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Post Leadership
Posted at 11:22 AM ET, 05/03/2011

For a distributed network like al Qaeda, what does the loss of a leader mean?


Anti-government protestors watch a television broadcasting a report about the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in a tent at the site of a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa May 2, 2011. (AMMAR AWAD - REUTERS)
While it may seem like the last thing leaders would want to model, for years now al Qaeda—with its vast decentralized structure of terrorist cells that only have an informal central command—has been a favorite study subject for leadership experts. 

Popular business books have analyzed how al Qaeda and other “cooperative networks” reap the rewards of not having a central hierarchy. Banking executives, meanwhile, have suggested banks should have structures that are more like terrorist cell networks— if one part collapses, the thinking goes, the others are protected. Management professors have even written that the power of a networked organization like al Qaeda could mean that “traditional models of leadership and organizational theory may no longer be sufficient,” and could “limit our ability to realize the capabilities and resilience of such organizational forms.”

Whether or not those advantages will still exist now that Osama bin Laden is dead is an open question. The world’s public enemy No. 1 may have become more of a symbolic leader than an operational one, and few question that the terrorist network is still a threat and a many-headed hydra without him, but al Qaeda is likely to feel some sort of impact from his passing. While there could be a renewed sense of mission or a loss of inspiration, it’s hard to believe the structure of al Qaeda is so dispersed that bin Laden’s death won’t create some meaningful aftershocks.

In fact, it turns out that bin Laden apparently had been preparing for what would happen in the event of his death. A Wall Street Journal story cites a book by Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA's bin Laden unit, which says the al Qaeda leader knew it was unlikely he would live to see his own mission accomplished. He had been laying the groundwork for his organization to survive him, “passing the torch to younger al Qaeda activists.”

All of which raises an interesting question: Does a networked organization need a succession plan? If a loose coalition of people united by a common goal rather than a traditional hierarchy is such a resilient and capable way to organize, does it really matter if someone new is leading the charge?

One might assume, after all, that if one of the advantages of such a decentralized organization is that ideas and creative approaches emerge in a bottom-up fashion, that the next leader would too. They very well may: Already, there is fear that the leadership vacuum created by bin Laden’s death will spawn reprisals, prompting local leaders to take action to make themselves known. Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki is one al Qaeda leader seen as poised to take on a more prominent role.

Still, the same reasons traditional hierarchies hand-pick the next-in-charge should also apply to more amorphous organizations. Successors are named to create continuity, and to ensure that a transition from one leader to the next does not weaken the organization—however much we as Americans may hope it does in the case of al Qaeda. 

More from On Leadership:

In Osama bin Laden mission, the exponential power of an accomplishment

Panel discussion: The art of persistence

A game of musical jobs in national security

By  |  11:22 AM ET, 05/03/2011

 
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