost always the feeling you’ll have when you do anything that requires emotional courage. But using emotional courage builds your emotional courage.”

Peter Bregman, Executive Coach and author.

Across our nation, it is our leaders – in business, community and government – who set the tone for how society operates and the values we live by. They have a unique opportunity now to step up and be ethical leaders. By seizing the moment and being inclusive, embracing diversity and leading with values focussed on the greater good they can shape a future which is prosperous, fair and secure.

The Common Element Uniting Worldwide Protests. The Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan, 19 November 2019. Read the full article here.

A Leaderless Movement, or Leadership Decentralized but Coordinated?Department of Political Science, University of Notre Dame, Victoria Tin-bor Hui, 11 July 2019. Read the full article here.

Photo by Cooper Baumgartner on Unsplash

Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership draws on more than two millennia of philosophical thinking to foster in-depth, practical discussions that sharpen critical reasoning and strengthen moral courage. Since our formation more than 25 years ago, we’ve seen thousands of senior-level people across business, community and government benefit from our rigorous programs. Cranlana’s programs include the 2 day Executive Ethics, 6 day Executive Colloquium and year-long Vincent Fairfax Fellowship. We also deliver online and tailored corporate programs. Annual scholarships are offered to not-for-profits, start-ups and individuals.