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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:

 you will respect my authoritah* 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

Video link


Mark Watson's picture


What you've written here Jo articulates a hundred and one things I've had moving sluggishly and inchoately around in my (sub)consciousness for what seems like an aeon without them surfacing into any coherence, but nevertheless which grumble their way into my day on a regular basis.

Just to choose one:

The guys at the top end... 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.

I've really experienced this as far as communications goes.

And I frequently have to face my own resentment about these issues.

And I'm also not sure what the answer is.

But thanks for bringing this key issue right onto the table.

Would you like to be the leader of a new anti-leader group? (Just kidding!)

Jo Homan's picture

leading the anti leader group

thanks Mark. 

As your leader, I encourage you, from time to time and always in a respectful manner, to question my logic. If you're unconvinced a particular plan of action I've decided is the wisest, tell me so! But allow me to convince you. And I promise you, right here and now, no subject will ever be taboo … except, of course, the subject that was just under discussion. The price you pay for bringing up either my Chinese or American heritage as a negative is – I collect your ****ng head. [Holds up Tanaka's head] Just like this ****er here. Now, if any of you sons of ******* got anything else to say, now's the ****ing time! [Pause] I didn't think so.

Actually, people in 'normal' organisations routinely speak to each other like that, but with sybollic decapitations. (This is from Kill Bill, by the way)

Charlotte Du Cann's picture

all chiefs and no indians

There's also this great bit in Fight Club:

Remember this. The people you're trying to step on, we're everyone you depend on. We're the people who do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you're asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers and we know everything about you. We process your insurance claims and credit card charges. We control every part of your life

This is such a great post, and as a bean-pushing comms person I TOTALLY relate to what you are saying. Comms people are rarely included in the big "power" decisions, often conducted by people who are not even active in Transition.

We really don't need leaders: co-ordinators and connectors within a fluid structure certainly, but nothing to do with hierarchy. This is a big elephant - how we deconstruct an ancient power structure within ourselves and within groups - but as Jung said about tyrants, it takes the oppressed to take their head from beneath the tyrant's boot to topple the statue.

We have to not be treated as servants but we also have to stop behaving like servants too. Fawning around gurus, stars, saviours, aristos, the elite, and setting up our own heroes (including Rob).

In the future everyman will be king, as the artist Joseph Beuys once said.

In Transition this means everyone has to have the voice in the room. In Sustainable Bungay we have always tried to have as many of us as possible to talk on the radio for example, and as an ed I've always worked hard to divest the role of writer and editor, so everyone in the crew holds the enterprise. Sometimes though, it's hard to divest that stuff. Not everyone wants to take the helm. We want people to take the rap and the responsibility. Leaders can be nannies and scapegoats too.

Have you read the Tyranny of Structurelessness? It's a great paper written in the 70s about the Women's movement and covert power play  . . .

Ann Owen's picture

Such a great topic!

What a rich topic, so well introduced with a lot of clarity. I will recommend this for the Transition Thrive training in the bit on leadership. Our ideas on leadership are just so conflicting, I think it would be worth to have a whole week on this subject.

Great job, Jo!

Jo Homan's picture

Tyranny of Structrelessness

Yes, good article, but quite long! Sharing out of jobs/power is such a huge issue.

richwaring's picture

negative to positive

Hi Jo - really good article, raising an important point.

As a white male with a big mouth, I kind of see both sides of this one. I'm going to mostly keep my big mouth shut and try to turn around the "undesirable" bullet points above, to make criteria for what we might want to do instead - knowing what you want can be a powerful thing....

- "leaders" - remember that your voice is just one voice within the group. Is it really OK to make this decision alone or do you need to check other perspectives in the group.

- "followers" question your leaders

- white men, step back (or step into central roles more slowly, looking around to see if alternative perspectives can be represented). Everyone else, remember that your viewpoint is as valid and probably more needed for being under-represented - step forward.

- spread the workload (also spreading the risk of burnout)

[...struggling a bit now...]

- "followers", try to express your feelings directly (resentful, unappreciated, overlooked). "leaders" realise that groups live or die based on how they feel and how they treat each other.

That's about as far as I get with the bullet points before my approach falls apart. Hey ho, I think it was OK as far as it went.

I don't think there are any hard and fast rules for fixing this, but the more we are able to broach the subject within our groups and the more we'll be able to figure out how the group needs to deal with it.

Maybe a leader's first job is just to hear from everyone....

Jo Homan's picture

Hi there Rich

thanks for this. You make some good points. I seem to remember reading something by Starhawk that touched on group dynamics, in relation to leadership. There's a lot of work been done on it. Nick Osborne from Response-Ability has definitely "been there". He's done some really interesting presentations on groups, (which I think is somewhere on the new Reconomy website.) Don't know what the answer is specifically in relation to who fronts an organisation / loose affiliation like ours.