Is this the era of leaderlessness?

Their politics may be diametrically opposed, but the Occupy Wall Street protesters and the tea party activists have one thing in common: a deep distrust of leaders. Are they onto something?

Michael Dwyer/AP
Boston University Economics Professor Kevin Gallagher (L.) lectures at the Occupy Boston encampment in Boston's financial District Oct. 7.

The tea party and the “Occupy Wall Street” movements evolved on different planets, even if members of both groups sport red-white-and-blue face paint, funny hats, and placards proclaiming their anger. Tea partyers tend to be older, antitax, and more Midwestern or Southern in origin. Occupiers are younger, in favor of higher taxes on the wealthy, and more urban and coastal.

But in that way that left and right can sometimes intersect, the tea party and OWS are in the same place in at least one important sense. Both have lost faith in established institutions. TPs are more down on Washington, D.C., than Wall Street. OWSers are more irked at big money than big government. But both are deeply skeptical of the stentorian voice that says “trust us, we know best.”

The spirit of the times, whether in town-hall shoutfests or on the streets of Europe and North America, is infused with anarchy – and I mean nothing pejorative by that. “Anarchy” is now a synonym for chaos and wild-in-the-streets mayhem, but in the original Greek it simply means “without a leader.”

Anarchism is not just the absence of government. It has a large body of theory behind it that emphasizes enlightened individualism, charity, voluntarism, and community. It envisions individuals being purely self-governed. That’s the theory, at least. Anarchism doesn’t have such a great history. Attempts to create leaderless societies in 19th-century Europe and early-20th-century Russia ended with the guillotine and gulag. But every political system – democracy, monarchy, oligarchy – has been hijacked by bad guys at times.

Are we perhaps living in a time when leaderless groups can flourish thanks to the open-source, peer-to-peer sharing, social networking wonders we enjoy? With cheap, instant communication and vast amounts of information at our fingertips, could we run a society without a ruling hierarchy? One of the more popular management books in recent years (read everywhere from business schools to the Pentagon to tea party book clubs) has been “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. It sings the praises of decentralized organizations (Craigslist, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Apaches of the 19th century) as resilient and superior to hierarchies where everything rests on the leader. Think of the starfish, with its regenerating legs, versus the spider, which is kaput when decapitated.

Starfish groups must have strong values, motivated members, and transparent information structures. The good news is that starfish are multiplying. (The bad news is that Al Qaeda may be one.) The question is whether an entire society can be built without central command, including everything from national defense to food and drug standards. That isn’t implausible. Wikis, tweeting, and friending may be taking us in that direction. The recently formed Americans Elect group is trying to choose a presidential candidate outside the two-party system and via the Internet.

You can get a sense for which institutions we still see as necessary by looking at public opinion. The latest Gallup poll on confidence in institutions has the military and small business at the top, Congress and big business at the bottom. Career politicians, nest-feathering bosses, and entrenched bureaucrats, in other words, may be heading for the dustbin of history. For now, however, we are in a hybrid era. We still need leaders. But we won’t let them lead without constant questioning. We’ll want competence, honesty, transparency, and humility.

The message from tea partyers, Wall Street occupiers, and lots of nonactivists who have lived through the epic economic and political mismanagement of recent years is the same: Dear leaders, don’t unpack your boxes.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor

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