Can Leaderless Organizations Win?

Posted by

Whether it’s the Arab Spring, the Tea Party movement or Occupy Wall Street, what is it about leaderless organizations that makes it all seem so strange to us?

In 2006, I made the six hour drive from Montreal to Boston to attend the first PodCamp Boston unconference (a participant-driven or self-organized gathering). Prior to that, I had attended some of the initial BarCamp events. The idea of a self-organized event was foreign then… and it’s still foreign now. Some of the initial questions I had about driving to PodCamp included:

  • What if I get there and no one shows up?
  • How will I know if the sessions are any good?
  • Where do I get my nametag?
  • Where are the networking events taking place?
  • Is there a travel sponsor with a rebate on nearby hotels for those attending from out of town?

Those questions are driven by a traditional conference mindset. Here are the unconference answers to those questions:

  • If you get there and no one else shows up, then I didn’t do my job of letting others know about the event.
  • The sessions will only be good if I chose to either lead one or encourage others to lead them.
  • You bring your own nametag.
  • You have to connect with the other people who signed up on the wiki and make your own social events (and encourage others to join you!).
  • You’re a big boy, call some hotels and negotiate a rate for yourself and for others.

Leaderless events and organizations act and feel weird because they are weird.

We expect others to lead us. This is why there are so few great leaders when compared to our overall population. It’s not easy to take responsibility for success and to be able to drive results, and get others to not only believe in you but to follow you (this ever-more evident when reading the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson). The media struggles to find a figurehead or someone to interview in these self-organized groups and revolutions like the Arab Spring, the Tea Party movement and occupy Wall Street, but because there is no defined "leader" (mostly because these groups are self-organized), they are chastised for not having in place a more traditional (and hierarchical) structure or a seamless message.

So, can leaderless organizations truly get results?

Obviously, they can (and do). The real challenge is that these structures are new and platforms like Social Media have (finally) brought us to this unique moment in time where we can have leaderless and self-organizing groups affect true change in our world. This past weekend, Clay Shirky (best-selling business book author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus) tweeted, "Back from delivering coffee & gloves to #OWS. Hundreds of people hunkering down in freezing rain, an amazing act of patriotism." The magic of the Internet is that the power of open source has now expanded beyond the borders of software development. Individual acts of patriotism can now be viewed cumulatively in a much more powerful way – and with every act of patriotism comes a cumulative effect as they are shared and exchanged in both our protein forms and in the online channels. That cumulative effect springs new ideas for people to share and gather around. It’s as mindless as lolcats and as powerful as the overthrowing of repressive governments.

Who are we going to blame?

As a society we want to point our fingers at someone – an individual. The truth is that the murkiness of pointing our fingers at a leaderless group makes it difficult to find a target for our energy (either positive or negative) and it is somewhat unsatisfying to get angry at a faceless corporation when it comes to a specific issue. The truth is that we’re going to have to learn how to adapt to this new reality. While great leadership can never be denied, what we’re truly seeing here is that the 99% are now connected and their power, rage and passions are not only hard to deny, but it’s even harder to ignore. Big groups can self-lead. How dramatic and how powerful is that? Wow.

The next few years of leaderless groups is only going to increase as people continue to get smarter through our technological engines of connectivity and their desire to share and connect.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post called, Media Hacker. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. Interesting article, it’s fantastic to see as technology evolves further and further it seems to take a path towards a social and collaborative future rather then one of solitude, as could have previously been predicted.
    Do you have any examples of big leaderless organisations that are currently winning? Or do you see this more as a trend that is coming?

  2. Well-written article Mitch on a trend that is definitely going to grow, thanks to technology. I wrote a book on this trend and what it means for traditional management – a shift from command and control to collaborative leadership. It’s a recipe for much confusion but it’s also a recipe for empowerment that engages people in the “cause” at a much deeper level. What a great time to be alive! John

  3. Employee owned organizations are where things should be headed. We need to distribute capital in a more equitable manner in our society because that’s the only way to ensure more of it reaches local communities and just causes. I believe leveraging what is going on here is one way to make it happen. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as “leaderless” or “self-organizing”, John Kuypers uses the term “collaborative leadership” and I like that term but what it really means is every individual involved has decided to become an influencer and therefore a leader in their own right.

  4. Your post begs the question – what is Leadership? Leaders are clear about what they care about, choose their goals/actions accordingly, and invite others to join them. (I think this is true of the best corporate leaders today.) I see your podcamp experience as an example of such self-leadership, in collaboration with other self-leaders. Social media enables self-leading consumers, advocates, or ‘just plain-passionate about something’ individuals to claim their leadership stake and invite others to join them. Will be interesting to see the results…
    As I think about it, perhaps self-leadership is what grassroots leadership always has done — and social media is simply about scale and specialization?

Comments are closed.