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New Wine in New Bottles: Iran's Lessons on Followership

Hate to say "I told you so." (Not really.) But . . . I told you so. In my most recent book, "Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders," I wrote that as a result of two changes, one recent and the other even more recent, 21st century leaders are losing power and influence while followers are gaining more.

First, the various rights revolutions that climaxed in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to an unprecedented decline in respect for authority. As Todd Gitlin, an expert on that period, writes, "Today, on every political and cultural front, the question is not whether to question authority but which authority to question." While this is not a syndrome altogether new -- in the 19th century De Tocqueville wrote that Americans had a "general distaste for accepting any man's word as proof of anything" -- the anti-authority movements of the '60s and '70s were as powerful and enduring as they were contagious.

The second change to affect relations between leaders and led, in ways we only now are beginning to appreciate, is the advent of new technologies. In "Followership" I noted that the Internet in particular had changed forever "the dynamic between those who hold positions of power and those who do not." The evidence, I added, was everywhere: in medicine, where once almighty physicians are now challenged at every turn (get your second opinion, and for that matter your third, fourth, and fifth online); in higher education, where professors, previously remote, must now make themselves available, if only by email, 24/7; in business, where shareholder activists have learned to connect, one to another, and to slowly but certainly challenge management in ways previously unaccustomed; and obviously in government.

In recent years political leaders from China to Finland have been forced to fend off bloggers and e-mailers, text messengers, cell-phone users and now Twitterers, all of whom are emboldened by their (relatively) newfound claim to ever-increasing equity and strengthened by their access to ever-more-sophisticated technology. As Barack Obama's campaign for the White House clearly demonstrated, tech-savvy political aspirants now use the web to come nearly out of nowhere and defeat their more conventional opposition. In response to an outpouring of online expressions of sympathy, this week a Chinese court freed a woman who had allegedly killed a government official. This dynamic is not new. With millions of internet users, China has become a hotbed of online activism and resistance in recent years. Chinese officials have done what they can to ward off this new form of citizen participation, attempting to suppress the Internet and control and even punish those who use it to challenge government authority.

But such efforts, as Iran's leadership cadre is only now beginning to discover, are in vain. Public officials can tamp down online activity, but hacktivists and activists are generally one step ahead. It likely would take a brutal government crackdown to stop altogether online activity of the sort engaged in nearly everywhere by those without power, authority, and influence against those with.

Iran, then, is only the latest case in point. For the first time, Twitter, in good part because of the brevity it demands, has proven remarkably effective as a means of communication, both within Iran and without. But Twitter is no more than new wine in a newish bottle: this year's version of the online technology that for some years now has been changing the way the world works.

We have been fixated on Iran in recent days because it is so important a country, because the cast of characters is so compelling, and because the short-term outcome remains uncertain. But the story is far larger than this single situation suggests. Underlying Iran's power dynamic is a long-term shift worldwide, one in which leaders of every stripe have less clout than they did before and their followers more. Hard on the heels of the changing culture are the changes in technology. While the one without the other would not have amounted to much, together they are creating a sea change in the human condition.

This is not to say that leaders don't matter any more. They do. But they are diminished by their followers -- the people, if you will -- in ways new and different. It's why the experts (policy experts, leadership experts), as well as leaders and managers, better get with the program. Those who obsess about those at the top (think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), at the expense of those in the middle and at the bottom (think Iranian protesters), will find they are not merely misguided but mistaken.

By Barbara Kellerman  |  June 18, 2009; 11:33 AM ET  | Category:  Technology
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Barbara is absolutely correct: without the advent of new technology I might have never read this fascinating and enlightening articlr in an interval of less than 24 hours since publication! The question is:are the "political leaders" aware of the sweeping impact of modern tech on politics and governance?

Posted by: wawissi | June 22, 2009 4:00 AM

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