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Do we need leaders?

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The Structure and Policy part of our Structure and program document refers several times to “leaders”:

  • ... actions by elected or delegated leaders ...
  • ... a mechanism to recall leaders ...


Does our movement really need leaders? One of our core values is self management. I think we can manage ourselves; we don't need leaders for that. And if you want to be also inviting to anarchists (which I understand we do want to be), then such talk about “leaders” is not a good start.

Reading material: The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the Twenty-First Century by Carne Ross.

Discussion 23 Comments

  • 30th Jul 2012

    It does seem like a poor word choice. How do you interpret "leaders" in the IOPS texts?

  • 31st Jul 2012

    I think in large organisations there is some need for representation/proxy/spokesperson-ship, as such things facilitate effective group decision making.

    As soon as the group gets beyond a hundred or so people demand for speaking time and input into the way votes are framed, which votes are taken etc, tends to exceed supply.

    Hence we need to make the means by which these reps/delegates/whatevers are selected and held accountable as good as possible.

    This is an issue I have thought about a lot, and written about a fair bit too, (my thoughts at length here: http://austingmackell.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/fumbling-for-change/ )

    Am putting Carne Ross's book on my reading list. Perhas there idea there I haven't thought of.


  • L L 31st Jul 2012

    I think it's dangerous to overly commit to the use of representatives. We must first experiment with horizontal systems and only elect (recallable and inter-changeable) representatives when absolutely necessary.

  • Kim Keyser 31st Jul 2012

    I agree with all three of you. In my organization we call the persons who have mandates, mandate holders. The expression emphasizes that those who are going to represent their organization, or do some special task, need to have a written mandate. Also it's more intuitive than "delegate", and more precise than "leader".

    Sure, we need people who take initiative, provide theoretical guidance and so forth (the more, the better!), but I'd be totally against institutionalizing formal leadership positions within our organizations.

    @Luke: I don't think there are many people who disagree with you here, but there are a lot of cases where mandate holders (or "representatives") are absolutely necessary. I.e. when either the distance (=money+time) between the units (for instance local chapters) that need coordination is big, or the units are large, it's neither democratic or practical, to have one big meeting. There are other cases as well...

    • Lambert Meertens 31st Jul 2012

      Yes, there are certainly situations in which you need mandate holders; just think of negotiations in a strike. Without mandate, negotiators have no bargaining power.

      If you want a one-word term: mandatee, defined by Merriam-Webster as one to whom a mandate is assigned. Not to be confused with manatee. :)

    • Jamie Fairfield 31st Jul 2012

      How about calling the "leaders/representatives/mandatees" manatee instead, or some other ridiculous title. Part of the problem with words like leader and representative is the level of prestige and superiority it appears to infer over others. Nobody could mistake Manatee for IOPS England, Jane Smith for anything other than a person with a ridiculous title, allowing Manatee Smith to instead focus on the task at hand rather than basking in the glory.

      Just a thought in my semi-delirious 5am state.

  • Kim Keyser 31st Jul 2012

    Mandatee – awesome word!

  • Jason Chrysostomou 1st Aug 2012

    "One of our core values is self management. I think we can manage ourselves; we don't need leaders for that."

    Lambert - how do you have self-management across larger distances without some form of delegation/representation?

    • Lambert Meertens 1st Aug 2012

      A leader has followers. The leader leads the way and the followers follow. But we do not need to be told where to go; we decide that for ourselves.

      Delegates and representatives are something else than leaders. They are mandate holders, which (as I also wrote above) you need in certain situations. Manatees are volunteers who have committed themselves to perform a specific task, acting to the best of their ability in conformance with the group's consensus. Even if not leaders, their empowering position gives them an information lead, and so we must make sure this cannot turn into a semi-permanent position and give mandates only for specific tasks of clearly limited scope and duration.

    • Jason Chrysostomou 1st Aug 2012

      Okay, I misunderstood you. So you are not against delegation/representation, it's the use of the word leaders in the statement 'elected or delegated leaders' - you want to remove the word 'leaders'?

