I have witnessed the future of leadership in the Twitter timeline of Charles Wade.
Mr. Wade, who goes by @akacharleswade, has been a leader and chronicler of the Ferguson movement since the very beginning. Today, he had a salvo of blistering critiques for Oprah Winfrey after she made the following statement as to her lack of involvement with the justice movement:
“What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’ “
Now, anybody who has spent 18 seconds on Twitter since August would look askance at that statement, judging it at the very least peculiar, if not totally clueless. There has been an entire generation of American leaders born out of the past several months and they have been vocal, precise, and relentless about exactly what they want: the rule of law, accountability for law enforcement, a redesign of government institutions to fall in line with democratic principles. And, y’know, not to be shot a dozen times for carrying a BB gun in Wal-Mart.
Mr. Wade has been at the forefront of this movement, and his commentary reminds me of just how different the next generation of leaders looks, thinks, and acts. Check his Twitter for the voluminous response, but the main points were:
“Hi @oprah, how are you? Well, I’m sure. Charmed life you must live. But anyways, I’m writing to you re: your “leadership” comments…That when something is easily apparent, @oprah, you media types tend to say it’s not there when most often, it’s just that YOU missed it…The “leadership” it seems you’re looking for, @oprah, seems to be more about elevating a figurehead. Figurehead is a leader w/o real power…The “leadership” it seems you’re looking for, @oprah, seems to be more about elevating a figurehead. Figurehead is a leader w/o real power.Real leadership looks like @bdoulaoblongata, @Oprah. Real leadership looks like @2LiveUnchained. Real leadership looks like @SheenBean32. Real leadership, @Oprah, looks like @DhorubaShakur. Real leadership looks like @Blklivesmatter and @Blackstarjus”
This is a truly networked generation coming to the fore in American life, and its effects will be poorly interpreted by those looking for 20th century models. Oprah claims she’s waiting for a single, charismatic leader with an organizational model and skill that would be hypothetically like Dr. King (but which would practically be closer to Al Sharpton.) But Wade counters that this isn’t how movements come together in the networked era. Power in the 20th century was mostly gathered around individuals who could elevate themselves within institutions. Power in the 21st century, as wielded by this new generation of minds, is about neither institutions nor individuals. You want a major leader to emerge? “What for?” asks the new generation, “to get a TV show and go on book tour?” You want an institution to come out of this, with office space in DC and a staff, one that can edit press releases? “Don’t hold your breath,” says the new generation, “All those institutions end up thinking like each other eventually, good, bad, or indifferent.”
The leadership this time is emerging in the form of Internet memes, and it travels from individual to individual on a free and open network. Leadership can be shared. It isn’t zero sum. You can be a leader for an hour and then return to your normal status. It can be in multiple places at once. That’s how the exhausted little town of Ferguson, Missouri ended up as the center of a global movement – because this isn’t the same game as the 20th century at all. It’s agile and mobile, wirearchy instead of hierarchy.
The last generation of leaders, no matter how influential, will be at pains to understand this evolution; so goes the passage of time and the emergence of radical new ideas. The last generation will be looking for the old trappings of power; that was the best way to understand social dynamics in past decades, after all. This is how Oprah, an extremely bright woman with limitless resources, can manage to miss the new generation of civil rights leaders. They don’t put out press releases – they put out tweets and vines and Instagram pictures. They aren’t polished or business-like or organizationally savvy in the traditional way. They aren’t politicians. They are individuals and citizens, young and old. And if you want to know where they are leading us, turn that TV off now – it’s happening online. And it’s happening their way. And they aren’t going to ask for your permission or your opinion. But they could use your help.