Monthly Archives: August 2011

Leadership lessons from rioters?

Only having one english TV channel here in Germany can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I am more aware than ever of current events thanks to the tireless work of BBC World. On the other hand one can hear too much bad news in the world. One story that I’m sure everyone is aware of lately is the riots in London. A lot has been written and reported about this already and I have no intention of being yet another amateur pundit but I have some thoughts on the nature of leadership and crowds.

The behaviour of groups is something close to my heart in my area of complexity research. In nature ants build colonies, bees swarm and birds flock. In human social systems similar mechanisms also apply. People can come together rapidly for a common purpose and disband just as rapidly. Such was the case in the London riots. Many people were surprised at the ability of so many people to organise so quickly to do such terrible things. The internet has indeed opened a Pandora’s box or organising. The London riots are an example of social networking used for “evil” as it were. The so-called “Arab Spring” in the Middle East is an example of social networking being used for “good” to organised against oppressive governments.

The things that these groups have in common is no real central leadership. This is interesting from an organisational point of view. In organisations we make a lot of noise about leadership and how it is demonstrated and experienced within the organisation but do we need it? Assuming that we still need it (and I think there is still a place for some styles of leadership) how does it need to change to take into account the tendency of humans to self-organise and build networks?

Current theories of leadership often fail to take this into account. Many theories of leadership, and indeed leadership education in general, still take the old-fashioned mechanistic view of an organisation with its quasi-military hierarchy. For all the talk of flattening organisations we haven’t really come far in real terms. The events of the past year in the world show how people from very disparate backgrounds can organise themselves for a common goal using physical and technological networks. This happens in organisations every day but if often missed by the powers-that-be. The question is, how can we harness this to be more effective as leaders and as organisations? I wish I had the answer!