Do We Need Leaders?

Do we need leaders when our most pressing task is to collapse with as much, or as little, grace as we can muster? Do we need to maintain the fiction that leaders are necessary?

Movements require leaders to galvanize the masses and run herd on them. Movements are mechanisms to chain us to ideologies, not ways to discover and then deal with conditions affecting our lives. The manifestations of public outrage today are not movements. They are made up of people fed-up with being chained to the agendas of others. Their lack of leaders is not a “growing pain” or a “stage” to be outgrown. Their power comes from the alignment of a multitude of individuals who have each reached some point at which they chose to refuse to accept their continued exploitation.

To willfully accept a new crop of exploiters eager to fill the “vacuum” would be a loss. To see new leaders as “saviors” would be a defeat of what is most telling in these moments. To succumb to such an imposition while maintaining a memory of what had happened and maintaining their defiance for another day would not be a loss or a defeat. Their refusal is against exploitation itself, not a particular regime. Their victory comes from their refusal to accept a fresh harness. It’s imposition is not their defeat, just a set-back.

In a time of collapse the expected measure of a “positive” outcome needs total revision. A new “successful” leadership means a re-imposition of the collective fantasy that leadership brings with it beneficial control over our conditions. This is a dangerous fantasy. It only brings a temporary and costly delay to our inevitable collapse. It only extends our over-reach and makes the fall that much harder.

The genius of these rebellions is that they are made up of a gathering of self-motivated individuals and not an aggregation of atomized alienated ciphers into a “mass.” This is a recognition at some level that any agglomeration is more susceptible to the shocks of collapse than are smaller organic communities. To act on this realization does not require building a movement or organizing an opposition. All it asks of us is a refusal to participate in our own exploitation.

Collapse is the mother-of-all wars-of-attrition! But it throws the notion on its head. Smaller, intrinsically sound units of conviviality will outlast any larger aggregation. Its people will have more opportunities to grapple with the intractability of our predicaments in a mature and enwisening manner while those who maintain the fiction of leadership, control, and unending growth will remain infantilized and incapable of bending to straightened circumstances.

History has seen moments like these before; the peasant revolts throughout the Middle Ages; even the dissolution of empire, later empire-builders took a “right” of primogeniture to classify as “Dark Ages,” was probably filled with such moments when people refused to obey and simply got on with their lives. The telling difference today is that what Berger characterizes as “the unity of the world” or which we might more pragmatically see as our global fragility brought on by our having reached the edge of so many tipping-points, leaves little room for the exploiters to go off and find “virgin” lands and “heathen Savages” to rebuild their stores of power before returning to subjugate their own people. While the “unity of the world” demands “the end of exploitation” the collapse of our world may well insure it. The question is whether this will happen with more or less grace.

An experienced stunt-man or a drunk is more likely to survive a bad fall or crash than someone rigidly maintaining an active denial of what is happening to them. We have the same set of options as we face collapse. We either learn to fall gracefully, or let ourselves go in a frenzy of Dionysian release, or we remain rigidly in thrall to our belief in command and control, leadership and masses, wishes over hope.

The trump card that’s always worked for the exploiters before has been their ability to combine violence with reassurance in a way that opens up a space for doubt that they may actually be right. That without their “help” we will fall into “barbarism.” Riding the external force provided by collapse, we have a unique opportunity to call their bluff. What it requires of us is the nerve to ask of all positions, “What if you’re wrong?” Ideally we should all be asking this of ourselves, in the spirit of unknowing that Kathryn Schultz labels a new enlightenment. This isn’t out of some spiritual commandment to humility, but from the utility of such a perspective. In a world of limitless uncertainty the practice of Negative Capability is the surest path to finding traction with our predicaments.

So, if we ask this of ourselves and of our erstwhile “protectors,” what do we find? If I am wrong in thinking that we face a collapse and that cultivating kindness, humility, a sense of my own vulnerability, and of the need to stop our exploitation of the world and each other, what is the result? I will live in a state of reduced material comfort and will have done little to affect anyone else’s lives in any appreciable way. If they are wrong in thinking that only the imposition of their wills over others and the continued exploitation of the world and all within it is necessary to maintain the status-quo, then they will have wrought heinous destruction on an unprecedented scale while the status-quo continues to crumble into a state of universal impoverishment.

Leadership is a talisman or fetish for the lullaby of certainty. One of its tenets has been its monopoly on the “expertise” to “manage” “risk-control.” Each of these assertions has shown itself to be false. Together the rationale they provided should no longer have any power over us. We pay for our allegiance by our continued exploitation and by the aggregation and maintenance of power in the hands of those who have an unhealthy predatory view of the world and everything in it. What do we get in return? A fantasy, a house-of-cards, a series of Ponzi schemes of ever greater size and overweening gall. Collapse gives us a chance to end this dysfunctional relationship. It only asks of us to accept our disillusionment. Accept it or ride with it in a dizzy but profound sense of release. It does all the hard work, as the powers beyond our grasp have always done. Our greatest chances for the greatest loss come from holding-on to notions, models, schemas that insist on this fantasy of control.

To those who continue to insist we need leaders, ask not only cui-bono?; but, “What if you’re wrong?”

Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

17 thoughts on “Do We Need Leaders?

  1. “That without their “help” we will fall into “barbarism.”

    That is one of the key memes of manipulation. Just think of all the doomers and their panicked thoughts of Mad Max! I am reading about the behavior of common people in the Am. Revolution, and there was no panic or caving in to looters and brigands. Each community organized its militia which worked closely with the Committees of Safety who gradually moved into shared governanace, as needs emerged.

    What the elites really mean is that without our obedience, they will fall off their privileged positions, and I am sure from their point of view, that seems like barbarism to them… ;)


    1. We all prefer to avoid “bad times.” We are ready to accept stories that claim to insulate us from disruption. When we experience tough times ourselves we get glimpses of the way people act, and there’s a full spectrum of responses. Then in our wish to “put it behind us,” the stories start to stratify. Only the stories of strife remain attached to times when there wasn’t “control,” and the everyday toll of horror and atrocity that underlies life “under control” is swept under the rug as “accident, misfortune, just life…”

      Under these conditions some people “take charge!” They deeply feel and respond to the need to “help” – at least some of them, and all of them at some level of rationalization at least. Others are comforted by the cocoon this illusion seems to provide.

      It’s in no-one’s true self-interest to keep this going.


  2. Thanks for post, and the comment. Much to chew on, and chimes muchly with the Rebecca Solnit book “A Paradise Built in Hell” that I read a while back.
    I wonder if the very term “leader” is causing problems here? There are “new” models of leadership/collaboration being explored. I suspect they are often a con – dressing up the old exploitation as We Are All Just Nodes in a Network 2.0. It’s just when I see groups declaring no-one is in charge, someone always is – the Tyranny of Structurelessness and all that.

    It’s just, on a small scale, I’ve seen valuable projects that could and should have continued collapse because when two or three active/energising people (who had NOT been monopolisers) left, everything just kind of died a death. I may be talking at cross purposes here…


    1. There is a lot of confusion about this topic. I’m sure than in abbreviating it all down into a short – by my standards! – post, I’ve added plenty.

      The question of scale continues to plague us. I think in large part because we reflexively want to scale up what works to fit the state of over-reach we’re now in. When that doesn’t work, we tend to see the problem in what works at a small scale instead of the problem being the over-reach we’re stuck in.

      If we begin to see our task as collapsing with as much grace as possible we are confronted with a dizzying re-alignment, but one that begins to lift the chains of futility. We can ride the collapse – not hasten it, or resist it – just ride it down with an attitude that accepts its necessities as greater than our desires.

      This requires an acceptance of tragedy, although I do think it needs to be distinguished from earlier versions that held Fate as an external imposition. My conflation of Jung would be that Fate is what we make it by the way in which we deny or accept what we are afraid to face. This brings us into a dynamic relationship with the elements of our tragedy.

      Put another way, our refusal to accept that life is tragic condemns us not only to the necessity of trouble and loss, but to a compounding of trouble and loss beyond what might otherwise be. This is a way of looking at the balance-books of over-reach that I think might be helpful.


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  4. I would love to be a part of a group where, when a newbie asks about leadership, the people point to various folks and say, the leadership is with him/her in x area, and with her/him in y area. Power shifts to those who are most effective with x, y, at this time.

    Nominated leadership may reflect such flows of power, but can easily reflect power-hogging if the real power-to and the official power-to go with different people, or if the nominated leaders keep the real leaders down. What do you think?


    1. Thanks Vera,

      What’s still hidden behind this question, “Do we need leaders?” is how it’s conditioned by our particular circumstances. We tend to want to find “Universal” answers when we’re always tied to conditions. The assumptions behind the question – as I’ve asked it, as I can winkle out my own ground for my terminology – are that those who want to pass as our leaders today are irrelevant to the task of facing our actual conditions. Their efforts are at best at cross-purposes, and at worst, actively opposed to doing anything that doesn’t make matters much worse. Also that we are in the middle of a particularly thorny collapse. The way forward is so complex and chaotic, with so many unknowable variables that any conception of leadership that isn’t extremely suspicious of the tendencies of leadership dynamics to lull us into expectations of certainty and false-security is likely to worsen the consequences of collapse EVEN if they are “efficient” at “helping” their constituents.

