What is Occupy Wall Street? Exploring the leadership phenomenon


The Occupy Wall Street movement has spread around the world, as protestors show their concerns over global economic and political injustices. (LUKE MACGREGOR/REUTERS)

This week’s On Leadership roundtable explores the Occupy Wall Street movement, from the origins of American leaderless efforts to the implications today for political and business leaders.

The protests, which began a month ago in New York City’s financial district, have now spread across the nation and to countries around the globe. The movement has no formal leadership structure and no singular demand. Instead, it has become an outlet for individuals and sub-movements to vocalize their frustration with a political and economic system in which, according to OccupyWallSt.org, “We are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.”

Below are highlighted excerpts of analysis from the four roundtable pieces.

Heather Gautney, an assistant professor at Fordham University and the author of Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era , examined the sociological roots of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and their place in the history of American leaderless movements:

This is not just a charming mess. We are all leaders represents a real praxis, and it has a real history. ...Similar to the feminist and alter-globalization movements, these groups want to avoid replicating the authoritarian structures of the institutions they are opposing. This is part of what differentiates them from the Tea Party. Occupy will never become an arm of the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party is part of the problem. These protesters want to prefigure within their own organization the free society they seek to create... (Read the full piece: “What is Occupy Wall Street? The history of leaderless movements” )

Alaina Love, leadership expert and co-author of The Purpose Linked Organization in turn explored the demands such a movement puts on both political and business leaders:

In the U.S., the movement has emerged as the yin to the Tea Party’s yang, but itself is a form of chaos in the process of coalescing into a new order. Both Wall Street and Washington have an opportunity to influence the direction of that new order if leaders in both camps seriously address the overarching demand of Occupy Wall Street, which is for greater equality in our economic system and the political decisions that drive it. And that is where both Wall Street and Washington have failed miserably... (Read the full piece: “What Occupy Wall Street demands of our leaders” )

Robert Monks, a shareholder activist and author of Corpocracy , focused in on what this movement should signal particularly to corporate boards and to shareholders:

“Money is overthrown and abolished by blood.” Oswald Spengler wrote these words more than a century ago in The Decline of the West. And while the imagery here may be a bit much, there’s something of it in the Occupy Wall Street protests. This movement profoundly threatens the legitimacy of the system on which corporate power is based, and boards of directors should be concerned. ...Boards, watch the protests and understand that your dominance of the system cannot continue. And shareholders, vigorously support the protests and use them as a starting point to become active owners, to call boards and CEOs to accountability, and to take responsibility for our system of democratic capitalism... (Read the full piece: “Occupy Wall Street protests and ‘The Decline of the West’” )

Finally, Post Leadership blogger Jena McGregor looked at the responses to date of Wall Street leaders, and analyzed what they should be doing to better address protesters’ concerns:

[Vikram] Pandit—or any other major bank CEO—can have all the talks he wants with the people in the streets. The anger and frustration fueling these protests is not driven at one single institution or one leader (though some are getting a larger share of the ire) but at a system that puts profits before all else and seems entirely devoid of basic humanity at times.

Until business leaders become truly accountable for their actions, pay out reasonable rewards only in return for successful performance, stop using their hordes of cash to inappropriately sway political action, and see the bottom line as creating something with purpose rather than solely a tally of profits, any such hypothetical conversation is going to go nowhere fast... (Read the full piece: “With Occupy Wall Street, what’s a bank CEO to do?” )

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And read all four of the roundtable pieces:

Occupy Wall Street and the history of leaderless movements

Occupy Wall Street and ‘The Decline of the West’

What the Occupy movement demands of our leaders

With Occupy Wall Street, what’s a bank CEO to do?

Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.
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