‘Leaderless’ does not mean chaotic

op1-cr Colby Patterson
Rory Penman

Rory Penman

When we encounter problems as customers, the first thing we ask is to speak to someone in charge. For many Americans, our professional lives are centered around “moving up the ladder” in pursuit of positions that offer us power and authority. What if that wasn’t the case? What if we could operate on equal standing with our coworkers, generating stability and creativity without the fear of being passed over in the race to the top? This is the power of leaderless organizations.

Leaderless organizations represent a new way to function — they equally value the members of each system, allowing for a flow of ideas among peers.

Contrary to popular opinion, the term “leaderless” doesn’t mean chaotic or a group of people ceaselessly talking over each other in an attempt to have their voice heard. Leaderless organizations are just that, organized, but not in a traditional hierarchical structure. Individuals within the group are encouraged to take the lead when they deem it necessary, the structure of the group allowing for multiple persons to do this in turns.

Imagine a discussion with your classmates or friends about any topic of your choosing. Is it usually dictated by a single person — a leader who indicates to you when you’re allowed to speak and when you should stop? In a healthy discussion, conversation is introduced by a single person, then continued and fostered by the group. Individuals have the opportunity to offer their opinion and listen actively when others are offering theirs. This is how peer-based organizations work.

In typical hierarchical businesses, leaders absorb the effort and value of their employees, since the leaders represent the face of the company. In many cases both they and their subordinates are consumed with competition and a desire for power, along with a single burning question: “How do I get to the top?” But within a leaderless organization, employees are motivated by the pursuit of a single goal instead — they value each other’s input as steps toward that goal, and within a less rigid environment, creative and novel solutions can be better utilized. Employees become greater assets, and power is transmitted to the 99 percent instead of the one percent.

The Starfish and the Spider, a history of the Spanish defeat of the Aztecs and Incas by Brafman and Beckstrom, introduces the origins of leaderless organizations. Each of these vast empires fell in a short two years after the deaths of their leaders at the hands of Cortes and Pizarro, respectively. Once they’d lost their rulers the people quickly starved and were executed, floundering after the loss of leadership. But in the 1680s the Spaniards encountered the Apaches on their way back to Spain, invaded with the intent to overthrow them, and lost. The Apaches were unlike the previous civilizations because they were decentralized; they violently resisted as a united group, thwarting the Spaniards’ plans to convert them to Christianity and change their lifestyle.

Today groups like Occupy Wall Street exist as peer-based organizations, and sites like Meetup allow individuals to come together and participate in leaderless discussions and activities. Social media has played an integral role in allowing this to happen, providing users with a means to facilitate communication.

I’m not advocating complete decentralization or a total rejection of any semblance of authority. Leadership in itself is a valuable quality, and peer-based organizations don’t reject that inherent value. Instead, they recognize that leadership can be shared, fostering dialogue and creativity among equals and allowing participants to be vocal and respectful.

In the 1960s scientists such as Jerome Littvin from MIT discovered the brain doesn’t have a hierarchical structure, as previously believed.

Individual memories aren’t contained within specific neurons; they’re distributed across the brain, allowing for more resilience. Our biology proves we don’t need to think in hierarchical terms, that the structure of our organizations is an extension of our mentality. It’s about time that mentality changed.