Leaderless Groups and Why Wilfred Brown Was Brilliant

Forrest ChristianManaging, Organizations 3 Comments

Mohit Kishore, an always interesting perspective, published an article in The Hindu Business Line — “Leaderless groups – a case against hierarchy“. (He republished it in his blog.) It’s interesting in light of some of our recent discussions, especially at Toronto. A few thoughts and responses to it.

Many of the cases that he cites are indeed the cases that are usually cited as examples of leaderless groups that are successful. But just because it is said often and loudly doesn’t make it true. Wikipedia is not actually free of leadership. It is controlled by a single individual and created by only two people. So there is a clear “leader” if by that you mean that there is a person who sets the rules for everyone else. And it isn’t really a leaderless effort but a political free-for-all. Take, for example, the entry on the Rape of Nanking. Which is why the Encyclopeadia Britanica was right in their response to Nature‘s ridiculous “study” that supposedly showed that Wikipedia was EB’s equal. Wikipedia is an example of not leaderless groups but the power of special interests over common sense. When looked at closely, Wikipedia follows pretty much the same methodology that EB does, just with much worse results. A group of editors oversees specialists (whether Wikipedia’s self-proclaimed experts or EB’s choosing eminent members of a field) who produce articles that get vetted by others over time. It certainly isn’t leaderless in Wikipedia. It’s just decentralized, as is EB in its knowledge production. But each area seems to have its own leader.

Open Source Software (OSS) has the same reality. Great OSS projects have tended to have a core group (usually a single person) who controls what is added to the project and what isn’t. Where leadership (context-setting so that work can be done and conflicts resolved by seeing how they both contribute to the next higher level of abstraction) is absent, projects have an irritating tendency to fork. Examples of single leader in the anarchic OSS world are Larry Wall in Perl, Linus Torvalds in the Linux kernel, and Richard Stallman in GNU.

Sometimes we just have mobs. Sometimes we have emergent societies spring from the mob. I’m just saying that they’re rare and only occur within a culture of highly homogeneous social values. The “wisdom” in “wisdom of crowds” is just that: knowledge that is more accurate. It does not mean that the same crowd can take intelligent action.

I’m not insisting on the need for some Overseer or Overlord. It’s just that someone providing context (what I refer to as “leadership”) is usually present in some form. Terrorist cells have ideological leaders. Guerrilla groups likewise have leaders, often extraordinarily strong ones.

At the same time, Great Men planning life for the rest of us has almost always resulted in disaster. Le Corbusier and his ilk, including the great Western and Soviet engineers of the Third World Projects, didn’t know what was best for us any more than many of the other over-Enlightened folks did. They are simply Evil to humanity because they thought they were gods. This is not leadership. I have no idea why anyone would think that he with his stupid degree would know better than the received wisdom that a local people accumulated over centuries.

(And it’s not just Westerners who do this, of course. Chinese history seems littered with idiotic decisions made by Emperors or even Communist leaders. Anyone recall the destruction of the shipbuilding industry in the 15th century or the Cultural Revolution?)

There are seemingly leaderless movements, movements of great Democratic Import. But just because people are below the caste of the “leaders” of a society doesn’t mean that they are stupid or aren’t leading. My ancestors led the Redneck Revolution and other workers-rights actions in the mountains of America. They were considered a mob attacking the Leaders. But my granddaddy’s cousin was a leader who got men to action. It may have been easy, seeing as the abuses by the mine owners were so egregious but still there were leaders.

We may need a variety of leaderships to accomplish societal goals. We may even need a bit of Chimp Leadership, that primal primate “big ape” technique that is so common and which passes for leadership in my world. But we certainly don’t need as much as we have.

There are socially emergent phenomena that no one “led” or should take credit for. They just happened. Lots of people were all working in the same way. The OSS movement (as opposed to the OSS projects themselves) is an example of this. The Web, for all of the credit that Berners-Lee rightly deserves, came out of a milieu with it happening in other ways. Berners-Lee’s brilliance was in making it simple and extensible, although you will notice that NCSA’s Mosaic and Netscape made the Web take off. Each group responsible for so much that was happening, acting on their own, with the Invisible Hand of economy prodding each. This is a leaderless movement. But the groups within it are not leaderless, in that there was a person whom others were following.

I’m a big believer in democratic movements and in democracy, even in the workplace. “WE SERVE NO SOVEREIGN HERE” is as much a part of my thinking as it was of my American Revolution ancestors. I’m not a fan of the Big Man school of management even if the Big Man has sufficient human capability to fill the role. I’ve had enough of despots, whether at work or in government. Too many Americans forget that our Great Leader, George Washington, was considered Great in no small part because he stepped down from power.

