Benito Mussolini conciona la folla in Piazza Duomo a Milano, nel maggio 1930-Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-09844 / CC-BY-SA

Why Leaderless Groups Go Fascist

Forrest ChristianChange, Organizations 1 Comment

I recently tweeted that “As long as you advocate leaderless groups, the power-hungry will control you. The answer is more complex.” Asked to provide some more, I figured I’d do it here since it ties into some of the workplace stuff we’ve been talking about (from when Wilfred Brown was MD/CEO of Glacier) and the new model of Evangelical church organization.

I’ve talked about this issue before and it’s been contradictory. I’ve written about “Leaderless Groups and Why Wilfred Brown Was Brilliant“, The Single Leader Fallacy and employee participation in policy making through representative democracy. I’ve even talked about fascist pastors. and my thinking has been changed a good deal by the work of Warren Kinston on movements and purpose. That makes this worth going over.

John drinks with the lads. I did this in 1992: God knows where it is from.
A leaderless group that works.

First, as always, we have to actually say what we’re talking about.

Let’s imagine a group that is going to make all decisions jointly, a truly leaderless group. This isn’t just a group that is titularly leaderless but leaderless even in the social arrangements. There is no Alpha monkey: everything is done jointly.

This can and does work. The problems come after you get much beyond eight. You end up wanting to delegate some decision making, within proscribed limits, to some executive or servant. Shareholders do this when they delegate running the business to a Board and executive. Workgroups do this when they give one person the authority to set up the Christmas party or the weekly lunch out. This is best described as proscribed delegated leadership. But it’s still what most people thin of as being leaderless.

That’s probably enough for us right now.

The problem of groups that are simply titularly leaderless is that they can have a shadow side where there are leaders. Think a clique of middle-school girls: there is no titular Queen Bee, so no official leader, but everyone knows who it is. Because of the way that group dynamics (and monkey politics) works, there are often few restraints on this shadow leader’s power.

Adult groups are mostly the same. In the absence of social rules (whether constitutional or strong monolithic culture in the greater society) there will arise a monkey leader, the Alpha, as it were. The power-hungry love these groups, the flat organizations and “democratic” social groups, whether religious or even yoga societies. They can start building a shadow structure using monkey politics.

Think back to the French Revolution: a democratic movement devolves into dictatorship. Movements are always leaderless, at least in the way most people think. There are “thought leaders” and others who rally the troops, but the actual movement does not and cannot have a leader. The problem is that in order to get much done, they need to organize. And organizing means organization, and that means some from of decision making structure and usually formal authority roles. The French democratic movement had no single leader. As it progressed, the power hungry popped in and took power. It’s just so easy in leaderless groups that are trying to do things.

It’s why direct democracy doesn’t work beyond a certain point (and it can be thousands, depending on the homogeneity of the culture). California’s current problem shows it. Propositions, the direct making of law by the people, was stupid and now they can’t get out of it. Representative democracy allows the people to delegate authority to “leaders” to do certain things.

Wilfred Brown showed that “leaders” are necessary in workplaces to get things done, just as a form of democracy deciding changes in policy is also necessary. The elected representatives on the works council were delegated authority by the different constituencies at the plant to make decisions about changes to policy, such as whether a plant would be closed or changes to how overtime would be allotted. The management then had to work within the limits proscribed by the policies, as they already worked under the authority delegated to them within the limits proscribed by the shareholders (through their representatives, the Board) and the society (through laws and charters). This is what Brown called a Constitutional Model.

Most of the time this mixed model works best. Direct democracy works only with very small groups and almost always requires strong social norms governing what can and can’t be done by anyone seeking to gather power for himself. In most of our society, we don’t have these and the power-hungry take advantage of it to control the group through monkey politics.

Similar things happen in churches. Baptists were always direct democracy people, where almost all important decisions were made by the whole congregation. (This model is actually advocated in the best-selling Experiencing God studies.) As they grew above around 250 or so, the clergy or staff started assuming more decision making power. When they get to be 1,000 or so, they are pretty much run using the totalitarian leadership. Some call it the “CEO Pastor Model” but it’s pretty much one person with all the power in the church. Very, very hard to have a voice except to get him fired, and that’s really tough because he controls all the “organs of the state”.

It’s surprising, but the French reformation figure John Calvin understood power. Surprising because almost no Calvinist congregations follow him in this understanding. His model is brilliant by dividing powers against each other, developing constitutional power and competition, and insisting on democracy in key areas. The latter always gets overlooked by Calvinists who are freakishly concerned with concentrating power in small groups of elites, something Calvin would understand for what it is. I mention his model because I’m of the opinion that Scottish Presbyterian values undergirded Wilfred Brown’s model for industrial democracy and management power.

I suppose what is driving this is that I don’t really think that groups are leaderless. If you do social network analysis, you usually come up with someone who is the top dog and likes it. Putting constitutional controls around this charismatic power brings us out of animal and into human.

This probably makes it all as clear as mud.

“You’re against the Great Leader but you think leaderless groups are stupid?”


Benito Mussolini conciona la folla in Piazza Duomo a Milano, nel maggio 1930. Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-09844 / CC-BY-SA

Comments 1

  1. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread…”

    Forrest, I’d change the first word in this quote to “Brave souls…”

    I think the modern phrase is: Speak truth to power. I think you are doing phase ‘zero’, i.e. to name the elephant in the room….power.

    I like “monkey politics”. I just hope it does not get equated to a “water buffalo” by some PC commissar!

Leave a Reply

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