Vision 04… Occupy Together and Leadership


a Moment for Wisdom…


A Moment for…



“Outstanding leaders appeal to the hearts of their followers – not their minds.” 


“The greatest thing you can do for another is not just share your riches, but reveal to them their own.”

Benjamin Disraeli


“I cannot understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones…”

Nicola Tesla









a Moment with Sharif…




One of the constant mantras of the “Occupy Together” (OT) phenomenon is its “leaderless” nature.  I support and applaud this… to a point.


Anyone who has come to my workshops over the past ten years knows I’ve been an advocate of “Emergence” – defined as “leaderless distributed networks of information and power”.  In an Emergence, it is the system that learns, grows and adapts… without any kind of “authority” telling the various agents what to do.When it happens, it is startling, it is beautiful, and it is POWERFUL.


So, the question of whether OT needs “leadership” is tied to the question: “Is OT an Emergence?”  The answer to that question is a firm “NOT YET”.  And, because of that, OT is in definite need of leadership.But, a very different kind of leadership than what we’ve been used to.


First: upon what do I base my “not yet” assessment?  An Emergence has five very important factors.  In an Emergence…


1.   The group has a large number of independent actors, all sharing information.

2.   There is a lack of control over any individual’s behavior.

3.   The actors share a common vision, simple values, and/or rules.

4.   The actors have largely interchangeable roles.

5.   The actors have the same goals and objectives.


OT clearly has #2 and #4.They clearly do NOT have #3 and #5.  (I’m not sure about #1…)  Without vision/ values/ goals/ objectives, OT NEEDS LEADERSHIP.A very different kind of leadership: Emergent Leadership.


We know the role of old-style leadership: tell the sheeple what to do.  Whether it’s the “boss” on the shop floor, or the old-style politician wheeling and dealing in the corridors of power, leadership equals control, and control equals power.


Not in an Emergence.Someone grabbing a bullhorn and “telling” the Occupy forces what to
do would be met with derision, silence, scorn or pity.  (Perhaps all of the above.)  OT is – and should be – allergic to “control”.


Here’s a quote from Stephen Johnson, author of the book “Emergence”:


“Without an active leader who takes responsibility for building a network, spontaneous connection between groups emerges very slowly, or not at all.”


So, what are the five key elements of Emergent Leadership? 


1.   Encourage/ stimulate lots of actors (help build critical mass).

2.   Articulate simple, consistent rules.

3.   Articulate simple, deep values and goals.

4.   Articulate simple, appropriate roles.

5.   Assume NO direct command and control.


Is there any evidence of this kind of “Emergent Leadership” happening in OT?  Well,
YES!  LOTS!  Just look for the “worker bee” spark plugs in any of the encampments.  (These are the folks with the dark circles under their eyes, from working day and night.)  They’ve got dark circles, because most of their time is spent swimming against an “anti-leadership” tide.


Leadership, Consensus, and Democracy

Let me give you one example:  while in Los Angeles, I sat in on an Assembly, for the Media committee.  It was painful to watch.  The majority of the participants were knowledgeable, intelligent, articulate, and attempting to self-discipline into a sense of order.  They really wanted to accomplish something, and had sacrificed their time and energy for “the cause”.


They were plagued by people wandering in from the edges of the group, not really part of it.  The wanderers would hear half a sentence they didn’t like, then bombard the group with their “opinion”.  The wanderers would take the group out of its focus, then wander off again.


This was amazingly frustrating for the group.  Sometimes, the wanderers would bring up points that had been settled just ten minutes earlier.  And, some of the wanderers seemed more intent on “making their point” than getting any work done.  (One didn’t even know the purpose of the meeting – but that didn’t stop him from having an opinion!)


People were leaving the group in frustration – the wrong people.  One young African-American man said to me as he was leaving, “I’ve been here for hours, and we’ve gotten nothing done.  People just keep walking up and talking!  They don’t even know what this committee is about!”


For OT to be successful, they MUST begin to rein in this kind of behavior.  There are a lot of really focused, dedicated people involved in OT.  And, there are some people who just want to hear the sounds of their own voices, people who are attention-starved, people who are not interested in participatory democracy – they are only interested in spreading their own narrow (and largely discordant) point of view.Just blurting out whatever you want, whenever you want to, is NOT democracy.


