Tag Archives: leadership

Stabilizing Collectives in the Study of Transformation: Instead of “key-individuals”

This deserves perhaps an even longer blog post, but I wrote this quickly as an appreciation to the previous blog by Juan Carlos Rocha.

The previous blog post puts focus on a quite problematic nexus within social-ecological studies, and management theory more generally: the focus on “key-individuals”, “leaders”, and “institutional or social entrepreneurs” to explain change and ‘transformation’. In my new chapter on “Transformative Collective Action” (Ernstson, 2011a; see blog post here) I review some of that literature and conclude that such constructs can create an analytical trap, or blindness, since these constructs provides the analyst a too easy way out for explaining change; ‘key-individuals’ tend to step out on the scene like ready-made ‘magic boxes’ to put things right, very much like a deus ex machina in Greek or Brechtian dramas, who suddenly solves intractable problems.

To take research beyond key-individuals on one hand, and external/structural factors (equally ready-made) on the other, seems crucial to me. The references put forward by Duncan Watts in Juan’s post are highly useful here (LeBon, Tolstoy, Berlin), as are the search for mechanisms like those Jon Norberg studies through the clean world of agent-based model experiments.

However, what is also badly needed in the field of resilience and social-ecological studies are more empirical work, and more theoretical constructs, frameworks and registers that allow us to appreciate the often messy but profoundly collective nature of transformative or revolutionary change. (These ways of doing research should also acknowledge that change processes will be quite different from place to place.) To study such change must necessarily be more than just dividing a process into ‘phases’, looking for ‘windows of opportunity’, and plug in certain individuals in the account who can ‘seize’ these windows and usher in a new way of doing things.

To the particular tedious task of doing empirical studies of transformations, there are probably various ways. So far, in my own work, I have especially built on social movement theory, a field that par excellence has studied transformative and revolutionary change. Here social movement scholar Mario Diani has showed how to use social network analysis to understand “network-level mechanisms”, which I view as:

“social actions made possible through, and emerging from, the patterns of relations between mobilizing actors, and thus dependent on the full structure of the social network, and not just the local surrounding of single actors” (Ernstson 2011, p. 258).

Another important Italian is Alberto Melucci, who used a constructionist and cultural approach to collective action, emphasizing that collective action needs to be constructed and that ‘structural’ or external factors are not enough to explain change since a practice of engagement is needed to translate ‘structural/external’ factors into tangible action. He also emphasized that collective action necessarily also produces or constructs new ways of knowing, thus necessarily upsetting and challenging dominating ways of knowing (and one needs to account for how such knowledge is constructed in and through collective action).

Thirdly, I have been drawing on scholars like Jonathan Murdoch, Bruno Latour, John Law and Annmarie Mol who use post-structuralist geography and actor-network theory (ANT). This body of scholarship decenters the human subject in studying change, and thus “reassembles the social” (Latour, 2005) so as to allow also non-humans to be part in constructing/producing collective action. This makes it possible as an analyst to stabilize accounts of ‘distributed agency’, where the ability for change resides among people and things, which together come to make up quite heterogeneous collectives. For instance, in my case study here in Cape Town (Ernstson 2011), certain plants seem to participate in modes of empowerment, and play an important role in stabilizing collectives that can carry action across space and time. For the Occupy Movement, tents, streets, squares and Internet seems key but exactly how these things are enrolled into a stabilization of collective action needs ethnographic engagement. Importantly however, careful analysis of such heterogeneous collectives can come to also show how alternative ways of knowing and becoming are produced in and through the same collectives that carry or produce action, and thus such analysis lends itself to study how collective action engages the world in epistemological and ontological politics. The latter seems key in any transformation worthy the name.

This was just a short burst in response to Juan’s interesting blog post. If anybody has more ideas on this, tips on empirical studies or theoretical treatise in the area of social-ecological studies that relates to this, please make contact, or post comments, as usual.


Ernstson, Henrik. 2011. “Transformative collective action: a network approach to transformative change in ecosystem-based management.” Pp. 255-287 in Social Networks and Natural Resource Management: Uncovering the Social Fabric of Environmental Governance, edited by Ö. Bodin and C. Prell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ernstson, Henrik. 2011. “Re-translating nature in post-apartheid Cape Town: the alliance of people and plants in generating collective action.” Presented at London School of Economics workshop on Actor-Network Theory in Development Studies, 3 July 2011 organized by Richard Heeks.

[Also posted on my blog http://www.rhizomia.net/]

What Are Leaders Really For?

