Occupy: A Template for a New Kind of Leadership

In the early days of OWS, many media outlets quickly converged on Zuccotti Park to figure out who the real “leaders” of OWS were. (I know because I was often branded as one of them.)

As those of us living and working in the encampment knew, this effort was mostly fruitless because Occupy doesn’t have traditional leadership: hierarchical, top-down, representative and empowered. But it’s undeniable that there was some kind of leadership structure that existed even from the first moments of Occupy. What I will argue is that the structure was a new form of leadership to match the longings of a new generation of dreamers.

We wanted leaders that were:

  • Accountable to us.
  • Honest about who’s influencing them.
  • Not reactionary, but thoughtful and bold.
  • Diligent, get-shit-done types, 1-part-delegator-3-parts-do’er.
  • Humble and honest, not ego-driven.
  • Could balance consensus + autonomy without getting too mired in either
After the encampment ended – or more accurately was trampled and beaten down with Bloomberg’s bully fist – people began to hypothesize that the leadership structure would evolve differently now that OWS’s most active organizers and pushers had to provide physical meeting space as well. There was a strong desire not to see the movement “institutionalize” or “professionalize” and lose the accessibility and openness that characterized our early experiment in direct democracy. Small-group meetings became more important, and strategy as well.
Around that time, I wrote a couple remarks on how to be a leader at OWS. It came out of a frustration I was feeling that some ideological purists were trying to dictate what a horizontal movement could and couldn’t look like, ignoring the realities of how we were organizing and what was working. Here it is (originally posted here):
  1. Start an open collective, affinity group, Working Group, whatever.
  2. Be open, inviting, non-exclusionary.
  3. Build consensus. Slowly, or quickly, but intentionally.
  4. Don’t talk shit.
  5. Listen a lot.
  6. Don’t expect fame or glory. If you’re doing things right, you won’t get it. If you do, you won’t like it.
  7. When you get frustrated, take a break. Leave town for a few days. Don’t burn out.
  8. Don’t speak for the movement, speak WITH it.
  9. Make your intentions absolutely clear. And your actions. Report-back often to your group and to the broader community (GA).
  10. Have fun. Laugh. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
It’s interesting to ponder whether any of our so-called “leaders” today in Washington or elsewhere would satisfy even half of the criteria of this new template for leadership. Of course, at 9% approval rating , I think that question has already been answered…