This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Occupy Wall Street began in mid-September with a group of 1,000 protestors marching through the streets and has now grown into a global movement in search of sanity in our political and economic system. Many in the group, unemployed and disheartened, are quietly demanding a new breed of leadership in Washington and on Wall Street—leaders measurably committed to the average individual struggling to make ends meet.
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 in the eyes of the unemployed or underemployed protestors. In the various divisions of the movement sprouting up around the world, the cry is for hope, for economic opportunity, for soul in our business and politics, and for promise that the American dream will not be denied to today’s young people.
What might influence protestors and propel them into positive action? Evidence that our most influential business leaders are demonstrating a true sense of purpose, which extends beyond greed and self-serving motives. It would make a meaningful difference if leaders in Washington enacted legislation that focuses more on the needs of the struggling middle class than on positioning for the next election campaign. Yet, this would mark a return to values embracing the higher good rather than the good of a chosen few—and that, unfortunately, is the antithesis of the economic and political leadership these protestors have come to know.
To the participants in Occupy Wall Street, business and political leaders have lost their footing. They have detoured the country away from the basic tenets of our government: life, liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness.
This is, however, a movement in need of unified leadership. Washington and Wall Street have the potential to transform this nascent movement into a platform for positive action, rather than a hotbed of rage that ultimately leads to violence. It will require a revolution in the governance of our corporations and our country, with the leaders of companies, boards, states and the nation owning their part in the decisions that have led to the current quagmire. While Occupy Wall Street is a fledgling movement, it should remind all of us that we have a say in what happens in our economy. More than that, we have a responsibility to hold our leaders accountable.
The direction of the movement is not clear at this time, but a kind of disruptive innovation could result from Occupy Wall Street that will demand new actions from Wall Street and Washington leaders as this movement evolves.
What types of demands?
They will want leaders who accept responsibility and accountability for their actions, and who have value sets that prompt them to care more about those they represent than they do about themselves.
They will want an end to taxpayer bailouts, and an end to corporate governance structures that allow the positions of CEO and president of the board to be held by the same individual. It also has not been lost on protestors that back in 1965 CEO pay was 24 times greater than the average employee’s pay—and today is 300 times greater.
These protestors will also want our media to assume better responsibility for providing accurate, complete information rather than poisoning sound bites that fuel political frenzy and divert attention from critical matters that shape our nation’s future.
And finally, they’ll likely look for stiff penalties for offshore jobs creation while unemployment festers in the United States, and an end to the abdication of political leadership that has led to Washington gridlock.
Protestors may not yet define a unifying goal, but they are not confused about the fact that living conditions for the average American are rapidly deteriorating. And, what’s more, no one appears to be listening.
Alaina Love is a leadership expert, co-author of The Purpose Linked Organization and president of Purpose Linked Consulting.
Robert Monks: Occupy Wall Street and ‘The Decline of the West’
Heather Gautney: What is Occupy Wall Street? The history of leaderless movements