“Should be required reading in every classroom.”Judith Malina, founder of Living Theater
“They surrounded the boat, and when they lowered the gangplank, Sheriff McGray walked to the end of it and said, ‘Who are your leaders here?’ And they shouted back with one voice: ‘We are all leaders here!’ Well, that scared the tar out of the law, you know…”Utah Phillips, “Fellow workers”1
An otherwise healthy distrust of hierarchy can lead to a negative attitude toward all forms of leadership. Actually, we want more leadership, not less.
What is the difference between saying “none of us is a leader” and saying “we are all leaders”? At first glance these two phrases may seem like two ways of saying the same thing, which is essentially, “We believe in organizing in a way that is more horizontal than vertical. We believe in equalizing participation and resisting social hierarchies.” But the word leadership can mean a lot of things, and not all involve the creation of hierarchies. Taking leadership can mean taking initiative on moving a project or task forward, or taking responsibility for recognizing what is needed, and stepping up individually or collectively to do that thing.
It is important, in other words, to distinguish between horizontal organization and disorganization, and to foster models of dispersed leadership that promote responsibility, accountability and effectiveness.
This is not just a matter of semantics. If we are part of a group that boasts of having no leaders, participants may be overly hesitant about stepping up to take initiative for fear of being seen as a “leader”, which would be a bad thing. If we really want to change the world, we need more people stepping up to take initiative, not less. The more initiative we each take in our work together, the greater our collective capacity will be. Building our collective power is one of the most important challenges of grassroots organizing.
We need to build a culture where we’re all invited to step up. This means stepping up in ways that make space for others to step up — where others feel invited to step up and take initiative, too. “Stepping up” can mean actively listening to and learning from others. It can mean taking time to recognize and value many different forms of leadership in the group. And it can mean looking for and nurturing leadership potential in others, who may not feel entitled to step forward uninvited or unsupported.
A culture that values healthy leadership is one that also prizes accountability, in which we are responsible for and accountable to one another. But this focus on accountability must go hand-in-hand with a group culture that values leadership. Otherwise we may develop a “circular firing squad” mentality in which we waste our energy cutting each other down for taking initiative.
We need a movement where we are constantly encouraging each other to step into our full potential and shine as a collective of leaders working together for a better world. Let’s all be leaders. Let’s be leaderful, not leaderless.