    • Lambert Meertens 1st Aug 2012

      Right. I think we should very definitely not have leaders, and also not use wording in our key documents that imply we might have leaders.

  • Mark Evans 1st Aug 2012

    As far as I am aware IOPS has no particular interest in being inviting specifically to anarchists. If a person who calls themself an anarchist likes our organisational description then they can join - but that applies to everyone.

    If people want to be part of an organisation with a universal ban on leaders - in all possible situations regardless of the consequences or what the membership in that part of the world thinks is necessary to win - they should probably join an anarchist organisation - plenty already exist.

    IOPS is different. We see "social strategy and especially tactics as largely contingent on place and time...". This means that it is up to the members of a particular society or community to choose their own way as long as it is moving them towards the IOPS vision, which of course would mean assessing developments of any given campaign as things actually unfold.

    • Lambert Meertens 1st Aug 2012

      We need as many people that share our vision on board as we can get. That means we must be inclusive and widely inviting. A better world cannot be imposed by a minority; in the end, only a majority can win a better world.

  • Mark Evans 1st Aug 2012

    "We need as many people that share our vision on board as we can get. That means we must be inclusive and widely inviting. A better world cannot be imposed by a minority; in the end, only a majority can win a better world"

    Lambert - I agree with the above statements and I hope that they are completely uncontroversial here amongst the membership. However I don't see what this has to do with the issue of leadership that you raise or how your reply addresses the points I raised.

    IOPS does not have the same position as the typical anarchist organisation regarding strategy - which tends to reject leaders. Nor does it have the same strategic position as Marxists who typically say we must have leaders. In short, unlike Marxists and anarchist, IOPS does not make universal claims about strategy and tactics.

    Instead we say that there could be times and places where, to the membership in that location, it makes sense to engage in tactics and strategy that requires leaders. We also say, in accordnace with self-management, that the members should be free to make that decision for themselves without someone, who is not in that time or place, telling them they can not engage in such activities. In short we say that strategy is context specific.

    But whatever strategy members choose it needs to be moving us towards our shared vision. That is the measure for assessing good and bad strategy / tactics not whether it has leaders or not. The use of the word "leaders" in the organisational description, therefore, is not an error or oversight but instead should be read as a recognition of the complexities involved in social transformation on an international scale.

    • Lambert Meertens 2nd Aug 2012

      I have a problem with fundamentalists of all stripes and persuasions, but I don't see an issue with taking open-minded Marxists or anarchists on board. In fact, we have both kinds serving on our Interim Consultative Committee. Rather than emphasizing what distinguishes and divides us, we should focus on the vision that unites us and engage in an open dialogue on how to get there together.

      There is an obvious tension between having a set of core values that are purported to be universal and meant to be binding on everyone who is part of our movement, and our notion of far-reaching self-determination at the local levels. But clearly, if some community decides that what works for them is good old time-tested governance by a council of wise men who tell women what they can and particularly cannot do, we are not going to say, "OK, if that is how you want it."

      Leadership as an elected position (rather than a notion of entirely informal moral leadership) comes with power for the leader to impose and enforce their decisions -- otherwise the Dear Leader title is perhaps honorary but void. I strongly believe that we ourselves must set an example and practise what we preach. Accepting this kind of power-laden leadership is, in my opinion, at odds with our vision, and we should encourage local groups to seek and adopt other solutions.

  • Mark Evans 2nd Aug 2012

    Like I said Lambert, all who agree with our organisational description are welcome to join IOPS - including those who call themselves anarchists and Marxists, of course. Also developing shared vision as a uniting force is exactly what IOPS is about. So we agree on all that - which is great!

    That said I do not agree that we should not talk about how IOPS differs from other revolutionary organisations. Our position on strategy is different to that which we typically find in Marxist and anarchist organisations and that is not an accident.

    IOPS has been set-up as an attempt to transcend the major problems that have debilitated the left and our position on strategy is an important element of this effort.

