A leaderless enterprise

Driving home from work today, I heard a radio piece on the Fort Hood shooting. Just casually listening, I didn’t take much interest until a specific phrase caught my attention. In congressional testimony today Brian Jenkins, an advisor affiliated with the RAND Corporation, reported that

“Some analysts say that al Qaeda is currently following a strategy of ‘leaderless resistance” and “although it is difficult for authorities to destroy a leaderless enterprise, leaderless resistance is a strategy of weakness.”

When I got home, I found the report online (you can read the full thing here). I’m less concerned with the politics of what he said (which seem sound to me), than the interesting leadership observation he made. He suggested the following:

  • al Qaeda is following a strategy of leaderless resistance (“an army of autonomous terrorist operatives, united in a common cause, but not connected organizationally”).
  • the strategy of leaderless resistance is particularly hard to defeat.
  • this strategy is evidence weakness and/or is inherently weak.

This doesn’t sound right to me. My knee-jerk questions are:

  • Is this strategy really leaderless? Or is it leader-full? Full of leaders who are able to act independently, authentically, with great (i.e. impactful) result? Maybe when he suggests this movement doesn’t have a leader, he means it doesn’t have a handler. If that’s the case, then…
  • Is the strategy really a sign of weakness, or is it a sign of ultimate strength – the height of leadership?

I’ve always been fond of Lao Tzu, who said

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him…But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”

I think the merits of a leader who can lead from behind are obvious. And, by virtue of such logic, isn’t an organization which accomplishes a single mission (causing strife for the U.S.) without a leader issuing constant commands the perfect form? Conceivably there’s some mastermind behind it all, gently pushing, nudging, inspiring – but the fact that he/she isn’t out on the front lines almost seems a reason to brag.

If this really is a sign of excellent leadership, then I think we have reason to be afraid. Not just because we’re facing an organization with good leadership, but because we’re perceiving it as the opposite – and maybe dismissing it on the merit of that observation.

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