Monday, January 31, 2011

The Leaderless Egyptian Protests

I've been following the demonstrations that started in Egypt on January 25th.  Inspired by similar protests in Tunisia, everyday people are demanding better living and working conditions and calling for the ouster of their leader of 30 years.  How could it be more clear that a leader's performance and status is dependent on their followers?  This underscores the importance of leadership as the emerging condition between leaders, followers, and the situation:

The protesters, mostly young, have been called "leaderless".  They have demands and a rough agenda, but no one to act as their unified voice.  This brings up an interesting point- what happens when a group assembles with a clear purpose and makes headway, but remains leaderless?  At what point, if any, do they fail or lose momentum?  It appears that the Egyptians are nearing this point.  Clearly, their activism has started to create change.  But what is needed is one leader, one voice out of many, to take the energy behind this movement and create a single point to pierce the armor of the status quo.  It's almost as if the masses have enough energy and momentum, but it is "blunt"; its energy dissipated by having no central focus.  A leader would provide that focus.

Dr. ElBaradei tries to assume leadership

Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN weapons inspector and Nobel prize winne
r, has flown in from Vienna and in the past days tried to take the lead.  So far it hasn't completely worked.  The New York Times has written about how the under-30 protesters are looking to the "old guard" to support them by taking leadership positions.  The older generation has both "fallen in line behind" the younger generation and at the same time is helping lead them.  Leadership by support, leadership from behind. 

Mr. Ezz, one of the original organizers of the protest, is quoted as saying “Leadership has to come out of the people who are already out there, because most of us are under 30.  But now they recognize that we’re in the street, and they are taking us seriously.”

Will a leader emerge from the crowd?
 How much longer the movement can last without a leader is debatable.  Will the leadership emerge as a small group or an individual such as Dr. ElBaradei?  In whatever form, the emerging leadership will only get legitimacy by the people, by the "followers".  The followers will choose their appropriate leader.  It will be someone who can best articulate and pursue their goals: the resignation of the existing head of state Mr. Mubarbak, the establishment of an interim government, and amendments to the Constitution.

There have been many studies of leader emergence which underscore the critical (actually, central) role of a group in selecting its leader.  But all those studies seem dry and academic in comparison to watching the whole thing unfold in real time on TV, the internet, and Twitter.  Real-live lessons like this don't come along everyday.  It should continue to be fascinating to watch.

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