A week ago I had an interesting discussion with Jon Norberg, a professor in Systems Ecology here at Stockholm University, about leadership.  Jon is working on, among other things, an agent based model about how leaders influence opinion change in social networks. He’s been inspired by one of the iconic examples of transformation in resilience science: the case of the governance system of Kristianstads Vattenrike in Southern Sweden.

I have to confess that I’ve been skeptic when it comes to leadership. My feeling is that the literature give too much importance to key individuals, the product of history tends to fall in the actions of few key individuals that acted in the right moment bridging organization or spreading initiatives. I don’t find it surprisingly given the fact that most of us grow up watching Captain America and Superman. What a good times.  Anyway, the literature on complex adaptive systems have addressed the same issue from another perspective: swarm dynamics – how emergent patterns rise from local interactions between agents. In a swarm, any individual could be an agent of change. All it has to do is following the rules and send the right signals in the right moment to scale up the movement of the swarm or the flock and avoid predators or mountains. On this perspective, leaders are not superheros, but rather individual with agency (the power to produce change locally) that act accordingly with the signals of its own context and the network structure. In that sense, Hitler or Gandhi were not driving the change, rather they were part of it, they were rather driven by the bubbling of the social activity of their time. Jon told me that both versions belong to different schools of thought in sociology, which names I can’t recall at this moment.

Today, Duncan Watts, on of the authors on my to read list, wrote something similar that illustrate the issue of leadership inspired on the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here is his blogpost from Harvard Business Review, I copied all so you don’t miss the details (source: What Are Leaders Really For? – Duncan Watts – Harvard Business Review.)

The Occupy Wall Street movement has both perplexed and frustrated observers and analysts by its persistent refusal to nominate an identifiable leadership who can in turn articulate a coherent agenda. What is the point, these critics wonder, of a movement that can’t figure out where it’s trying to go, and how can it get there without anyone to lead it?

It’s a reasonable question, but it says at least as much about what we want from our social movements as it does about the way movements actually succeed.

Typically, the way we think of social change is some variant of the “great man” theory of history: that remarkable events are driven by correspondingly remarkable individuals whose vision and leadership inspire and coordinate the actions of the many. Sometimes these individuals occupy traditional roles of leadership, like presidents, CEOs, or generals, while at other times they emerge from the rank and file; but regardless of where they come from, their presence is necessary for real social change to begin. As Margaret Meade is supposed to have said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

It’s an inspiring idea, but over 100 years ago in his early classic of social psychology, “The Crowd,” the French social critic Gustave LeBon, argued that the role of the leader was more subtle and indirect. According to LeBon, it was the crowd, not the princes and generals, that had become the driving force of social change. Leaders still mattered, but it wasn’t because they themselves put their shoulders to the wheel of history; rather it was because they were quick to recognize the forces at work and adept at placing themselves in the forefront.

Even before LeBon, no less an observer of history than Tolstoy presented an even more jaundiced view of the great man theory. In a celebrated essay on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin summed up Tolstoy’s central insight this way: “the higher the soldiers or statesmen are in the pyramid of authority, the farther they must be from its base, which consists of those ordinary men and women whose lives are the actual stuff of history; and, consequently, the smaller the effect of the words and acts of such remote personages, despite all their theoretical authority, upon that history.” According to Tolstoy, in other words, the accounts of historians are borderline fabrications, glossing over the vast majority of what actually happens in favor of a convenient storyline focused on the skill and leadership of the great generals.

Thinkers like Le Bon and Tolstoy and Berlin therefore lead us to a radically alternative hypothesis of social change: that successful movements succeed for reasons other than the presence of a great leader, who is as much a consequence of the movement’s success as its cause. Explanations of historically important events that focus on the actions of a special few therefore misunderstand their true causes, which are invariably complex and often depend on the actions of a great many individuals whose names are lost to history.

Interestingly, in the natural world we don’t find this sort of explanation controversial. When we hear that a raging forest fire has consumed millions of acres of California forest, we don’t assume that there was anything special about the initial spark. Quite to the contrary, we understand that in context of the large-scale environmental conditions — prolonged drought, a buildup of flammable undergrowth, strong winds, rugged terrain, and on so — that truly drive fires, the nature of the spark itself is close to irrelevant.

Yet when it comes to the social equivalent of the forest fire, we do in effect insist that there must have been something special about the spark that started it. Because our experience tells us that leadership matters in small groups such as Army platoons or start-up companies, we assume that it matters in the same way for the very largest groups as well. Thus when we witness some successful movement or organization, it seems obvious to us that whoever the leader is, his or her particular combination of personality, vision, and leadership style must have supplied the critical X factor, where the larger and more successful the movement, the more important the leader will appear.

