Business leaders talk about the need for greater collaboration, flexibility and initiative in today’s business environment. Now it seems to me that there are a lot of people involved with the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement who are demonstrating exactly those qualities. Love them or loathe them we would do well to learn from them.
If you hadn’t noticed, XR is a socio-political movement which uses nonviolent resistance to protest against climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, ecological collapse and the risk of human extinction. In a series of ongoing actions it most recently occupied four sites in central London: Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge and the area around Parliament Square, causing widespread disruption and immense publicity for its cause.
Citing inspiration from grassroots movements like Occupy, XR wants to rally support worldwide around a common sense of urgency to tackle climate breakdown. Now, Occupy talked about being leaderless, which makes no sense viewed through the lens of a hierarchy, but from a network perspective it makes perfect sense. It means, simply, that there are no positional or formal leaders.
There are leaders, but they are network leaders, naturally emerging from their environment and exhibiting leadership based on energy, expertise and initiative rather than any formal appointment. Traditional, hierarchical businesses may advocate that behaviour, but in reality they have a difficult time adjusting to it. For a network it’s natural and some businesses are catching on.
As the Internet reduces transaction and collaboration costs, we are beginning to see a change in the deep structure and architecture of most institutions in society. The monolithic, hierarchical organisation is beginning to falter against more lithe competitors.
Smart companies are finding that they innovate and perform better by creating networks or business webs. Using the Internet they open up and harness knowledge, resources and capabilities inside and outside their boundaries. They set a context for innovation and then invite their employees, customers, partners and other stakeholders to co-create their products and services. The new mantra is “focus on what you do best and partner to do the rest”.
The upshot is that these companies can innovate more quickly, more cheaply and more effectively by leveraging expertise they can’t afford full-time or otherwise would not have access to. This collaborative approach can lower costs and reduce risks, because you pay only for results and accelerate innovation by finding existing solutions.
In this new context, the traditional model of recruiting, managing and retaining employees is clearly outdated. The overriding factor today is engagement not employment. Organisations must build a positive presence in the minds of customers, partners, employees and the general public in order to forge long term, dynamic engagement. So how can the experience of social movements help?
5 Leadership Practices from Social Movements
A useful framework, by Marshall Ganz & Liz McKenna, can be found in the Blackwell Companion to Social Movements (edited by David A. Snow, et al). It explores social movement leadership through five interdependent practices: relationship building; narrative; strategy; structure and action.
Relationship building is key to any leadership endeavour, but this goes beyond mobilising individuals to join through transactions of resources and interest. Instead it encourages commitment to future engagement through the experience of shared values, which in turn builds collective capacity.
In network terms, it depends on strong (homogeneous) relational ties, which facilitate efficiency (doing things right) through trust, motivation, and commitment, and weak (heterogeneous) ties, which ensure effectiveness (doing the right things) by broadening access to knowledge, skills, and learning. In short, it counters the dark side of tightly bonded teams, which is ‘groupthink’.
Narrative is a powerful way to access, express, and cultivate emotional resources embedded in shared values: resources that are necessary to confront challenges with courage, resilience, and agency. Narrative not only articulates pathways from the world as it is to the world as it should be, but also sparks the motivation to act on it.
A good story, well told, can slip past the defences of the rational mind, pluck at our hearts and stir our souls. Human societies have flourished without the wheel, but none has existed without stories. We are storytelling animals; to be human is to tell stories. The ability to learn from vicarious experience through storytelling is thought to have provided an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors in terms of survival, the spread of innovation and the development of culture.
Strategy. While narrative engages the emotional brain, strategy engages the rational brain, drawing upon our cognitive resources for analysis, imagination and adaptation. Strategy is the practice of turning the resources you have into the power you need to get what you want. Given the highly uncertain environments in which social movements operate, successful strategy is an ongoing adaptive practice, something movement leaders do, rather than something they have neatly labelled in a file.
Additionally, because social movements often challenge actors with abundant traditional resources like wealth, status, expertise, and political power, their leaders must find ways to compensate through greater resourcefulness and agile responsiveness. This requires an integrated analysis of the big picture with highly particular knowledge of the specific context. This in turn requires strategic capacity to be widely distributed rather than concentrated in a strategy team that is removed from the rank-and-file implementation. High motivation, access to diverse sources of salient knowledge, and a commitment to learning facilitate this leadership practice.
Structure. There is a balance to be struck between the absence of structuring, where groups may act incoherently and sometimes at cross-purposes and an extremely hierarchical structure that centralises strategy in the hands of a few individuals, leading to an incapacity to respond with agility to threats and opportunities. The ideal is coordinated operations with decentralised control, a balance between efficiency, alignment and adaptability.
This requires a shared understanding of the environment and our place within it, alongside a shared sense of purpose – what we are trying to achieve and why. This requires leaders to create an ecosystem within the organisation and its environment that develops lateral as well as vertical ties to ensure shared understanding and purpose. Such systemic understanding and purpose then allows effective adaptation to emerging threats and opportunities by individuals and teams closest to the problem.
Action. To transform individual resources into collective power, relationships, stories, strategy and structure, must all be mobilised toward a common effort and then deployed through diverse tactics. For moments of protest to turn into powerful movements, tactical action must be strategic, focused, and well-executed.
Since most movements rely on people-based voluntary resources, learning how to secure sustained commitment of these resources while asking participants to take sometimes very costly tactical action is a key leadership challenge. Ineffective, disorganised, and poorly-executed actions undermine the sustained motivation necessary to keep the movement going forward.
Taken together, these five practices of social movements offer a useful way to analyse current business leadership and adapt to new forms more suited to a complex and fast paced world.