    Yes there is a tension between leadership strategy and our long term vision but that, in its self, is not a good reason to conclude that a blanket ban on leaders makes sense. Instead members have to look at each situation and assess it for strategic options and then choose which option makes most sense for them in terms of winning gains that move us towards our shared vision - and in some circumstances that might mean leadership strategy.

    Acknowledging a tension is fine and being mindful of the dangers of such strategy and tactics is wise but a wholehearted rejection of leaders violates self-management and fails to recognise the fact that strategy is context specific - both of which are central to IOPS.

    • Lambert Meertens 2nd Aug 2012

      I have no illusion that we can centrally prescribe -- whether by our key defining documents or otherwise -- how local groups should structure their efforts, nor do I think that this would be desirable even if we could. But you will surely agree that some possible ways are at heart at odds with our vision, and that there is nothing wrong with cautioning that those may not be the best approaches.

  • Mark Evans 2nd Aug 2012

    Being cautious about strategy, especially when involving formal leadership, makes sense - absolutely! And if you look at the full text that you sample in your blog that is what is expressed -

    "strives to provide transparency regarding all actions by elected or delegated leaders with a high burden of proof for secreting any agenda to avoid repression or for any other reason."

    "provides a mechanism to recall leaders or representatives who members believe are not adequately representing them."

    There will be differences of opinion regarding strategy within IOPS. We need to be respectfully of these differences and try things out to see what actually works and what doesn't rather than claiming to know in advance what can not work or what must be.

    What makes strategic sense to members in one place may sound crazy to members in another. Two very different strategies in two very different parts of the world may well lead towards the same visionary goal. That it not impossible.

    • Lambert Meertens 2nd Aug 2012

      I conclude that you simply do not agree with my contention that power-laden leadership is at odds with our vision.

  • Mark Evans 2nd Aug 2012

    What is important in relation to your blog Lamberts is that members understand why the word "leaders" appears in the IOPS organisational description and how this relates to our position on strategy.

  • Chris Hayden 6th Aug 2012

    I don't think that being open to anarchists means being only open to anarchists, and adhering only to anarchist language and dogma. I have participated in several anarchist and anarchish organizations, and the "tyranny of leaderlessness" was a constant factor preventing things from getting done, because no one could take initiative without being criticized. Far better, in my opinion, is an anarchism which acknowledges any leadership as a mere expedient, and carrying a high burden of proof. For instance, an orchestra can use a conductor to play music more effectively, but in an equitable situation the conductor is not necessary when the music is over, and is not "above" the musicians in other human relations. I think this is also what Mark is trying to get across.
    I would consider myself a small "a" anarchist, as opposed to an Anarchist, because I have seen so much failure in Anarchist organizations which were bent on using 19th-century terminology and ways of thinking. Another example would be seeing religion only as a tool of state power.
    I do like this idea of replacing "leader" with a different term, to take away the mystique of the position.
    This seems like an important discussion to me, so thanks for bringing it up!

  • David Jones 8th Aug 2012

    This passage from Mikhail Bakunin's essay "what is authority" more or less sums up how I feel about "leadership". Perhaps others will find it helpful too?

    "Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.

    If I bow before the authority of the specialists and avow my readiness to follow, to a certain extent and as long as may seem to me necessary, their indications and even their directions, it is because their authority is imposed on me by no one, neither by men nor by God. Otherwise I would repel them with horror, and bid the devil take their counsels, their directions, and their services, certain that they would make me pay, by the loss of my liberty and self-respect, for such scraps of truth, wrapped in a multitude of lies, as they might give me."

    So if we're going to have "leaders" (meaning what? specialists whose authority in some area is recognised by us?) I think their authority needs to be recognised and sanctioned by the people ready to follow them "to a certain extent", and at such a time as readiness is no longer avowed, they should no longer be leaders.

    P.S. sorry to take us back to the 19th century Chris ;-)

  • Eduardo Enríquez 27th Aug 2012

    hopefully this organization will not degenerate into hierarchies and bureaucracies. "representatives" and "spokepersons" are words that could be used intead of this "leader" word. if this organization decides to have Chapter "presidents" i am leaving it as soon as that is decided.