By refusing to name a leader, Occupy Wall Street presents a challenge to this view. With no one figure to credit or blame, with no face to put on a sprawling inchoate movement, and with no hierarchy of power, we simply don’t know how to process what “it” is, and therefore how to think about it. And because this absence of a familiar personality-centric narrative makes us uncomfortable, we are tempted to reject the whole thing as somehow not real. Or instead, we insist that in order to be taken seriously, the movement must first change to reflect what we expect from serious organizations — namely a charismatic leader to whom we can attribute everything.

In the case of Occupy Wall Street, we will probably get our wish, for two reasons. First, if OWS grows large enough to deliver any lasting social change, some hierarchy will become necessary in order to coordinate its increasingly diverse activities; and a hierarchy by nature requires a leader. And second, precisely because the outside world wants a leader — to negotiate with, to hold responsible, and ultimately to lionize — the temptation to be that person will eventually prove irresistible.

Leaders, in other words, are necessary, but not because they are the source of social change. Rather their real function is to occupy the role that allows the rest of us to make sense of what is happening — just as Tolstoy suspected. For better and worse, telling stories is how we make sense of the world, and it’s hard to tell a story without focal actors around which to center the action. But as we witness a succession of popular movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, we can at least pause to appreciate the real story, which is the remarkable phenomenon of a great many ordinary individuals coming together to change the world.

As a final thought, I don’t think leaders actually drive social change, at least when it comes to opinion formation and value change that has driven transformations in governance systems of  Kristianstads or the establishment of Australia’s Great Coral Reef Park cases. The “transformations” were rather driven by a self-organization of the system itself, it was ready for change. Leaders played a role on the course of action that history take, on the developing of the facts. But as the forest fire example proposed by Watts, it is more the change in slow variables rather than the spark what dominate the dynamics of fire. A more relevant question is then, what are the slow variables that underly regime shifts in society?

A report from the Stockholm Dialogue on Global Sustainability

Below is a guest post from Megan Meacham, a former Masters student at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, on the final day of the recent Stockholm Nobel laureate symposium.

The final day of the symposium, titled The Stockholm Dialogue on Global Sustainability – Seizing Planetary Opportunities, gathered some of the world’s leading scientists, policymakers, entrepreneurs and representatives from civil society together with a broad audience to have a discussion of the solutions, actions and leadership necessary for global sustainability.

The event and venue itself aimed to represent the holistic multi-perspective approach needed for global sustainability. The dialogue was held in the Royal Dramatic Theatre, the most prestigious and opulent theater in Sweden. Marie-Louise Ekman, director of the theater, emphasized theater as an infrastructure in society, guiding and reflecting society and necessary for a secure and prosperous world. Ms. Ekman and Sten Nordin, mayor of Stockholm, both stressed the key relationship between art and science. Art is a way for society to reflect on itself, challenge itself and aspire. Art can activate peoples’ emotions. Science can use this to motivate action. A common theme of the dialogue was the question of communication.  How to translate scientific findings and knowns into societal understanding and action? Art is a powerful tool, exemplified on this occasion by the reading of poetry by the Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska.

General themes present throughout the day’s discussion were taken from “The Stockholm Memorandum: Tipping the Scales towards Sustainability,” the recommendations developed over the previous days of the Nobel Laureate Symposium. Questions of social equality, redefining growth and development, leadership, the need for a ‘mind-shift’ in society along with communication between science and society were discussed to varying degrees in all the talks and panel discussions.

Generally agreed upon, was the need for new metrics to gauge and discuss growth. Growth domestic product (GDP) is a narrow index that does not represent the wellbeing, social equality or trajectory of society. Trading easily quantifiable indexes for more representative ones will help to falsify the idea that quality of life is based on material aggregation.

Development was discussed as an opportunity for focusing societal aspirations toward more qualitative and long-term prosperity goals. According to Pavan Sukhdev from UNEP’s Green Economy Initiative, developing countries are leading the way in terms of experimentation, innovation and action when it comes to prevention and mitigation of climate change and its effects. Encouraging and rewarding this flexibility and creativity is one way to alter the trajectory of development.

Fostering a transition in society in a way that prioritizes global sustainability requires a mind-shift; focusing society towards understanding the risks facing humanity and creating conditions conducive to innovation and change. A general sense of urgency was express by all the speakers in regards to the need for this change. Considering how to facilitate this mind-shift, emphasis was put on strengthening communication and fostering leadership.