The Danger of No Vision

Trying to do direct democracy and consensus without a unifying vision is frustrating at its very best, impossible at its worst.  This is why I developed a “Catalyst Leader Training Program” over a decade ago – to educate the kinds of leaders that are needed at this time in our history.  A Catalyst-Leader is more facilitator and cheerleader than controller – a person with no ego-need to command or demand others to act.  The goal of the training program is to develop a more Taoist style of leadership, so that, when the Catalyst-Leader acts, the people say, “we did this ourselves!”


OT must let go of the “anarchist” notion of “no leadership”, to allow an Emergent “Catalyst Leadership” to develop: no attempts at “control”, but a firm hand on agreed-to processes, and a clear eye on a positive vision of a future that works for all.






PS:  My complete powerpoint presentation on “Emergence” is available on the Commonway website: [Note: the second slide is black… click past it.]


PPS:  A note to my committed “anarchist” friends: I really do sympathize with the sentiment of anarchy, and I believe that “Emergence” goes a long way toward creating the kind of world you envision.  However, the “leaderless distributed networks” of Emergence are NOT “anarchy” in its classical sense.  And: I sweep the political philosophy of “anarchism” into the same dustbin of history as ALL other theories developed by dead white men (capitalism, socialism, communism…).  Given the world we now inhabit, a world that our grandparents could not even IMAGINE, we can do better than the dead white guys, however well-meaning they were.  Given the problems of our time, we must.





Vision Exercises:


This week’s “Vision” exercise:


This exercise is simple: participate in the OccupyCafe”!  What is it? – a linked phone and online forum space for conversations among everyone “who cares about what is happening on Wall Street and around the world.”  Its phone mode uses the advanced MaestroConferencing system that enables activities like breakout groups and hand-raising.  Topic conversations begun on the phone can be continued in the online forum, and vice versa.  The first phone call is Monday morning.  (I will be one of the “animators” for the conversations.)


The “grand opening” is this Monday, 10/24 from 11am-2pm Eastern, via your phone.  Please use this link to register.


If you get this late, do not despair.  There’s a lot going on at







All photos by Sharif Abdullah, unless otherwise noted.








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12 Responses to Vision 04… Occupy Together and Leadership

  1. Holly Wells says:

    Have you interjected these ideas (and the option to join the Cafe) into Occupy Portland (then return to the online focus)? Even if (especially if) you don’t like the current working model? I understand that the Portland GA model was put up on the OWS/Occupy Together website as a possible model for then-emerging new OTs to consider. Perhaps adding this leaderless vision element AT THIS MOMENT, IN THIS PLACE would be the catalyst to transmute the whole movement–and, finally, the whole society) into what you’ve been working for for decades.

    I love you for all you do and all you are and know you are doing exactly what you are supposed to. Thank you for listening to what I felt I had to say to you.

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  3. Greg says:

    I would like to see an Occupy group try a new form of self governance. If on day one, everyone met in small groups–say 10 to 20 people and chose someone to represent them. Then, on the next day those chosen ones from each group met and listened to each other share the agenda of their various groups–without necessarily making decisions–instead, bringing other perspectives back to their groups–then deciding on a position. Then, the first group could decide whether to choose different representatives or continue with the original one, with a sense of what others were thinking.

    It seems that we need to hear every voice, but we also need an authority to ensure that something eventually gets done. The problem with authority is only its tendency to create its own agenda separate from the people who gave consent to being governed.

    The third day, the groups that met at the second level meet and choose representatives to implement the ideas

    • Greg says:

      Sorry, it seems that the browser scrambled my comments. I’m sure you can figure out which paragraphs are out of place.

  4. Alpha says:

    Here are some possible techniques of facilitation for Occupy

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  7. Rima Bonario says:

    The dynamic you describe is a classic SD “green” issue that requires the appropriate use of healthy boundaries, often found in healthy SD “blue.” Since the green meme so highly values love, tolerance and acceptance, it can be hard to have the courage to implement basic guidelines and rules that protect the group from this type of behavior and risk being seen as not loving, tolerant or accepting. The obvious pitfall is that it is not appropriate to be tolerant or accepting of dysfunctional behavior. In fact, the most loving thing one can do for all involved is curtail that behavior. My hope is that the these needs can be balanced and allow for constructive work to move forward.

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