Brilliant bit at Resilience Science: What are leaders really for?

Below are some excerpts from Yahoo! Research’s Duncan Watts which are quoted by Resilience Science’s Juan Carlos Rocha in his piece (but as always you should read the whole thing):

Thinkers like Le Bon and Tolstoy and Berlin therefore lead us to a radically alternative hypothesis of social change: that successful movements succeed for reasons other than the presence of a great leader, who is as much a consequence of the movement’s success as its cause. Explanations of historically important events that focus on the actions of a special few therefore misunderstand their true causes, which are invariably complex and often depend on the actions of a great many individuals whose names are lost to history.

Interestingly, in the natural world we don’t find this sort of explanation controversial. When we hear that a raging forest fire has consumed millions of acres of California forest, we don’t assume that there was anything special about the initial spark. Quite to the contrary, we understand that in context of the large-scale environmental conditions — prolonged drought, a buildup of flammable undergrowth, strong winds, rugged terrain, and on so — that truly drive fires, the nature of the spark itself is close to irrelevant.

Yet when it comes to the social equivalent of the forest fire, we do in effect insist that there must have been something special about the spark that started it. Because our experience tells us that leadership matters in small groups such as Army platoons or start-up companies, we assume that it matters in the same way for the very largest groups as well…

..By refusing to name a leader, Occupy Wall Street presents a challenge to this view…  because this absence of a familiar personality-centric narrative makes us uncomfortable, we are tempted to reject the whole thing as somehow not real. Or instead, we insist that in order to be taken seriously, the movement must first change to reflect what we expect from serious organizations — namely a charismatic leader to whom we can attribute everything.

Leaders, in other words, are necessary, but not because they are the source of social change. Rather their real function is to occupy the role that allows the rest of us to make sense of what is happening… For better and worse, telling stories is how we make sense of the world, and it’s hard to tell a story without focal actors around which to center the action. But as we witness a succession of popular movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, we can at least pause to appreciate the real story, which is the remarkable phenomenon of a great many ordinary individuals coming together to change the world.

Emphases added to these excellent excerpts.

This gets at what I was trying to say in my previous post, for my Environmental Justice course:

To continue the point from class about “what can we do”, I just want to re-emphasize the importance I place on joining something… the key, perhaps, is to join something in order to start building social capital and the ability of communities to solve problems–including *your* ability to work with(in) communities and solve problems. This is perhaps an especially key thing for “us Americans” to remember: being part of something effective should be the goal, not necessarily being “the” leader of everything [or anything–AEP].


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