The Obama presidential campaign owed its victory not to a single charismatic candidate, but to the efforts of a disciplined and motivated organisation whose influences go back to landmark civil rights movements. Many of the principles were consistent with the emerging ideas of ‘complex adaptive leadership’.
A recent MIT lecture featured Marshall Ganz, veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement and key activist in the Obama election campaign, who described how the principles and practices he learned over decades of voluntary organising and leadership were applied in last years ‘against the odds’ victory.
Ganz’s view was that leadership involves “taking responsibility to enable others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty.” Leaders “recruit, motivate and develop others, constructing a community around common interests, and building capacity from within the community”. Effective volunteer-based organisations cannot rely on rigid hierarchies or command-and-control strutures but must instead engage and enable lots of people to become innovators who are adaptive in the face of uncertainty.
Such “distributed leadership” draws from and resonates with emerging theories of complex adaptive leadership. From this perspective, leadership is not about a person, but is rather an interactive dynamic, within which any particular person will participate as leader or a follower at different times and for different purposes. Leadership is not limited to a formal managerial role, but rather emerges in the systemic interactions between diverse actors. As Charles Heskscher puts it:
There is a growing sense that effective organization change has its own dynamic, a process that cannot simply follow strategic shifts and that is longer and subtler than can be managed by any single leader. It is generated by the insights of many people trying to improve the whole, and it accumulates over [time]”
This kind of “distributed leadership” is precisely what the Obama campaign cultivated and invested in, says Ganz. Thousands of people acquired the skills and practiced “the arts of leadership necessary to self-govern in democracy.”
Some unique conditions made this campaign so successful, including Obama’s story of hope, which drew on a persuasive personal narrative. There was also the campaign’s strategy of developing grassroots capacity to win caucuses and close primaries; its use of the Internet to attract an army of small-scale, repeat contributors; and its capacity for “continual learning” about what was and was not working.
Ganz’s 90 minute lecture can be seen here: http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/662