Let's Ease Up on the Occupy Movement

In a new report titled Structured Leadership, Alternative Models for Distributing Power and Decision-Making in Nonprofit Organizations, the Building Movement Project set out to identify and document examples of non-traditional non-profit leadership structures. It was no surprise to me that they didn’t find very many.

In a new report titled Structured Leadership, Alternative Models for Distributing Power and Decision-Making in Nonprofit Organizations, the Building Movement Project set out to identify and document examples of non-traditional non-profit leadership structures. It was no surprise to me that they didn’t find very many.

The fact that the savvy folks at Building Movement embarked on this path with high expectations reinforces my sense that there’s a pervasive mythology in our sector around this topic. The main story line goes something like this: “The non-profit world is full of innovators and creative thinkers – we have to be nimble to make do with minimal resources. Plus, as groups in service to our communities, we believe in grassroots participation in decision making. For these and other reasons, non-traditional management and leadership structures are both a natural fit for and far more common in our sector than in corporate America, with its top-down orientation.”

The only problem with this story is that it’s not borne out by reality.

Hierarchy Still Prevails

Sure, many of us know of or work in organizations where decision making is pushed down to program or department directors. That type of limited power-sharing may well be more common in the non-profit sector, but how many nonprofits do you know with co-directors or some other form of shared executive leadership? In Western cultures at least, that notion goes strongly against the grain. We tend to be more comfortable with hierarchy.

The massive literature on organizational leadership can be mind-boggling. But both research and common sense tell us that in the life of any organization, a variety of leadership styles will be needed, and the most effective leaders are the ones who can move smoothly from one mode to another. In a crisis, for example, a strong hand is often required but in other circumstances, a participatory or coaching/mentoring approach is generally more effective.

The Occupy movement has been taking a lot of heat from some progressives about its consensus model and lack of a coherent agenda. The argument is that in its well-intentioned adherence to the principle of democratic, distributed leadership, it has rendered itself unable to make timely decisions – indeed, any decisions - on agenda and strategy and as a result has squandered a great deal of the public support it initially generated. Group decision making might have worked just fine in the early stages of the movement, the complaint goes, but Occupiers’ determination to eschew anything resembling a traditional model of organizational structure has undermined its credibility with city governments and the public.

A Shift in Perspective

But is this really a failure to adapt to changing circumstances? It depends on one’s perspective. If you think, as I did until recently, that the Occupiers should follow the Tea Party model and become an organized political force with specific goals and clear strategies, then you are probably frustrated and disappointed. Their remarkable determination to stick to a consensus model makes that outcome very unlikely.

But if you think of what they’re doing as primarily a consciousness-raising movement or a public education campaign around economic inequality, with long term ripple effects on politics and policy that are at present unpredictable – as I do now - then it might actually be counter-productive to move into the political arena. For a movement that claims to represent 99% of Americans, many of whom have consistently voted against their own economic interests in recent elections, such a transition might marginalize them in the public eye as just another liberal advocacy group.

So to my fellow progressives I say, Ease up on the Occupiers – they’re not about building a national organization with a political agenda, they’re about stimulating a broad public dialogue about income inequality.

And on that score they’ve already succeeded remarkably.


In the ED Forum, TSNE’s Executive Director Jonathan Spack reflects on issues facing non-profit organizations in and around the Boston area and across the nation. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanSpack

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