Leadership in Activism

In a previous post I started exploring the elements of activism that result in creating change. I argued that change is achieved through the sustained effort of a large number of people. Russell Brand, in his book Revolution, has a similar opinion: the current political system will be replaced when the masses make a determined effort to bring about change. He is certain that this will happen in a spontaneous and somewhat miraculous manner. His utopian vision is of autonomous, self-managing communities that are nonetheless tolerant and connected to one another. However, he is highly critical of leaders of any kind and this is where we differ in opinion. I believe leaders play critical roles in both organising and sustaining change. Maybe we coincide with the idea that leaders do not necessarily have to be appointed or placed in a rigid hierarchy, yet I see the effects of leadership in most cases of effective activism that I see.

DSC02449 Our ultimate aim is to live in self-governing, fully autonomous, ecologically responsible, egalitarian communities. (Brand, 2013, p. 80 )

Russell’s vision of autonomous units is one that resonates with me, as I am a member of Playcentre, a parent co-operative which provides early childhood services in Aotearoa New Zealand. The structure is a democratic one, where centres are autonomous but affiliated to a national support organisation. Leadership is distributed with different people encouraged to take the lead for different issues at different times. However there is also a nominated leader (or co-leaders, as is becoming more common). This leader(s) changes regularly, due to the philosophy of emergent leadership where people are encouraged to step aside to let new leaders ‘emerge’ into roles. Sometimes centres manage without a President, but I believe this doesn’t work quite as well as when a particular person(s) is nominated as the leader. This is due to a lack of clarity about who is going to take responsibility for different things, and also the necessity of making mistakes if the leader is to learn the new role. Emergent leadership relies on giving a new leader space to try things and to make mistakes, with others in support rather than stepping in to fix the problems. This space is created by giving the new person a recognised leadership role.

As an aside to Russell and his focus on voting as a democratic practice even in his autonomous units: Playcentre as an organisation practices consensus decision making, where decisions are made through discussion and compromise, rather than through voting with its connotations of forced agreement. All of which contributes to some lengthy and frustrating decision making processes, especially in the eyes of those new to the system, but also contributes to creating an organisation based on deeper democratic processes than commonly practiced in most modern nation-states.

Back to the point of this blog post. When a leader of an organisation advocates change in a direction that matches an activist cause, much can be achieved. For example, Pope Francis is the leader of a strongly hierarchical, patriarchal, global organisation. He has 5.6M followers on Twitter, and worldwide media attention for every speech he does – particularly if it is in anyway controversial (or even just non-conservative). What he says is heard globally. If I complain that woman are not included in a local church service, who will listen to me? Yet when Pope Francis includes women in a traditionally male-only feet-washing ceremony on Easter Thursday, he is seen and listened to by millions of people all over the world. Despite some critics, because of the esteem he is held in as a leader many people will start to accept that including women in church activities is the right and natural thing to do. Having Pope Francis as an advocate for gender equality makes a difference.

Leadership for activist causes also comes from people without positional power but with wide media attention. Without an official leadership position, there is simply the power of influence – yet the opportunity to influence is proportional to the amount of media coverage. These are the celebrities who can say what they like and get reported and published because they are famous for something. As Russell says on p.113 of Revolution, he could have called it “Booky Wook 3” and he would still have been able to get it published and people would still have bought it. That is a privilege not available to the average person. It is precisely for this reason that having a celebrity publically support an activist cause is so valuable. Russell has become the mouthpiece for many people. What he says in his book, in his YouTube channel The Trews, and through his actions, are the things that many other people have said – the difference being that people listen to Russell. They do not always agree with him, but at least he is listened to. Every activist cause can be helped with a celebrity on board!

The spotlight on the activist cause, via the celebrity or the hierarchical leader, is an important part of creating change. The message doesn’t always have to be perfectly scripted, or presented in the expected and proper manner. Mistakes can be made. Patricia Arquette used her spotlight at the Oscars to make a call for greater gender equality. It was great awareness raising for the issue, but unfortunately backstage she went on further and suggested that other inequality issues should perhaps turn to supporting gender equality. She was castigated for this by feminists at the same time as she was applauded. However, the major benefit in my eyes was that her speech gave the opportunity for people from around the world to discuss the issue. Should she have refrained from saying anything because she might get it wrong? Definitely not! Silence doesn’t help the activist cause. Dialogue does.

Similarly, Russell’s book has been criticized for being too long, too rambling, too off-topic. It is all of those things. Does that mean it has nothing valuable to say? Not in my opinion. Russell Brand is a serious comedian. His book shows a thinker, in the style of a stand-up comic and is aimed at an audience who would not read a more academic treatise. Iris Marion Young, a political scientist, points out that the emphasis on reasoned debate in much deliberative democracy writing privileges those who can form articulate, dispassionate arguments, structured in a formal way – the one and only ‘right’ way of presenting an argument. Yet a truly deep democracy has to allow all voices to be heard, including those with very different styles of expression. Including comedians.

One thought on “Leadership in Activism

  1. perkinsy March 20, 2015 / 6:22 am

    I liked what you said about emergent leadership. I’ve observed in a few voluntary organisations that often the leader complaining about having to do all the work because no-one else contributes is quite often the cause of the lack of participation. Leaders are responsible for nurturing future workers and leaders. Perfectionism and not bothering to invest the time in nurturing others is the enemy of a healthy organisation. Too often people damage an organisation by making themselves indispensable.

    Making mistakes is an important element of growth and organisations need to provide a safe environment to do so.Unfortunately the public sphere is not a safe environment to make mistakes. We are too accustomed to trying to catch leaders out in immature ‘gotcha’ moments. However, those who speak publicly also have a responsibility to take care with their words to ensure they do not cause hurt. I’m thinking of some politicians here, not the examples you have given.

    I could go on which shows that you have written a good post. It has got me thinking…

    Liked by 1 person

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