A Leaderless World: A Sign of the Times?

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

November 25, 2019

For several decades, the US was considered a major ‘influencer’ in the global context. It wielded commanding authority and even emerged as the sole superpower briefly when the Soviet Union collapsed. In recent times, however, there has been a marked shift in the prevailing global order and it has gradually begun yielding to what is termed as a multi-polar order. This has been observed on account of newer entrants such as China – one that has effectively consolidated its position as a force to reckon with. In addition to the US, the other G7 nations must also acknowledge that multi-polar leadership has dropped solid anchor and there must be cooperation with other emerging economies in the form of expanded blocs such as the G20.

However, there is an even more interesting point to note. Although it has been traditionally felt that there must be a leader, organization or perhaps even a revolution for any country, technology has paved the way for an entirely different structure – a structure that functions without a key figure holding the reins. 

The Rise of Leaderless Movements

Over the past year, there have been numerous instances of mass protests, spanning Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe and Latin America. A common thread observed through these events has been the absence of any overarching figure of authority. Yet, as is evident, these were organized efforts that gained rapid momentum and did not fizzle out when counter measures were enacted by their respective governments. Similar was the case during the Arab Spring of 2011. The underlying foundation for these protests has been social media and smartphone usage. There are no set manifestoes or slogans coined by political leaders; rather there are effectively worded hashtags.

A more recent leaderless movement is the gilets jaunes movement witnessed in France. Essentially, it is a political uprising without the presence of one key authority leading the decision making. In a non-political scenario, the #MeToo movement went viral across the globe, again without any one distinct leader.

Enacting Participatory Processes

Treading a similar trajectory is Carne Ross who was formerly associated with the British Foreign Office. In his 2011 book, The Leaderless Revolution, Ross  proposes ‘participatory democracy,’ implying that policymaking should be the culmination of numerous people coming together and arriving at solutions by means of urbane debate. What Ross puts forward could also be interpreted from a Darwinian perspective – old orders must evolve.

Ross was not merely expressing a hypothetical idea, and he showcased a working example from Porto Alegre, Brazil. This Brazilian city followed a participatory budgeting process and the outcomes have been noteworthy. There has been a four-fold increase in the number of schools, renewable energy generation efforts have been kick started, recycling has been actively practiced and there is almost uninterrupted availability of water and sanitation services.

The Corporate Sector and ‘Leaderlessness’

What if the same leaderless movement trend began making inroads into the corporate sector? The common grievance among workers in the developed world is of stagnant wages and across the spectrum, there have been several leaders who have led electoral victories on the basis of a protectionist mandate, citing globalization as an evil force. In case of emerging economies, large segments of their populations have been lifted out of abject poverty, largely due to globalization. It was instrumental in accelerating the world economy in the decades prior to 2008. However, in recent times, the rhetoric around anti-globalization has begun gaining steam. If this facet is juxtaposed with ‘leaderlessness,’ would it set up firms for a competitive advantage or epic failure?

One well known example of a ‘leaderless’ organization is the UK grocery retail chain called Waitrose, owned by the John Lewis Partnership. Its employees are all partners essentially and in 2018, each member received as much as 5 percent of their annual pay as a share of the company’s profits. In addition, the extent of benefits that each employee can avail certainly makes Waitrose an example that can perhaps be emulated on a broader scale.

Unprecedented Changes are on the Horizon

It must be acknowledged that the advent of technology has overhauled existing systems. What seemed a distant dream or even science fiction several decades ago is today an existing reality – one that will only become more advanced with further reach. The term ‘empowerment’ is often cited and technology and education has enabled individual empowerment. The concept of ‘leaderlessness’ could possibly begin making deeper inroads and it is prudent for governments and businesses alike to brace for abstract, if not, unprecedented changes in the areas of leadership.