Wilfred Brown’s brilliance in the combination of works councils with work levels has greater social import than the later CRA work, which I don’t think had as big of an idea behind it. But Brown led in a way by ceding power from the CEO and the management hierarchy to the Works Council. I think that if more people understood Brown’s structure for management — which required a works council at every level of the organization, filled by elected representatives from that level, including those not in unions — and his sister belief that issues of policy required the entire workforce to have a voice even though issues of working were the purview of management.

This balance, of policy being determined by the entire workforce in conversation with the representatives of the shareholders while work being determined by management, is a tricky one and probably requires more robust social structures than Lord Brown implemented at Glacier. He was right in thinking it “constitutionally” but he probably didn’t go far enough to contractually bind any future owners to the rules.

So it’s interesting that here in Glacier of the 1950s — and not from what I’ve seen in CRA, Requisite Organization’s big example, but probably in Inglis — we see Leaders with clearly defined roles and Leaderless Groups with clearly defined roles. Both played important parts in the organization’s success, and their success is through the struggles between them.

Comments 3

  1. I have an interesting newspaper cutting about a company without managers. There was an owner/manager and 40 employees. Since all employees were experienced and capable they did not need the close supervision of middle managers.

    Instead they were “organized” into four somewhat fluid groups that coordinated themselves and the owner/manager met all groups weekly. Since this was a small company in one location the manager and the employees met each other all the time.

    A nice example of a higher manager who saw how he could use the capabilities and energies of all employees without having supervisors trampling on their toes all the time.

    But of course it was not a company without leaders. There was one manager holding all the others accountable for their contributions.

    I have a lot of personal experience from the scouts. I rarely saw any group that I would call leaderless. For efficient results somebody would usually step in and facilitate so that expected outcomes of a meeting were reached. But it being a membership association each member could only hold him-/herself accountable for their contribution. And as Castells describes in the Network Society any individual who did not contribute would in the long run be avoided and eventually shunned, so there is a form of accountability even in an association.

  2. I am researching a PhD on leaderless groups. I tend to use the academic term acephalous, but it is hard to find a good word. There must obviously be leadership. nothing changes without leadership, but it is how it happens. I have a group as a case study called Convergence (convergence.net.nz). It has been operating for nearly 30 years running an annual gathering for six days of 300+ people without a tsructured leadership. there are key people who operate in a low key way. I have found 5 ways decisions are made in the group

    Experienced members just do routine tasks or tasks that tere is an established protocol for.

    individuals step up when they see a need and might enlist help to solve a problem

    a self selected group, which might seek out particular people, comes together to sole a particular problem.

    The whole gathering “makes a decision” by a significant number of individuals independently chosing to do something making other option unviable

    There are sharing circles where people can bring issues for discussion

    A facebook page is increasingly being used as a place to air issues.

    There a are a number of reasons that help make Convergence viable

    It only meets for 6 days a year (although mini gatherings, working bees etc are happening more and more.

    There are not realy critical tasks. While health and safety issues could certainly turn into life and death situations, in general if any task is not completed satisfactorily and on time there are not serious consequences

    There is a strong shared ethos – willingness to discuss issues openly and non acrimoniously and an openness and tolerance to others.

    The group has minimal linkages to the outside world that it would neeed to make compromises or contractual obligations with.

    The group has developed a leaderless style over the years. there is a strong institutional knowledge of what practices work and how challenges are overcome..

    I am keen to discuss these ideas more with anyone

  3. Post


    Leaderless groups were once the norm for humans, during a long hunter-gatherer stage. Some religious communities, including some “normal” churches in Western society, have designated heads but are operationally leaderless in the way you describe.

    The early leaderlessness of human societies is really fascinating. “Pathways to Power: The new perspectives on the emergence of social inequality” is a good primer, I think: I am in no way an expert in this. It’s interesting but there’s good evidence that it was an aberration in primate developmental evolution due to a particular set of developments.

    My colleagues strongly disagree that leaderless groups could arise. I understand what they are saying but I believe they are forcing a definition where it doesn’t fit.

    At the same time, lots of places claim to be leaderless but aren’t. Gore & Associates, makers of GOREtex and other interesting things, are supposedly leaderless. Each site is <250 persons, and there is no managers at all. However, my reading says that there is an emergent hierarchy that is unstated, and that this emergent hierarchy matches what Elliott Jaques would have predicted for that site. Karen Stephenson’s work on emergent social networks (that’s the real thing and not Facebook) is interesting to see how groups that are leaderless may still have an observable network hierarchy.

    Movements are actually leaderless, which is something I learned from Warren Kinston. There are Thought Leaders but that’s not what we think of as leadership of a group. They simply say things that people may or may not find interesting. Individual groups within a movement may have a leader but movements themselves don’t. So the Tea Party political movement in the United States has no leader, but there are several thought leaders whose ideas at different times drive the movement’s adherents. Convergence seems like a movement gathering and not a defined group, from what I read.

    Matthew Kalman at the RSA probably has pointers to more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *