My Personal Take On Why The Netroots Are Becoming Irrelevant

I realize that is a heavy statement. Here’s the good news: it’s not too late to turn this ship around given the primary characteristics members of the activist netroots community share: bravery, commitment, follow-through. So what’s the problem? In a nutshell: both a lack of real leaders as well as a lack of willingness to explore what leadership is about. More below.

I was lucky. I was at the right place at the right time and as a result enjoyed a very successful career. Of all of the benefits that came with being senior management for several organizations, none surpassed management – or leadership – training. It was hard, numerous times I wanted to quit, but I stuck it out (not really having a choice) and the end result is I learned how to be a good leader. Leadership can move mountains. Lack of good leadership does a tremendous disservice to all people in any organization as their best skills go unused, they become disenchanted and ultimately self destructive to themselves and to the organization they entered at one time with so much hope.

When I look at the left blogging world I see too many examples of the latter. When you know the rather simple rules of leadership, its easy to spot. I see it every day and because I also see an alternative, I am writing this diary.

I’m not sure why it became the norm, but bloggers by and large reject certain aspects of mainstream organizational behavior as if it were the plaque, rather than a tool for self growth. The very people who run the biggest blogs (and no I am not naming names) act as if passive leadership or no leadership at all is the way “blogging is” and so it is. But for any group of people to move forward, to achieve their goals, it is nearly impossible without admitting the need for leadership and embracing its primary characteristics.

Many books have been written on leadership. My personal favorite is LEADERSHIP IS AN ART by MAX DUPRESS – he was the CEO for Herman Miller for many years.

I found some principles of leadership crusing around the Internet tonight that mirror his thinking but are written in really easy to understand sentences. An example is below:

Leadership Models
Leadership models help us to understand what makes leaders act the way they do. The ideal is not to lock yourself in to a type of behavior discussed in the model, but to realize that every situation calls for a different approach or behavior to be taken. Two models will be discussed, the Four Framework Approach and the Managerial Grid. (I have only included the first)

Four Framework Approach
In the Four Framework Approach, Bolman and Deal (1991) suggest that leaders display leadership behaviors in one of four types of frameworks: Structural, Human Resource, Political, or Symbolic. The style can either be effective or ineffective, depending upon the chosen behavior in certain situations.

Structural Framework
In an effective leadership situation, the leader is a social architect whose leadership style is analysis and design. While in an ineffective leadership situation, the leader is a petty tyrant whose leadership style is details. Structural Leaders focus on structure, strategy, environment, implementation, experimentation, and adaptation.

Human Resource Framework
In an effective leadership situation, the leader is a catalyst and servant whose leadership style is support, advocate, and empowerment. while in an ineffective leadership situation, the leader is a pushover, whose leadership style is abdication and fraud. Human Resource Leaders believe in people and communicate that belief; they are visible and accessible; they empower, increase participation, support, share information, and move decision making down into the organization.

Political Framework
In an effective leadership situation, the leader is an advocate, whose leadership style is coalition and building. While in an ineffective leadership situation, the leader is a hustler, whose leadership style is manipulation. Political leaders clarify what they want and what they can get; they assess the distribution of power and interests; they build linkages to other stakeholders, use persuasion first, then use negotiation and coercion only if necessary.

Symbolic Framework
In an effective leadership situation, the leader is a prophet, whose leadership style is inspiration. While in an ineffective leadership situation, the leader is a fanatic or fool, whose leadership style is smoke and mirrors. Symbolic leaders view organizations as a stage or theater to play certain roles and give impressions; these leaders use symbols to capture attention; they try to frame experience by providing plausible interpretations of experiences; they discover and communicate a vision.

This model suggests that leaders can be put into one of these four categories and there are times when one approach is appropriate and times when it would not be. Any one of these approaches alone would be inadequate, thus we should strive to be conscious of all four approaches, and not just rely on one or two. For example, during a major organization change, a structural leadership style may be more effective than a visionary leadership style; while during a period when strong growth is needed, the visionary approach may be better. We also need to understand ourselves as each of us tends to have a preferred approach. We need to be conscious of this at all times and be aware of the limitations of our favoring just one approach…

My Preferance:Human Resource Framework or “Servant Leadership” as it is also called. In this approach, pretend I am the owner, for lack of a better word, of a popular politically oriented blog. As a servant leader, my job is to help you do your job to the best of your abilities. My job is to help you shine. I do this by making sure of a few very important things:

I have a vision and I have stated it. I have encorporated your (the organizations) thinking and needs into my vision and now we have a shared vision that is communicated daily.

As a servant leader, I see myself as a catalyst for YOUR change and when I am doing my job best, I see you grow and emerge into an empowered person, someone unafraid to make mistakes, someone who feels more comfortable taking action than being passive.

As a servant leader what I WILL NOT ABIDE is something called “water cooler talk”. That means when I am conducting a meeting, or posting a diary – because I am the boss – everyone agress with me – even though  many really don’t. They are afraid (because I have not been successful in promoting a climate where all opinions are welcome – even dissenting ones) to speak up. Instead, when I am not around people of like minds gang up on others, shout them down, in other words – rather than tell me what I am doing wrong, they act out on each other and in the process – the organization fails.

The latter is where is see today’s blogging world stuck. It can be unstuck and its critcal that it happen and happen now. We are in an election cycle where because of our own ignorance of leadership we have disenfranchised many of today’s power players – whether you like them or not is not important. If we are irrelevant because we are seen as a nusiance to be ‘put up with’ rather than a source of partnership, we will loose big in 2009. We will loose our influence and that’s the biggest tool we have.

