Extinction Rebellion have organised a series of disruptive protests and stunts across the UK
It’s hard to ignore coverage of recent protests by environmental activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Just Stop Oil.
Stories of protesters throwing soup at Van Gogh's Sunflowers or gluing themselves to Government buildings often focus on the chaotic or disruptive nature of their actions.
One thing we rarely see in these movements, however, is a leader taking accountability. Instead, they often describe themselves as leaderless autonomous organisations, operating outside the constraints of hierarchy or power struggles.
Technology has fuelled the growth of such spontaneous movements in recent years. Activists can share information and organise action via social media in a highly networked and non-hierarchical way.
Events such as the Arab Spring protests in the early 2010s and more recently the Black Lives Matter movement could not have had the global visibility and impact they did without the ubiquity and immediacy of social media and messaging platforms.
In many cases, these movements rise up in reaction to political leadership they disagree with or to political systems they feel shut out of.
In the short-term, the passion-driven nature of these movements can lead to impressive results as small cells can mobilise quickly, independent of any hierarchy or need to ask ‘permission’.
It could also be argued that these groups or movements are less vulnerable to the loss of a leader - we have all seen examples of businesses where the exit of a charismatic CEO has caused destabilisation or a less successful change in direction.
At the same time, however, they can struggle to maintain momentum and consistency in the long term - and while this is not problematic in itself, it could impede an organisation’s ability to drive sustainable change.
My research partner Hamid Foroughi, of Essex Business School, and I, decided to look more closely at XR’s claims to be a leaderless autonomous organisation, and what the benefits and challenges of being part of such an organisation might be.
XR emphasises that there is no central decision-making body, and that any person or group can organise or take action in the spirit of XR as long as they adhere to its 10 core principles.
These include being non-violent, avoiding “blaming and shaming”, and being based on autonomy and decentralisation.
“We collectively create the structures we need to challenge power,” it claims.
It does not list any representatives or leaders on its website, and the names of its founders - Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook - only appear in the FAQs section, although they are often named in the press as leaders of the movement.
How does Extinction Rebellion function as an organisation?
We wanted to see how a lack of leadership would impact how, and whether, the group achieved its goals, and whether ‘leaderless leadership’ was a viable model for organisations or merely a fantasy.
To do this, we focused on discussions that followed two XR-led events in 2019: one where a group targeted commuters at Canning Town tube station and a second where it staged a protest on top of the Department of Transport building in London when Dr Bradbook cracked a window pane using a hammer and screwdriver.
We looked at the reaction of XR activists to these protests on message boards as well as how the events were portrayed in the press.
At Canning Town, activists scaled the tube at rush hour, only to be pulled off the train and violently confronted by angry commuters. (They later admitted that they had “got it wrong” after receiving a 12-month community order in court.)
On the message boards, one poster said that publicising the tube action had gone “against the majority view” and decried a lack of a mechanism to re-elect “the current leadership”.
Dr Bradbook’s actions at the Department for Transport, meanwhile, caused contention because they were felt to go against XR’s usual non-violent civil direct action (NVDA) approach.
Some were troubled that the co-founder of a non-violent movement would set such an example, while others referred to XR’s decentralised structure and Dr Bradbrook’s right as a member, rather than a de-facto leader, of the group.
What became clear from both events was that there was a lack of transparency in how decisions were made, and that well-known individuals in the group were regarded informally as leaders.
Some felt that if the actions of Dr Bradbrook or other founding members crossed a line in terms of peaceful protesting, they could be considered an endorsement that would inspire other XR activists and discredit the movement.
Without any specific structure for decision-making or assigning responsibilities, members could end up departing from its core principles, they argued. Leaders could be claiming to act in their own capacity as independent members rather than having a responsibility to XR. This was also problematic because it made them untouchable and irreplaceable as they did not hold an official, elected position.
What does this mean for organisational structures outside of activist groups? It could be argued that no matter how hard an organisation pushes an agenda that it is leaderless, there will always be power dynamics at play.
There is also evidence that organised action achieves more in terms of raising awareness or prompting societal change than sporadic and inconsistent events.
Taking a more democratic approach where participants have an input into decision-making and feel that their views are heard can be far more effective. People can collectively agree how they govern themselves and processes are transparent, jointly negotiated and adhered to. This builds trust and engagement with the cause as people feel their contribution is valuable and will not be misused.
A more effective approach might be to develop a “leader-full” organisation: one where members acknowledge power dynamics but feel empowered to make their own decisions within a set of principles; where they work out ways of sharing and distributing roles and responsibilities in a way that is transparent and equitable.
In this type of organisation, people collectively agree how they want to govern themselves, the actions they will take, and consultation has a tangible result.
While the fantasy of a leaderless organisation may seem attainable and desirable after decades of top-down leadership in corporations, XR show it is far more difficult to execute in reality.
Fotaki, M. and Foroughi, H. 2022. Extinction rebellion: green activism and the fantasy of leaderlessness in a decentralized movement. Leadership, 18, 2, 224-246.
Marianna Fotaki is Professor of Business Ethics and teaches Management, Organisation and Society on the Undergraduate programme.
For more articles on Leadership sign up to Core Insights here.