Monday, October 03, 2011


The Occupy Wall Street (and Boston etc.) protestors say, "We have no leaders." This is true in one sense, but false in others. To see why, we need to consider the very different roles that people can play, all of which get lumped together, confusingly, under the term, "leader."

Sometimes a person who has a cult following is called a "leader" and in this sense the Occupy folks apparently do not have a leader. Good! Sometimes when people elect a president, prime minister, chairman or some similarly titled person, that person is called a "leader." The occupiers don't have one of those either.

But the occupiers do have people who provide leadership of different sorts. One important kind of leadership is helping people to develop clarity in their thinking about the situation. Such a leader would help people gain clarity in seeing that the conflict is between the positive values--equality, solidarity, democracy--shared by the rank-and-file versus opposite values--inequality, competition, top-down control--held by the elite enemy. This kind of leadership aims at giving the rank-and-file greater confidence in themselves as the source of what is good in the world and the source of what can make a better world. Such leadership can come from different people at different times; whenever anybody speaks at a meeting and contributes to this clarity, they are--at that moment at least--a leader.

Another kind of leader is a person whose role is that of a commander. "Commander" is not a derogatory word. There are times when it is very important to have a commander, or even a military-style hierarchy of commanders. Commanders are necessary when the rank-and-file need to make tactical decisions, as a group, too quickly for consensus methods to work, or in a situation when it is impractical to use a consensus method of decision-making. For example, when the "occupy" protestors are assembled in a marching column and marching through the streets, it is not possible to use consensus methods to make decisions about whether, when confronted with an unexpected fork in the road, to take the left or the right road.

Apparently this situation arose when the Wall Street Occupation march was crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and the cops in front of the march directed it to turn off the pedestrian walk and onto the main road for vehicles, as part of a trap to provide a pretext for arresting more than 700 protestors. The protestors who happened (by chance alone?) to be at the front of the march were confronted with a decision: follow the direction of the cops, or refuse to leave the pedestrian walkway. The people at the head of the march may not even have been aware of the fact, but at that moment they were commanders. Their choice determined where everybody behind them would march.

No doubt due to innocent lack of experience, these chance commanders made a poor decision, allowing the police trap to succeed. The moral of the story is that, in advance of situations like this when it is appropriate, the movement needs to democratically choose individuals with sound judgement to be its commanders. These commanders should be obeyed in the specific context for which they are selected; but otherwise they should be treated as just equal rank-and-file members of the movement.

Another role that is sometimes referred to as leadership is the role of facilitator of a large meeting using consensus methods. This is an important role. When individuals take the initiative to play this role well, that is a good thing, even if they do not happen to be selected by a formal democratic procedure. If the individuals acting as a facilitator do a poor job, then the rank-and-file need to step in and replace them with better facilitators.

The experience of movements from earlier decades is sometimes expressed this way: "When people say, 'We have no leaders,' it really means that there are leaders, but they operate in the shadows without transparency and accountability." There is much wisdom in these words. Instead of saying, "We have no leaders," it would be better to say, "We have many different kinds of leaders. Whoever provides clarity is a leader when they do that. We democratically select our commanders if and when we need them. We have good facilitators. Those are our leaders."


At 11:21 AM, October 07, 2011, Anonymous Bob Cable said...

Traditional leaders are at the top of a pyramid and at the tip of a spear. A roundtable of equal and autonomous "knights" is better. But, yes, a "first among equals" may be the necessary "commander" at critical moments.

At 2:39 PM, June 14, 2012, Anonymous Caliwebman said...

Just looking for a functional method to contact John Spritzler, the comcast email listed is no good. :P

Please advise,


At 7:43 PM, June 14, 2012, Blogger John Spritzler said...

My email address is

--John Spritzler


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