Leaderlessness in Social Movements: Advancing Space, Symbols, and Spectacle as Modes of “Leadership”

Amir Elmi Keshtiban, Jamie L. Callahan, Martin Harris

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)
222 Downloads (Pure)


The emergence of the Occupy movements along with other social movements in 2011 elevated the idea of radically decentralized ‘leaderless’ social movement organizations. We argue that looking at such an alternative, horizontalist form of organizing presents an opportunity to reframe how we understand leadership. This paper illustrates how the coordination of the Occupy London movement was accomplished horizontally in the absence of formal organization, leadership or authority structures. Using an ethnographic approach, we show how this movement generated a ‘multimodal’ repertoire of protest that included: i) the politically effective occupation of urban space; ii) the ability to deploy symbols as compelling forms of aesthetic questioning; and iii) the creation of politically-charged spectacles that allowed the movement to appropriate the news agendas of established broadcast media. The findings of this paper challenge the language of leadership and contribute to understandings of feminist forms of leadership and leaderless organizing by explaining one way that ‘leadership’ occurs in horizontal organizational structures such as social movements. Namely, we demonstrate how the modes of space, symbols, and spectacles effectively replace the role of ‘leader’ in the absence of formal organizational structures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-43
Number of pages25
JournalHuman Resource Development Quarterly
Issue number1
Early online date9 Oct 2021
Publication statusPublished - 14 Mar 2023


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