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Paul R. Portney
Dean/Scholar

Paul R. Portney

Paul R. Portney is Dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, where he also holds the Halle Chair in Leadership.

The tea party, Wikipedia and al-Qaeda: shared leadership lessons?

Q: Has the recent success of the Tea Party come because of, or in spite of, the movement's lack of a formal leadership structure? Along with Wikipedia, open-source software and organizations like moveon.org, is this another example of the power of distributed leadership?

It's interesting that the two organizations that best exemplify "distributed leadership" (or at least get the most attention for making use of it) are the Tea Party and al-Qaeda. Both illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to leadership.

On the positive side, having no one leader at the top empowers many more people and fosters more creativity than traditionally hierarchical organizations can muster. This can result in a more diverse set of strategies ("laboratories of the states," if you will) and infuse more energy into a movement than would otherwise be the case. It can also make it more difficult for opponents, enemies or business competitors to mount a counter-strategy, since there may be no one strategy to counter.

At the same time, distributed leadership poses a host of challenges that must be overcome. "Subsidiaries," "factions" or "chapters" in different states or countries can work at cross-purposes with one another, create confusion about mission that can frustrate or drive away members and/or potential enlistees, duplicate efforts and suffer from lack of scale (in fundraising, for instance).

If you're Wikipedia and trying to provide free information to people, these liabilities are one thing and may not be fatal. It's quite another to be aspiring to revolutionize politics (Tea Party) or overthrow a secular, Western democratic model of governing (al-Qaeda). I like Wikipedia's chances much more.

By Paul R. Portney

 |  September 21, 2010; 5:15 PM ET
Category:  Leadership weaknesses , Organizational Culture , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Nice engine, but does the steering wheel work? | Next: Tea Party a call for leadership, not the result of it

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You're missing two key points here about the Tea Party, at least in relation to Al Qaeda and Wikipedia. First, the entire organizational structures of Al Qaeda and Wikipedia are focused on their members' need for anonymity. The fact that you have to have some public visibility to be recognized as a leader of those groups severely limits their potential leadership pool (though obviously, a lot of power and influence is wielded internally, behind the scenes). People who support the Tea Party agenda have little need or desire for anonymity, so their potential leadership pool is much, much larger. This makes the fact that they can't come up with any qualified leaders (whereas Al Qaeda and Wikipedia apparently can) even more striking.

Second, while all three of these groups have destructively anti-social agendas and ideologies (and refuse to recognize the fact), Al Qaeda and Wikipedia don't exist as a means for their members to escape responsibility for the negative consequences of their past actions - they openly admit to, and embrace, those negative consequences, and they even treat them as "successes." The so-called Tea Party exists for one purpose only: To give Republicans a cute new nickname that they hope will let them escape the public stigma of the Bush Administration and its disastrous consequences, even as they espouse the same socially-destructive, economically disastrous policies. In a sense, they don't really need a proper leadership structure because they already have one: it's called the "Republican Party," or more specifically, "Rupert Murdoch."

Posted by: JKfromClifton | September 22, 2010 5:54 PM
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The Pee Potty has no leaders -- it has puppeteers. The Koch brothers, Dick Armey and the weepy clown from Fox.

Posted by: hellslittlestangel1 | September 22, 2010 9:16 AM
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The Tea Party and “The Art of War”

Commentary by
Patrick McCormick
9/22/2010

Mr. Portney speaks of reasons the Tea Party could have achieved their recent successes without formal leadership. It made me stop and think for a moment, “How could an organization without a leader win a string of victories”. The question poses an enigma.

Politics is similar to warfare. The success or failure of any political campaign is subject to the same criteria as a military campaign. Strategy and tactics, intelligence, terrain, the strength and weaknesses of your opponent are all important factors in the pursuit of military victory. The rules of war hold true for politics.

History teaches that it is possible to win many battles and still lose the war. A good overall strategy is necessary if a nation desires to achieve battlefield successes and defeat an opponent. What purpose would it serve to mount a large campaign without a plan to win the endgame?

Can the Tea Party actually be a “Ship without a rudder”, and win their war? According to the greatest military mind of all times, the answer is “No”.

Sun Tzu commanded armies around 600 BC. Successful battlefield commanders and business executives still study his writings today. Following his principles of warfare, many great leaders have vanquished their opponents. Ignoring them has led hundreds of ill-prepared commanders down the road to defeat and humiliation.

I suspect that somewhere there is a single intelligence behind current Tea Party Successes. Deception is another key to Sun Tzu’s formula for supremacy in warfare. He said, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

He expanded this philosophy by advising, “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate.”

When I study the movements and successes of the Tea Party, I see evidence of intelligent direction and unified strategy. I suppose that we will have to wait a while longer to see if I am right or wrong. If the Tea Party really is a ship without a captain, it will sail aimlessly until it founders in some future storm or crashes onto some rocky shore.

If I am correct in my assumption, establishment politicians are dealing with a great field commander. Tea Party candidates may lose a battle here and there, but a brilliant general will win the war for them. I see evidence the tide is turning in that direction.

Posted by: friar1944 | September 22, 2010 6:35 AM
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The Tea Party and “The Art of War”

Commentary by
Patrick McCormick
9/22/2010
http://primitivepolitics.blogspot.com/

Mr. Portney speaks of reasons the Tea Party could have achieved their recent successes without formal leadership. It made me stop and think for a moment, “How could an organization without a leader win a string of victories”. The question poses an enigma.

Politics is similar to warfare. The success or failure of any political campaign is subject to the same criteria as a military campaign. Strategy and tactics, intelligence, terrain, the strength and weaknesses of your opponent are all important factors in the pursuit of military victory. The rules of war hold true for politics.

History teaches that it is possible to win many battles and still lose the war. A good overall strategy is necessary if a nation desires to achieve battlefield successes and defeat an opponent. What purpose would it serve to mount a large campaign without a plan to win the endgame?

Can the Tea Party actually be a “Ship without a rudder”, and win their war? According to the greatest military mind of all times, the answer is “No”.

Sun Tzu commanded armies around 600 BC. Successful battlefield commanders and business executives still study his writings today. Following his principles of warfare, many great leaders have vanquished their opponents. Ignoring them has led hundreds of ill-prepared commanders down the road to defeat and humiliation.

I suspect that somewhere there is a single intelligence behind current Tea Party Successes. Deception is another key to Sun Tzu’s formula for supremacy in warfare. He said, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

He expanded this philosophy by advising, “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate.”

When I study the movements and successes of the Tea Party, I see evidence of intelligent direction and unified strategy. I suppose that we will have to wait a while longer to see if I am right or wrong. If the Tea Party really is a ship without a captain, it will sail aimlessly until it founders in some future storm or crashes onto some rocky shore.

If I am correct in my assumption, establishment politicians are dealing with a great field commander. Tea Party candidates may lose a battle here and there, but a brilliant general will win the war for them. I see evidence the tide is turning in that direction.

Posted by: friar1944 | September 22, 2010 6:31 AM
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Ah yes, Wikipedia. Isn't that where the leadership might issue a very serious warning to a long-time contributor who had the nerve to adorn the "creampie" image with smiley-faced bed linens? Yes, that is the place:

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=User_talk:Herostratus&diff=386110375&oldid=385997878

If that's progress thanks to distributed leadership, where might I book a one-way ticket to Borneo?

Posted by: thekohser | September 21, 2010 10:56 PM
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The 'tea party' brownshirts are not a success story. They are overexposed due to their backing by big money. Similar to al-Queda, they have power vaccuums that will lead to internal strife and even crazier rhetoric.

Posted by: revbookburn | September 21, 2010 5:58 PM
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