I’m fascinated with the recent outbreak of popular revolt in the Arab world. The quest for greater freedom is clearly on display.
I’m equally struck by another feature of these upheavals, namely, the absence of clearly identifiable leaders. News media everywhere are scrambling to find the person or persons who truly speak for the masses in the streets.
In revolutions of the past, leaders of the revolt were easily identified. This was no less true of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, or the many communist revolutions of the last century.
But these present-day revolutions are yet to produce the central, charismatic individual who is the face of the revolt. There is no one towering figure out in front of the crowds, rallying people to the cause.
Does this mean that these are “leaderless revolutions”? Not at all. It’s just that the leadership is of a different order from what we have historically seen. And no one fully understands yet how it works.
Politics aside, its a phenomenon with close parallels in the rise of the Tea Party in America. While the Tea Party had local and even regional spark plugs who ignited the movement, even today no one person has emerged as the national leader or spokesperson for the entire enterprise.
This suggests that we have entered an era when the power of the internet, Twitter, and Facebook allow huge social and political movements to emerge without a central orchestrating figure. In this environ, leadership is more nearly the net impact of hundreds of leadership decisions made at local levels.
We might even call it “wiki leadership.” Wikis are websites where the input of end users almost entirely dictates the content and characteristics of the site. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia whose articles are contributed by users around the world, is the best known current example. But there are hundreds of wikis on the web.
Just as thousands of users combine their input to give shape to a wiki, the agenda and dynamic of movements like the recent Arab uprisings and the Tea Party arise from the composite input of thousands of participants, not from one or two seminal thinkers around whom the movement coalesces. This makes such movements at once more difficult to destroy and more difficult to predict.
Ultimately, of course, such movements in the political arena must field candidates for office. It would be easy to confuse these political candidates with leadership of the movement, since that’s the traditional way in which political parties have operated. But the same populist linkage that produces candidates in a wiki atmosphere can just as readily remove a candidate who loses approval.
What then constitutes leadership in a wiki movement? What are the core characteristics of effective “wiki leadership”? No one is quite sure. Mankind has never seen anything like this before. It will therefore be fascinating over the next few years to see what this development portends for our theories and views of leadership.