Structure Without Hierarchy: Effective Leadership in Social Change Movements

Occupy San Francisco is meeting in Justin Herman Plaza. The group is engaged in another long and painful consensus meeting, made more painful by a lack of skills on the part of our brave but inexperienced facilitators. I raise my hand and make a suggestion.

“Maybe instead of all of us trying to order the agenda, the facilitators could just take a few minutes and do that for us.”

Behind me, a young man so agitated that he appears to be jumping out of his skin turns and glares at me.

Protesters raise hands.

Radically horizontal structures put a check on leaders' authority—but at what cost? Here, protesters at Occupy Sydney in 2011 take part in a consensus-building exercise. Credit: Creative Commons/Kate Ausburn.

“I haven’t seen you here in the camp before! I don’t see you here at night! Why should we listen to you?” he shouts.

I bite back the retort, “Oh yeah? I haven’t seen you in the forty years I’ve been organizing in this town!”

It wouldn’t do any good. The meeting limps on in its painful way, so embroiled in ineffective process that nothing of substance gets decided, and I stand there more and more frustrated—not least because for many of those forty or more years, I have worked in groups that also defined themselves as horizontal and egalitarian yet were able to organize efficiently and create empowering experiences for their members.

And so I eagerly read both Miki Kashtan’s new book, Reweaving Our Human Fabric, and the commentary on leadership it elicited from Charles Eisenstein in this issue of Tikkun. Issues of power, leadership, and group conflict have been key interests of mine for decades, so I’m delighted to offer my own response to the ideas raised by both Kashtan and Eisenstein.

Since the early days of the second wave of feminism back in the ’70s, I’ve been involved in groups that consciously defined themselves as “nonhierarchical” and have often been in the uncomfortable position of serving in leadership roles in nominally “leaderless” groups. I’ve seen many groups undergo intense struggles, and I’ve also been part of large-scale mobilizations that organized quite effectively without central control.

What makes the difference? While there are thousands of books and trainings and MBA programs that will teach you to manage a hierarchy, there are few models and little theory about how to nonmanage a nonhierarchy. And yet the issue is crucial.
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