      I don’t have any answers to this, but I do believe someone needs to be thinking along these lines, to be looking the “other way,” to be exercising an extreme Negative Capability regarding our predicaments.


  5. Two things
    On scale – the Dunbar number – once a organisation gets beyond 150 there are more relationships than a human brain can cope with, and you get HR departments, protocols etc. There are some companies (Goretex being the famous example) who never let their sites get more than 150. Starfish not spider…)

    On distributed/situational/topical leadership. Yes! That’s what you see in some disaster movies that involve a journey to safety. Also, the leadership has to come with an obligation to mentor other people in those self-same skills… And that has to be policed and enforced. It’s always easy for a monopoliser/aggrandizer to cry off passing on skills etc because “I’m too busy right now”, “this is too important” etc etc.


    1. Dwight Tower was a submariner. THE movie that best captures what I see as our condition is “Das Boot.” We are trying to stay alive in a crazy world run by maniacs. We are thrown into situations beyond our control, where the certainty of death if we refuse to collaborate is measured against the almost near certainty of death if we do. The submariner, schooled in the greatest school of pragmatic doubt there ever was, following the dictum found on their academy wall, “Say not, ‘This is the Truth!’ but ‘So it seems to me to be as I now see the things I think I see.’” Is performing a continual triage just to stay alive and have some possibility of ever seeing light again.

      The “Master-of-the-boat” is the Captain’s right hand. His job is to asses the true extent of their damage and the remote chances of their success. After doing that, he goes to the limits of human endurance to achieve what he can in a situation in which he’s convinced he doesn’t have the time to accomplish enough to make a difference.

      They survive this incredibly difficult incident only to succumb to the narrow chances inherent in their overall predicament. They all die in the end. But they have also lived by the way they navigated all the possible choices and by the grace or luck that kept them from having to face worse things, like being guards at Auschwitz. They were confronted with their vulnerability and made choices when they could without ever succumbing to the mass-hysteria of certainty around them.

      It’s tough making heroes out of Nazis. It helps if we can see how we’re all capable of the worst and all trapped within contingencies beyond our control. I’d argue that what we can take from this allegory of the submariner is close to the situation we all find ourselves in today, those of us typing on keyboards and living off the backs of the destruction of the world.

      The Dunbar number could very well be a hard limit. We have hard limits all around us that show how untenable our position is. How do we avoid jumping for the “safety-valve” of looking for silver-linings and still find ways to navigate our predicament with as much affirmation of life and expressions of kindness and conviviality spread as widely as possible?

      “Leaders” try to convince us this isn’t possible and that they give us the only release from the tragedy inherent in our predicament. Turning a cold and disbelieving eye to their enticements gives us an in towards the possibility of something other than certainty when the only thing certainty ever guarantees is destruction.


      1. I’ve never seen the film of the book, but B. Traven’s “Death Ship” also has a lot to say about the nature of the bureaucratic hierarchy which currently stifles both logic and intuition.

        Far from triage, the apparatchik (a creature captured so brilliantly in Bob Shea’s ‘Empire of the Rising Scum’ – offers, at best, a band-aid. Saying not, ‘This is the Truth!’ but ‘This is what the other levels in the hierarchy need to hear if I am to progress.’ The irony being that, in a bureaucracy, the ‘leaders’ are drawn from those whose greatest ability is to follow without question.

        Wilhelm Reich*, himself a victim of fascism – albeit on US soil, recognised that our greatest danger comes not from the powerful, but those who all too easily surrender their own power to the myth of hierarchy. As he says in ‘Listen, Little Man’:

        “Use your head, little man! Do you think Prince Blowhard makes atom bombs? No, they’re made by little men who shout hurrah, hurrah instead of refusing to make them. You see, little man, it all boils down to one thing, to you and your sound or unsound thinking … Someday, I say, you’ll no longer be willing to work for death but only for life … Outside every big city on earth, mark off a field, build high walls around it, and there let the diplomats and marshals of the earth shoot each other. That’s what you could do, little man, if only you’d stop shouting hurrah, hurrah and stop believing that you’re a nobody without an opinion of your own… You’ll have a good, secure life when being alive means more to you than security, love more than money, your freedom more than public or partisan opinion…”

        This may sound very ‘hippie’ to modern ears, but Reich was writing 20 years before the ‘summer of love’; long before many of those 60s ‘radicals’ became some of the most successful and powerful (but still microscopically little…) bureaucrats of all time – the very same ‘leaders’, of course, who are currently ‘lording it’ over a dying civilisation.

