Bill McKibben on Leaderless Movements: and Environmental Leadership

In his recent post on, lifelong climate change activist Bill McKibben wrote: “it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment — even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrant’s rights — don’t really have easily discernible leaders. I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better.” leaderless movement is an idea many find radical and new, but although it is an important signature of sustainable global and national movements today, it is a familiar grassroots leadership development technique that’s been around quite awhile. Think about the labor movement, the feminist movement, anti-fascist resistance movements.

Sure, there may be a public face to the movement: Martin Luther King, Gloria Steinem, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Bill McKibben. But these “leaderless” movements are really movements that empower foot soldiers to be local leaders, connecting in community and common cause in such a way that if the public face of the movement falls or steps back, the movement continues full force.

McKibben is correct, though, when he notes that in these movements, charisma is trumped by alliances across nations and class lines. The power of the movement comes from the ways universal issues are localized in specific fights, and then globalized in alliances between groups, with leadership rising to meet the need of the action and the issue.

6109205865_3d61090fb8He writes: “This sprawling ecological campaign exemplifies the only kind of movement that will ever be able to stand up to the power of the energy giants, the richest industry the planet has ever known. In fact, any movement that hopes to head off the worst future depredations of climate change will have to get much, much larger, incorporating among other obvious allies those in the human rights and social justice arenas…

We may not need capital-L Leaders, but we certainly need small-l leaders by the tens of thousands.  You could say that, instead of a leaderless movement, we need a leader-full one. We see such leaders regularly at  When I wrote earlier that we “staged” 5,200 rallies around the globe, I wasn’t completely accurate. It was more like throwing a potluck dinner. We set the date and the theme, but everywhere other people figured out what dishes to bring.”

McKibben calls for an “engaged citizenry,” a “thoroughly interconnected movement” that “runs [like sustainable energy] on the renewable power that people produce themselves in their communities in small but significant batches.”  And I agree — how else can we speak truth to power, and stand up for our right to healthy lives on a healthy planet, if we don’t stand up together, leading from our strengths and following when our voice is more powerful as part of a crowd.

HBennett-at-ConnectingTheDots-1024x764The leaderless movement — it’s not new, but its particularly appropriate now, when change has to happen from the grassroots in order for top-down leadership to acknowledge the need for action.


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