It has been one year since riots erupted in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and 25 years since the granddaddy of them all, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, was burned into our consciousness with the image of a young man staring down a column of tanks. Particularly since the recent spate of upheavals following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, it would seem that these leaderless revolutions in public squares across the globe have displaced the Gandhis, Mandelas and Martin Luther Kings of movements past.
But that, it turns out, is their fatal flaw.
The rapid pace of urbanization is turning cities into petri dishes for such phenomena. India, for example, will add another 500 million to its cities by 2050, and Nigeria will add almost 200 million. This urban boom is putting pressure on housing, infrastructure, public health and even clean air and water. And when governments fail to meet these citizens’ needs, mobile technologies and close living quarters make it easier than ever to take to the square en masse in protest.
Yet the reality is that even this new breed of political revolution requires a Nelson Mandela—something we’ve forgotten in our eagerness to celebrate the power of a decentralized, digital generation. We may not need a single leader today to start a movement for change, but it turns out we still need one to make those changes stick. That’s why so many of the recent revolutions have essentially devolved into chaos.
We have seen squares light up across a wide arc that runs from Caracas to Kiev in protest against the status quo. From the perspective of those who celebrate the power of bottom-up democracy, such movements are inspiring. And for those who celebrate the power of modern technology, such political disruption is an exciting sign of virtual tools effecting real-world change.
However, a funny thing happened on the way from the forum. These forces of disequilibrium shook the status quo, but never transitioned to a new and better state. For this, we still need a leader and institution-builder in the flesh and blood.
Digital advances have dispensed with the need for someone at the head leading the charge with old-fashioned personal charisma, soaring oratory and strategic vision. But what this means is that budding leaders within these revolutions do not get to practice their leadership skills in front of smaller audiences, steadily growing the size of their followership and their leadership ambitions.
Remember that every one of history’s iconic leaders started off somewhere small: Mahatma Gandhi with his act of civil disobedience on a train in South Africa, Mandela with the ANC Youth League and Martin Luther King, Jr. with the Montgomery bus boycott. They each experimented with their tactics, made mistakes, sharpened their skills in smaller arenas and developed, as a result, into stronger leaders.
In the leaderless, digitally mediated revolutions we are seeing today, that path to leadership no longer applies. The crowd converges and topples statues, the images ricochet around the world, then more people converge on the square until eventually the ill they are fighting against is ousted. But what follows? A vacuum.
It is interesting to contrast two political transitions that concluded last month—in Egypt, a poster child for this new type of revolution, and in India, where the electoral process alone took a staggering six weeks. India’s size and diversity make it virtually impossible for a handful of squares to bring about nationwide change, so it has to rely on the largest and most laborious democratic elections in the world. The newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, had a chance to practice his leadership skills and, more significantly, make some serious mistakes at the local level before stepping onto a national platform. Regardless of whether a voter was a Modi fan or not, the mood is one of hope and high expectation in India.
In Egypt on the other hand, the last elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, arrived at the end of a glorious revolution with few market-tested leadership skills and was summarily removed. Now, the country has resigned itself to voting back into power the status quo. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s primary qualification is that he represents what passes for equilibrium: stability through military might. He is man without a plan for how to bring about real change that the supposedly game-changing march onto Tahrir Square intended to usher in.
The ease of digital revolutions has done away with the training grounds that all leaders need before they go up for prime time. And that may prove the ultimate Achilles heel of this new form of political protest. Without a singular battle-tested leader, you end up with the conundrum that the people of Cairo face—a strongman in power, because there is no alternative. Or that the people of Bangkok face—a strongman as a stopgap.
It takes blood, sweat and tears and many smaller uprisings to produce great leaders who lead big revolutions and then build new institutions that last. In the absence of a process for incubating such leadership, we run the risk of coming full circle: exactly where we started before we got mad, pulled out our mobile phones and marched upon the square.
Bhaskar Chakravorti is the senior associate dean of international business and finance at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He is also the founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context and the author of “The Slow Pace of Fast Change.”