Leaders, Figureheads, Talking Heads
In Transition World we have one main leader, Rob, and some additional respected figureheads. They are the ones that get invited along to important governmenty things and would be expected to do bigger media events. So what's the issue? Isn't that a fact of life? Isn't that how organisations naturally go? Well maybe, but do we really want to end up doing something without thinking about it? I've always believed Transition was forging a different path to everyone else. That's what has always made it more interesting, creative and challenging.
I remember once having a great chat with an ex-Plane Stupid organiser. He explained how the group actively fights to avoid winding up with a single person who will become synonymous with their cause. He said how much their approach enrages the press who are used to dealing with figureheads. Why are they being so awkward? So unaccommodating to those who could promote their story and whose world is based on personalities and not ideas. Based on my experience, Plane Stupid is plain wise.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think there's a massive problem with Transition because Rob's pretty unaffected, in every sense of the word. We've got away with it so far. But I think it's worth reflecting on what issues may come up for transition as a whole and also a local group's level. I've worked for quite a few organisations and I've seen the egos in action and thought quite a bit over the years about what the problems are with the alpha personalities. Here are the risks, as I see it, leaders becoming the organisation:
* The leader begins to believe the press about them. They give the impression that their voice IS the voice of the organisation. They take decisions without consulting and act on behalf of the organisation. Whatever that organisation says, how ever it like to see itself, it has become a hierarchy. The person at the top is saying how things are and those underneath are rebels or supporters. I remember someone at a local group once telling another member, "I won't allow that to happen" in response to a suggestion.Leaders with too much power can easily go that way.
* The people in the organisation begin to believe the press about them. They defer to the leader's point of view, even though the leader can't have the knowledge about everything that's going on, won't have read every email carefully, won't have thought things through as much as the specialists. Their intuition is trusted and if they're a very egotistical leader (which thank heavens we don't have) the leader will come to expect that respect.
* We end up with white male leaders and their female secretaries. I went to a church service recently where a vicar was getting signed in and was struck by the hierarchy of it all. There were rows of tall white vicars and loads of black women supporting staff who carried stuff around and seemed to do the cleaning up type things. Below them in the hierarchy were the congregation. You can guess who got the communion first, who wore the most fancy clothes (there was even one in a sleek, black satin cape), who headed up the processions and who got to talk during the service. This hierarchy is replicated elsewhere in society, maybe less obviously and without the bishop hats. We need to make sure that doesn't happen in transition land.
* We find we are relying on one person to keep on delivering. And how vulnerable is that? If they get abducted by aliens,think of the gap they are leaving behind. Could such an organisation ever recover?
* For those in the organisation who are now meant to be putting into practice what's been decided higher up the food chain, there's quite a few ways they can frame things. They can feel resentful, unappreciated and overlooked. They can criticise the leader. They can become competitive with each other in winning the favour of the leader. They can try to usurp the leader by undermining him or creating an opposing faction. They can be the loyal and lowly supporter. They can ignore the leader.
* In some organisations I've worked with, the guys at the top end up having complete contempt for the 'bean counters', the administrative people, the front of house, the customer service saying things like "I don't do detail". They become proud of their big picture view and start thinking that it's the only view that counts. They start to see the detail people as an annoying necessity for jumping through certain administrative hoops but secretly believe that they could achieve everything they wanted without them. They come to regard the specialists as getting in their way or of holding them back.
* Now they're at the top of the tree they're spending more time with people at the top of their trees and they start to see them as the group to which they belong – other people just like them. They're in with the in-crowd, the rich and powerful, the ideologists, the 'great thinkers', the champions. This can go either way: either they're mates with the head of such and such organisation or organisation X is competition or completely rubbish and not worth dealing with.
I'm not saying it's easy to do otherwise. Of course the most passionate will be most persuasive and motivated to communicate the mission of an organisation. Of course the most articulate and entertaining person will want to be the one who does the interviews. Of course it's easier to use a tried and tested person whom we know is going to do it well. There are always people who 'get their way'. And of course it would be impossible for an organisation to move forwards with any speed if everyone was expected to have an opinion on everything, and be consulted on it. Worse than that, I don't even know what alternative model to suggest. Probably something like Plane Stupid's rolling spokesperson approach. Ideas on a postcard. Meanwhile, here's a further illustration of what we're not, in the form of the wonderful Horrible Histories Four Georges song