        Hierarchy solidifies roles that should, at best, be temporary. Certain situations call for the most knowledgeable person, relevant to that particular moment, to step forward and take the reigns – like the ‘master-of-the-boat’ when the submarine is under threat. This can guarantee success in certain situations, but there’s no logical reason to make the job permanent (maybe we should aim for ‘guiders’, rather than ‘leaders’).

        *Whatever your views about ‘orgone’, it’s hard to deny that Reich was a martyr to professional hierarchy rather than scientific ‘truth’ ;-)


  6. Warren,

    Thank you for your response!

    I’ve seen “the Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” but hadn’t realized “Death Ship” was by the same writer. I’ll add it to my cue. Shea’s essay is also new to me, though I suspect it’s a founding document in anarchist circles. I especially like his thought that perhaps society exists to keep us fringe people fed on its margins. I sometimes wonder if civilization isn’t here mostly to benefit dogs, to give them cushy lives and pick-up trucks.

    What hasn’t been thought of yet always seems so amorphous and impossible to get a hold of. Once it’s been conceived a new view seems obvious if not inevitable. What drives people to accept their roles as “little men” is fear and a capitulation to superficial “pragmatism.” What interests me is to work at defusing fear, putting it in its place, and putting off accommodation. This approach, the cultivation of Negative Capability, is rarely tried and seems to me to hold the only true hope.

    I grew up with a sea-horizon and have always been good at spotting whales. The key is to maintain a wide scan that does not prematurely focus in on what we wish to be true, but is always ready to turn towards the slightest hint of what might be true. It takes an active patience. This might be the model for the kind of mastery I keep turning to as the means forward. Once the first person spots a spout from out of the noise of waves and spray soon everyone can see it, now that they know where to look.

    To jump out of this analogy, socially we are constricted by the fearful among us not to practice that sort of discipline. It annoys the fearful and seems a distraction since fear demands a tunnel-vision response to its bogies. Hierarchy succeeds because it rewards those who maintain the strongest tunnel-vision. They demonstrate to the fearful who are in their thrall that they have supreme confidence and focus – they are within realm of the clever. The system then works to demonize the heretic.

    We can’t just fall into our “roles” in this drama. We can’t just be salmon beating up against a dam, sacrificing ourselves to the futility revealed by the sacrifices made by our elders. We need to recognize that the lure of short-cuts/short-circuits to reach desirable ends are mirages. Otherwise we’re just another form of cannon-fodder for the machine, taking care of our own annihilation/continued marginalization by choice without the need to be compelled by the system.

    I’ve taken this response as the start of a new post. It’s getting long and unwieldy, hopefully the next few days will bring it some clarity.

    Thanks again for your comment.


    1. I know what you mean about the dogs; civilisation seems to be the last refuge for the hopelessly domesticated – be they canines or primates ;-)

      It’s interesting that you focus on ‘fear’, I’ve written a history of the Luddite Uprising for the next Dark Mountain Journal where I describe the overarching system as ‘The Fear’; in much the same way that William Cobbett called it ‘The Thing’ and Paul Kingsnorth uses ‘The Machine’.

      It’s also interesting that Paul has introduced the idea of ‘Green Stoicism’ on the DM blog, which I think ties in nicely with your emphasis on Keats’ Negative capability; the ability to accept that not everything can be resolved is as virtuous as the stoic’s ability to face misfortune without fear (that word again).

      I’m really looking forward to your post, however unwieldy ;-)


      1. Sorry to leave you hanging! I’m still in transition and not sure now what my next post will be. In the meantime, I really like your term, “The Fear.” I’ve thought for quite a while that the way to distinguish the behavior from the people and possibly then have ways to change behavior without coercion or violence would be to follow motivation for aggression and destructive actions back to their roots in fear.

        The “easy” ways in, say through showing people where their true self-interest might lie, doesn’t seem as easy as it looked at first. There are so many reasons why people chose – or are simply incapable of – putting that together: look at Charlie Sheen and Colonel Gaddafi! Still fear is at the core.

        I’m looking forward to reading your piece on the Luddites! A much maligned and willfully misunderstood bunch! On a related tangent, I got a lot out of John Fowles’ “the Maggot.” It deals with some of those themes in a way that’s aged rather well since the 1970’s when it was written. The idea of a Maggot as a wonder that is indescribable because it is outside of one’s cultural boundaries so that we just don’t have the language to grasp it. I see a significant part of our current predicament to be a Maggot for us now!


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