Models Monday: The End of Charismatic Leadership

I have been reading articles about contemporary protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Next Up Young Workers Summit and have relished thinking about the stories people have shared. In much of what I have read, people have reflected on their experiences and decided what the Memphis sanitation workers decided in 1968: that they were tired. The language of decency and fatigue resonated in the stories those men told of their experiences working full-time for part-time wages. They were tired of being treated like boys; of having their safety and security threatened; of not being able to spend time with their families; of not being able to get sick because they lacked benefits or compensation for time off. Many of the stories that I have read of young and old folk reflecting on their work lives in contemporary America are much the same.

I am encouraged by what I see because these protestors are suggestion that they want to embrace new models for living. They no longer want to celebrate the wealth and luxury of the few. They want the opportunity to live fully in their own lives–however they define what living fully means. Andrew Young, former aide to Martin Luther King, Jr. and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations does not seem as impressed. He claimed that what distinguished these protests was their emotional reaction to a set of circumstances that prior protests transformed into formal statements. Reportedly, he wants to see greater leadership emerge that can offer a clear and coherent message as well as goals for their intended movement.  I don’t feel the same way. I don’t think the world needs any more charismatic leaders; we’ve had enough of those. I like that when talk emerged of the Nobel committee awarding a prize to the efforts of those activists involved in the Arab Spring, commentators were troubled by who they would single out. This is as it should be. 

As it stands, when journalists report on Occupy Wall Street, they have to interview citizens, everyday folk who are then given time to tell their stories. The model that Young proposes leads networks to interview charismatic leaders of past movements, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Andrew Young, in other words, men who assume the role of reporting their view of our stories. Though I like the fact that Al Sharpton has been very supportive of the protestors, I am ambivalent about him broadcasting his show from lower Manhattan. I am concerned that his charismatic presence will distract from the stories of those less prominent voices wanting to share their own views. As it stands, negotiating with Occupy Wall Street participants means that old guard structures might have to adjust to new conditions.

What do you think? Are you hopeful about Occupy Wall Street and the other protests challenging our current norms? Do you see these protests as offering us a new model of organizations and leadership? 

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