The Leaderless Revolution

Release Date: 
September 1, 2011
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

“Idealistic and impassioned, wide-ranging and concise, pragmatic and eloquent, . . .”

Nearly a half century ago, the Beatles sang,

“You say you all want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world.”

But who is going to lead this revolution? The Beatles? Some politician? Who?

Since then, there have been any number of revolutions: in values, technologies, business models, industries, disciplines, and more. At the very time The Beatles were singing about wanting a revolution, management guru Peter Drucker proclaimed The Age of Discontinuity, the title of his highly influential book. Dr. Drucker's message was that the relative continuity in many aspects of life and society throughout much of the 20th century was being shoved aside, replaced by “discontinuity,” as the forces of change overwhelmed and revolted against the patterns of continuity.

Subsequently, any number of authors added their own interpretations of the incipient revolutions movement: Alvin Toffler with Future Shock, John Naisbitt with Megatrends. . . .

Historians will likely chronicle the current period as a time of revolution. People in any number of places have revolted against long established political systems and entrenched monarchs. In the U.S. the self-styled Tea Party is pushing for change, challenging the established political order, backing and electing candidates, committed to reducing both government and the taxes to pay for government.

Each of these revolutions is unique, yet each shares a common attribute that is the focus of the insightful study by Carne Ross, The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century.

Whereas place distances and communications, information, and transportation technologies earlier mandated representative democracy, whereby the people elected others to make decisions on their behalf, today these factors no longer are barriers to deliberative democracy, in which the citizen can directly explore and engage in issues.

Notwithstanding, the capacity for citizens to be more directly engaged the political space is dominated not be citizens but by big business and the wealthy, resulting in politics as a spectator sport of “we observe, they do.”

In his book the author “argues that people will benefit by taking charge of their shared affairs locally, but crucially this means that they must also have agency over those decisions: control.”

The intersection of polarizing partisanship, causing diffusion of the common, leads to greater relative power for the special interests. And the emphasis on specialization manifested by staff focus on parts lead to missing the big picture and governments ignoring warnings of wrongdoing, as most visibly evidenced by the Bernie Madoff criminal conspiracy.

Carne Ross avers, “Things do not seem to go as planned. The system is broken. Meant to bring order, it foments instead disorder. We need something new.” The author’s experience in government dysfunctionality includes being deemed the U.K. “Iraq expert,” though having never been to the place. Now running Independent Diplomat, an advisory group working with countries and political groups throughout the world, his perspectives are informed by earlier service as a senior British Diplomat, which role he himself ended by resigning over the 2003 Iraq War.

From any number of commentators, in every media from the talk shows to print journalism to social network conversations to the blogosphere, The Leaderless Revolution stands out in its insightful treatment of the nuance-colored, complex, seemingly irrational and inexplicably tumultuous events. Government is not well positioned to do what it is tasked to do.

The problems are unfamiliar, their causes misunderstood. The people and process are not adequately equipped for the tasks. Officials focus on and pursuit of politics and power, leading them to emphasize simplicity in confronting challenges characterized by great complexity.

Though extraordinary resources devoted to “myriad international problems that cross frontiers,” the lattice of organizations, hundreds of meetings, and thousands of delegates involved collectively produce no evident progress and may actually aggravate for citizens exacerbate the very issues that they are charged to address and resolve.

Distancing his interpretation from both those who offer simplistic assessments and also those who say contemporary times are utterly incomprehensible, he writes that events “do not follow the neat patterns of a flow chart or a mathematical equation.

Though multiple and complex, the model of a chess game is no more appropriate, either. What we witness in the world is not ordered, at least in a sequential, logical fashion, but neither is it chaos. It is entirely wrong to say that the pattern of cause and effect in the world today is chaotic and anarchic, even if it sometimes seems that way.”

Carne Ross warns of the perilous consequences of “an artificial simplicity imposed upon complexity,” for what appears to be chaos is in truth “a hugely complex and dynamic mesh of multiple cause and effect and back again.”

His brief is chillingly prescient regarding reasons why the current state of affairs is setting the stage for why people today would be a receptive audience for the Beatles rock ’n’ roll revolution message: “Banks and whole countries crash, almost without warning. Meanwhile, the gap between a tiny number of the very rich and everyone else has accelerated rapidly, in every region and country. . . .”

In every profession and trade, global competition means that jobs and careers once thought of as safe are no longer. Industries that have stood for generations can collapse in a few years. Few people can now look forward to a secure retirement.

“The promise of capitalism seems more and more hollow. As its benefits are ever more unevenly shared, it has created a culture that cherishes much that is worst in human nature. Too much modern work is demeaning, or simply boring. Little offers meaning.”

As evidence of the obsolescence of conventional “Us vs. Them” thinking, the author notes how, “People of more than ninety nationalities were killed in the destruction of the Twin Towers.”

Attacks on any place would harm many with ties to the place originating the attack, for many Muslims live in India, many Arabs in today’s interconnected world reside in Israel. “Destroying New York would kill people from every country on earth . . . one borough of the city contains at least 160 different nationalities. Killing them would mean killing Us.”

Advocating “a radically different approach to conducting our affairs,” The Leaderless Revolution advances “four simple ideas . . . The first is that in an increasingly interconnect system, such as the world emerging in the twenty-first century, the action of one individual or a small group can affect the whole system very rapidly. . . .

“The second key idea is that it is action that convinces, not words. New research is now demonstrating what good theater directors have always known: Show, don't tell . . .

“The third key idea is about engagement and discussion . . . Decision-making is better when it includes the people most affected . . . the fourth idea . . . suffuses the argument throughout The Leaderless Revolution: agency—the power to decide matters for ourselves. We have lost agency. We need to take it back. We have become too detached from the decisions most important to us; we are disconnected, alienated, including from one another.”

The author proposes that by taking back agency, “We may find a fulfillment and satisfaction, and perhaps even a meaning, which so often seems elusive in the contemporary circumstance.”

Packed with sparkling insights, stories concurrently inspiring and dispiriting, commentary raw in impact and eloquent in implication, The Leaderless Revolution is informed by the author’s experience in playing a leading role in a political process that at times can seem too much a mirror of “Saturday Night Live” or a BBC comedy.

Idealistic and impassioned, wide-ranging and concise, pragmatic and eloquent, The Leaderless Revolution message deserves consideration by everyone concerned with the future of government and society.

An interesting application of this book would be as a guide to quiz political candidates about their ideas for the future. To this end, any person considering donating, working for, or supporting a political candidate would do well to ask that candidate to read The Leaderless Revolution and discuss how she/he might employ this thinking in the office sought. That discussion would then determine whether that candidate merited backing. This single initiative could measurably improve the political process and government performance.