Egypt: Collective Intelligence, Distributed Leadership

Events in Egypt offer a real time lesson in the continued trend of the global decline of the single leader and the emerging power of collective action taken in support of freedom.

The convergence of technology with political and economic factors has generated a formidable opposition with distributed leadership.  Opponents of the Mubarak regime used Facebook and Twitter to share and vent their frustrations with oppressive rule and increasingly desperate economic condition – resulting in the initial “day of rage” on January 25.

Yet, the organization and collective action of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians continued even after the government shut down the Internet.  Crowds still appeared, information was shared, food and medical care were provided and attempts at violent intimidation were resisted.

All this was accomplished without a single, unifying face for the opposition.  This is not Iran in 1979, with the Ayatollah Khomeini returning to lead the overthrow of the Shah.  There is no Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Prize winner kept under house arrest in Burma for the “crime” of winning an election.

This shift toward more distributed patterns of leadership reflects research by Deborah Ancona and Tom Malone, faculty chairs of the MIT Leadership Center and the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence respectively.  Use of new technology can facilitate a shift in leadership patterns away from “command and control” and towards “coordinate and cultivate.“  Yet, technology is not always an automatic enabler of distributed leadership, rather its impact is determined based on the combination of technologies selected and the ways they are implemented (or in this case, adapting when they are taken away).

Egyptian protesters did not take to the streets to replace one despotic leader with another. New leaders will emerge. Even the current negotiations on transition require the selection of individuals acting on behalf of the opposition. In time, the candidates will have to be nominated and elected, hopefully under a credible and legitimate electoral system.

As events continue to unfold, watch to see what methods, including technology, emerging leaders use to understand and act on the will of the people.  See if they fit the Mubarak model of seeking power as an individual and reflect a narrow political agenda or if they represent the more distributed model of leadership found among the protesters.  If the latter, than the efforts of those brave, inspiring and faceless democrats demanding a restoration of hope and dignity, may well usher in a new golden age to Egypt’s storied history.

Stuart Krusell manages strategic partnerships for the MIT Leadership Center at MIT Sloan. He previously lived in the Middle East and North Africa where he worked on democracy promotion.

2 Comments

  1. Posted February 14, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Mr Krusell – Do you think we’ve given social media sites like Twitter and Facebook too much credit for the events in Egypt?

    • Stuart Krusell
      Posted February 15, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Sarah –

      In my opinion, it is important to remember that Facebook and Twitter are tools. They are only as good – or as bad – as they people using them or the message being conveyed.

      In the case of Egypt, leaders of various movements used social media very effectively and in turn it made them more effective. They established a network and built a base of support. Mubarak gave them plenty of abuses around which to build a common message, but again, the message had to resonate and result in action, not simply be an airing of grievances (though that was a start in building their network).

      Recall, the protests continued even after the regime had largely shut down access to Facebook and Twitter. Again, this suggests that these sites were effectively used to organize and initiate action, but they were not the only factor that would determine success or failure as events played out.

      That said, as people go about creating a new government, social media can play an important role in giving people a voice, generating ideas and galvanizing opinion.

      In a way, asking about the role of social media is like asking if a hammer is responsible for building a house. To ignore the role of the architect, carpenters, plumbers and others would be to miss critical elements. Yet, without the proper tools, they would not be able to act on their expertise. The same is true for civil society and political leaders and social media.

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