Peter Agre, Nobel Laureate for chemistry in 2003, argued that the accessibility of the science on global sustainability lies in the principals. It is the details that are complicated. Katherine Richardson, Professor of biological sciences at the University of Copenhagen, made a similar point calling for the communication of issues through headlines that people understand. American ambassador to Finland, Bruce Oreck, argued that the terminology used in the discussion of global sustainability can be discouraging action. Replacing the term ‘challenge’ with ‘opportunity’, for example, can alter how people perceive the issue.

Ultimately, the discussion ended on the role of leadership in times of rapid global change. Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, argued that at the international scale leadership was lacking from the developed nations. She suggests that they are not taking responsibly for their role in making structural changes for global sustainability and instead practicing, “creative carbon accounting.” On the national level, Will Steffen gave a positive example of leadership from the Australian cross-party panel on climate change. That have four sectors (science, economics, industry, and social equity rights) represented with equal voting rights to make the national decisions on climate change. On the individual level Frances Westley argued most adamantly for people to, “Start where you are and do what you are good at.” It is policy’s role to provide the incentives or sanctions that afford opportunities and an innovative environment. They ended by suggesting to everyone to take risks and not to be afraid, because guilt and fear will not help the transition to global sustainability.

The program and list of participants can be found at http://globalsymposium2011.org/ .

New books on innovation

Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn reviews two forthcoming books on innovation in the New York Times:

In “Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation” (Riverhead, $26.95), Steven Johnson focuses on what he calls “the space of innovation.” Some environments, he writes, “squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly.”

As examples of innovative environments, the book — to be released early next month — offers the city and the Internet. Mr. Johnson, who has written several books on the intersection of science, technology and society, uses these innovation engines as a backdrop to analyze a “series of shared properties and patterns” that “recur again and again in unusually fertile environments.”

These seven patterns are the main dish of this rich, integrated and often sparkling book. They include the power of the slow hunch and the role of serendipity, error and inventive borrowing. The more that these patterns are embraced, the author argues, “the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.”

In “The Innovator’s Way: Essential Practices for Successful Innovation” (MIT $29.95), to be published this month, Peter J. Denning and Robert Dunham approach innovation from the more traditional perspective of individual and group action. …

Defining innovation as “the adoption of new practice in a community,” Professor Denning and Mr. Durham lay out eight practices they deem vital to success: sensing, envisioning, offering, adopting, sustaining, executing, leading and embodying.

For each practice, the authors explain its essence, its relationship to specific instances of effective innovation and the pitfalls one is likely to encounter in undertaking the recommended actions. They also include some homework: what to practice for each set of skills.

The book is very much a hands-on guide. Its frame is innovation, but, on a deeper level, it is concerned with effective leadership, specifically how people create and sustain change in groups.

Learning Leadership Tony Hayward’s Way

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, writes about what can be learned about leadership from the failure of BP CEO Tony Hayward to cope with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Leadership Tips from Tony Hayward (or Not):

The Case of Tony Hayward and the Gulf Oil Spill will be fodder for business school discussions for years to come, as a how-not-to-do-it guide for leadership when disaster strikes.

Mr. Hayward must have studied management in a parallel universe, where a set of anti-rules for bad leadership are taught. Here’s what I imagine are those anti-rules.

* Deny and minimize problems. Drop any mention of the high-minded principles you announced at the beginning of your term, such as safety and a culture that puts people first. Sweep them under the rug as you play down the significance of the crisis. Or better yet, find someone else to blame — a supplier, a business partner, a lowly employee or two.

* Emphasize your own power and importance. Keep yourself front and center all the time. Rarely bring forward the rest of the team, nor even indicate that it’s a team effort.

* Make the story all about you. Talk about your heavy burdens and the costs to your life. When forced to acknowledge the true victims, pay lip service.

* Never apologize, and don’t even pretend to learn from your mistakes. Brush off public disapproval, and persist in the same mindless behavior that provoked criticism in the first place.

* Hang onto your job even when it’s clear you should go, in order to negotiate the highest severance package, whether you deserve it or not. Don’t even consider a deferred resignation to allow for smooth suggestion. Cling to power, and keep everyone guessing to the very end.

Just reverse these rules, and the outcome could have been different. Good leaders must face facts, prepare for the worst case scenario, draw on the whole team, show constant concern for stakeholders, acknowledge mistakes and not make the same ones twice, and do the honorable thing if getting in the way of company progress. BP, in fact, mobilized thousands of employees and former employees from around the world to work on the Gulf Oil spill; the saga of Mr. Hayward now seems peripheral to the main action.