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Why Occupy Wall Street Failed: Leadership MIA

December 12, 2011

There’s something happening here.
What it is ain’t exactly clear.

– Buffalo Springfield
“For What it’s Worth”

The efforts to create an ostensibly utopian society by those who camped out in parks across North America, Europe and even to far points such as Australia was doomed for failure from the start. Leadership was MIA – Missing in Action.

As I explained in my earlier post (as have many others) Will the Wall Street Protests Flame Out? A Call for Focused Leadership “I’m all for a good protest – when there’s a focused purpose and leadership that unites.”

Contrast Occupy Wall Street (aka OWS) with the Arab Spring, which spread like wildfire across some 16 Middle Eastern and North African countries. Yes, this was grassroots leadership, enabled by technology and social media. However, it was focused on one issue and led by key leaders, many of whom are young people. The silliness of the OWS carnival has been absent with the evolving Arab Spring, of which thousands of protestors have been slaughtered by the police and military.

Human nature is what it is: tribal yet hierarchical. Bring any group of people together with disparate needs and the immediate result is their forming into cliques. The Occupy Wall Street movement didn’t take long to produce a hierarchy of cliques within the so-called tribe. Although some media sources picked up on this, it was Jon Stewart’s satirical program The Daily Show that beautifully captured the hypocrisy underlying OWS. For example, when comedian (and Daily Show correspondent) John Oliver interviewed two young people (male and female) about Occupy Wall Street in New York City, they were emphatic that there were no leaders and that everyone had an equal say and vote.

Better yet, Canadian comedian Samantha Bee, also a correspondent on The Daily Show, visited Zuccotti Park to discover that the village (for want of a better word) had morphed into a stratified society. Click on this link to watch Bee’s tour of stratified Occupy Wall Street.

The high-brow professionals (typically those middle-aged and up) had separated themselves into an encampment replete with library and exercise facility. Those lower down on the socio-economic scale were discouraged from joining what I’ll call the Senate where the power and decision-making were based.

To add to the hypocrisy, “Senators” had been given permission to use one the lobby of a large financial institution for their meetings.

Excuse me?

I thought that Occupy Wall Street was about slamming corporate America, especially the evil financial sector.

Maybe I missed that chapter on OWS. Take a moment to read this excellent article Occupy Wall Street plagued by the hierarchy it seeks to destroy.

For a quick laugh to deal with all the stupidity, check out this short video clip that captures the eclectic nature of the OWS crowd.

The pseudo communist philosophy underlying OWS killed it in the end. NO uprising, revolution or huge change effort succeeds without effective leadership. I’m all for shared leadership; indeed my Master’s leadership thesis in 2000 was on shared leadership. (Great reading for insomniacs).

However, with any coming together of people for whatever reason, whether to celebrate or to protest, leaders always emerge. The challenge is for those who possess a vision or an idea to not just build a followership but to sustain it. And that’s achieved through the dynamic tension of give and take, contribution from followers, mutual respect and humbleness.

Occupy Wall Street was lost from the start. By pretending there were no leaders and by allowing human nature’s more power-seeking propensity to create hierarchy, OWS lost credibility very quickly.

Some have postulated that a virtual Occupy Wall Street may emerge and sustain itself in the long-term.


But until this fumbling movement establishes a clear purpose and vision, facilitated through focused leadership, nothing will change in the corporate world and politics.

As a leader, I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a con-sensus of what I heard in the discussion. I always remember the axiom: a leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind. – Nelson Mandela

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul permalink
    March 11, 2012 11:39 am

    With politicians already talking about the 99%, and financial disparity, OWS ALREADY changed the topic in Washington. Call it whatever you want, but a failure, it is/was not.

    • March 11, 2012 1:03 pm

      Actually it was largely a big bust, as agreed to by most commentators. Lack of focus and leadership. “Washington” is too absorbed in destroying itself through partisan politics.

  2. December 12, 2011 5:02 pm

    As the old saying goes, “The proof is in the pudding.” We’ll see a year hence, a decade hence on OWS’s impact. Hope I’m wrong.

  3. Sarah permalink
    December 12, 2011 4:53 pm

    Occupy wall street agrees that we have some issues involving our leadership style. However, since the raid at zuccotti park we have been more actionable, more nationally coordinated & have been working in new & creative ways.

    You’re assumptions are based on biased media coverage. You have no experience with activism or this movement. I urge you to gather more information before you make sweeping statements based on limited, biased sources.

    It’s nice that you wrote your thesis on leadership topics, but it’s not applicable. I have three college degrees & am a former jpmorgan stock broker, but I don’t consider that to be the cornerstone of my expertise.

    The world had already changed. To say we are a failure is short sighted. We mat not be perfect, but you cannot evict an idea whose time has come.

    Get ready. Because soon your thesis won’t matter. You will just be one man, and your survival will be dependent on how you iterate with your community & resources.

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