“Author and 350.org spokesperson Bill Mckibben recently wrote an article in which he proclaims the idea of a Leaderless climate movement in which there is no one central figure. Predictably the message has won widespread acclaim from activists since it reinforces their deeply held beliefs in radical democracy, grass-roots organisation and consensus. But I’d argue that McKibben is wrong.” Luke believes a Leader is exactly what the movement needs.

Author and 350.org spokesperson Bill Mckibben recently wrote an article in which he proclaims the idea of a Leaderless climate movement (McKibben distinguishes between small ‘l’ and capital ‘L’ leaders) in which there is no one central figure. In doing so, he suggests that he will be taking a step back from Leading 350, and by extension, scaling back his role as a figurehead of the climate movement more widely.

Portrait of Bill McKibben, author and activist. photo ©Nancie Battaglia
Bill McKibben. photo ©Nancie Battaglia

Predictably the message has won widespread acclaim from activists since it reinforces their deeply held beliefs in radical democracy, grass-roots organisation and consensus. But I’d argue that McKibben is wrong.  The environmental movement shouldn’t avoid having a Leader or leadership, because it desperately needs one in order to regain what we are in dire of; a vision that the movement can mobilise behind, and momentum in the right direction.

A Vision to Move Towards

Organisation, long-term plans and a grand strategy are the foundation for any effective political force.   This comes from the coherent vision and dedication of either a leader or an organisational core of leadership (I refer to this as an organisation core from now on).   More often than not it is both – a Leader supported by a committed group behind the scenes – but either way it is often the more fundamental attributes of leadership (vision, dedication, a willingness to make difficult decisions etc.) that are indispensable.

What is more, the best Leaders don’t simply take the podium to make speeches – they empower others around them.  A Leader or organisational core (or both) can provide the resources, coordination and a common narrative to unite and direct the multitude of leaders on the ground, while drawing in others from far and wide.  They are not commanders, but the conductors of a movement.

As such, I can support McKibben’s call for a “Leader-full” movement (a movement full of smaller leaders at more local levels).  We need empowered individuals at all levels that are willing to make the tough choices and provide inspiration.

The problem of attempting to be Leader-full in a totally decentralised way is that there is little to reconcile disparate agendas and priorities.   A decentralised movement can easily fall into infighting and power struggles.

Ironically, movements tend to fall into more instinctive social hierarchies in the absence of structure or leadership.  The loudest and most assertive become the leaders, although they are often not the best suited to the task.  Leaderlessness and a lack of structure, despite its intentions, ultimately ends with disempowerment and disintegration.   The fate of Occupy, what McKibben calls the “ultimate in Leaderlessness”, should be a constant reminder of this.

As one recent article about the ‘Leaderless’ movement in Turkey put it, movements need

“… a visionary with the gravitas and charisma to represent their purpose and to see it to its end. Whatever their unified ideal may be, without someone to guide and represent them, to be their general-at-arms as much in government discussions as in street battles, they are marchers without a movement.

– Abigail R. Esman

Gaining a Future

Rejecting a Leader or core to become Leader-full is simply tall poppy syndrome under the guise of egalitarianism.  Optimally we want the entire holy trinity of leadership; a Leader supporting by an organisational core which works to empower leaders from all walks of life at every level.   350 itself is a good example of this, having Bill McKibben as its head, an organised, well-resourced core and many leaders springing up at regional and local levels.  It’s one of the reasons it has been one of the most successful organisations in inspiring and catalysing a movement.

Source: Arab Youth Climate Movement via IndyReader
Source: Arab Youth Climate Movement via IndyReader

The closest that we have had to a common vision has been the “Divestment” campaign that was initiated and directed by 350.  The idea of divestment has spread across the world and seen real successes such as both the World Bank and European Investment Bank decided to move investments away from fossil fuels.   When our movement even has the hint of a leader and a unifying vision we are capable of incredible achievements.  Yet Divestment is only one goal, it does not provide the larger narrative we need.  We are still waiting for the voice and the vision that can provide a common thread for the current fragmented tapestry that is the climate movement.

Leadership is not made by actions or qualities; it is a matter of results. Movements by nature are tumultuous beasts: prone to anger and difficult to direct. But there is a reason that countries have a figurehead, corporations have a CEO, religions have deities and divine beings, and successful movements have Leaders.   Being Leaderful may allow for resistance, but we need something more if we are to go beyond opposition to achieving political victory.   We need to stop fearing hierarchy and confusing it for bureaucracy.  We need to heighten our aspirations and embrace the necessary leadership no matter what face it may take.


Featured Image Credit: DavidSpinks via Compfight cc

Written by Luke Kemp

Luke Kemp

Luke is a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University and Research Fellow with the Earth System Governance Project. His current research focuses upon institutional reform of international environmental governance.When not criticizing consensus or writing his thesis he enjoys meditation and plotting world domination.