Hope this was helpful.


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  1. starving animals!

    • ANKOSS on October 29, 2007 at 04:42

    Leadership, as it is traditionally understood in hierarchical organizations, evolved as a coping mechanism for limited information and poor communications. The richer a society grows in information and communications, the flatter its hierarchies become, and the less need there is for strong tops-down leadership.

    You correctly observe disorganization and paralysis in the progressive blogosphere, but I think the reasons have much more to do with the slow emergence of new organizing models for society. The leadership pyramid structure you are talking about is obsolescent, but the replacement structures have not yet evolved.

    Some combination of shocks to the planetary sytem (climatic catastrophes, resource depletion, financial collapse, unconventional military conflicts) will catalyze the emergence of new political and collaborative social structures on the Internet. The leadership models of these structures will be different from what you have known, but even more effective.

  2. I’ve created entire websites, community platforms, Democratic websites etc.  There are many issues facing any netroots site.  It is not an either or situation.  Win/Lose makes for interesting mental fodder but doesn’t really help us to achieve much.  It is a dynamic amongst many dynamics.

    For the most part however there is a tendency for people to pick apart any positive effort in an attempt to steer or control topics and agendas.

    What was the death of my first Democratic Community site?  Arguments over avatars.  Can you fucking believe it?

    So any effort can be blow apart by nonsensical members that don’t understand what is going on, or do and are looking for ways to tear it down.

    Buhdy and those he included in this effort demonstrate a rare exception to the norm.  People followed him here because they respected him first.  He is running into some of the same problems I did in the past but is handling it better than I did.

    Some of the attacks you are witnessing are planned attacks, it’s known as the Simon and Garfunckle routine: “Will they be singing together or not?”

    It creates intrigue on a very base level of the human psyche.

    So don’t get distracted, let the brawls happen, rescue who you can and keep fighting.

  3. I’m not sure why it became the norm, but bloggers by and large reject certain aspects of mainstream organizational behavior as if it were the plaque,

    I think the personality type that is attracted to blogs is not one that takes well to being organized….

    ….intelligent and slightly cynical people distrust leadership.

    But that is just one small piece of the puzzle.

    Another is the self-perpetuating phenomenon that people don’t believe they are making a difference on-line.

    And then there is the fact that the blog leadership is scared of the ‘unwashed mob’ of the blogosphere. And perhaps they are smart enough not to want to be Messiahs either!

    But really…I don’t think anyone has figured out how to lead the blogosphere yet.

    • jim p on October 29, 2007 at 05:54

    just tried to get Dem office holders to have a liaison/point-person with the blog world.

    Someone a Conyers or a Pelosi could go to and say “Look, the Repubs are pushing this, and they say that, and the media’s pushing it. What info is out there that I can use? What frames, or language can I address this in?”

    Then that person gives out the question and takes in the feedback. Also, that person would also receive initiatives, in the form of news, slants, and styles, from said blog sources.

    I’m sure this happens to some measure, but in a hit-and-miss, informal, haphazard way. But an “internet liaison” between Electeds and people would be very useful all around, I’d think.

  4. if I don’t know which way I’m facing?  — John Lennon

    Kick your analysis up a metalevel.  Why do we need leadership?  Each of your models is built to respond to different needs for leadership.  Do we need a “structural architect”?  Do we need a catalyst/ servant?  Do we need an advocate?  Do we need a prophet?

    Maybe we’re just unwilling to be followers.  Do we know what we need?  I’m not so sure.  Consumer society has told us we need to watch sports events, to go to amusement parks, to go shopping, and so on.

    In my own posts, here and on DKos,  I’ve suggested that what we need to do, overall, is to create a global, ecologically sustainable society.  Without this our current global civilization will suffer catastrophic collapse, from a number of ecological and economic and political dysfunctions all operating together.

    The immediate need in this regard is for us to bring ruralism back to the cities, through projects such as urban community gardens.  The existing set-up is irrelevant to the future in so many ways.  Now, you can have all the leaders you want, but how many of them are going to tell you truths on that level?  And even if they did, would you believe them?

    What about good old-fashioned teachers?  Someone to have an instructive dialog with?  Is that in your typology somewhere?

  5. were those who learned and felt compelled (for whatever reason) to adopt a style at odds with their personality/beliefs/style.
    That is the key distinction between leadership and management.

    Management is primarily what you find in corporations, largely because people are hired and fired. Occasionally you find real leaders at the helm of corporations, but most often it is well-schooled managers. You can hire people to follow managers, you cannot hire people to follow leaders. Leaders are followed freely or not at all. (Leaders certainly remunerate some of their followers, as organization, ability, and fairness dictate. But people are not drawn to a leader because they are looking for pay.)

    Real leadership is drawn from within. It is not possible for a narrow-minded or paranoid personality to adopt a “servant-leader” approach. Ineffective doesn’t even start on it. By the same token, a servant-leader would never adopt a political framework because the “situation calls for a different approach.” The way a servant-leader handles a “political” situation will be very different from the way a political leader handles the same situation.

    For example, Buhdy has a natural leadership style that attracts certain types of followers. We are here not because we know him personally or because he pays us. We are here because we know what he believes and that he has the courage of his convictions. I don’t always agree with him, and he doesn’t expect me to. But I know what he believes on topics that I care about. I trust that his words and actions arise from from his deeply held beliefs and reasoned responses, not from a calculated “triangulation” or carefully parsed “statements” calculated to say nothing and offend no one.

    The left blogosphere, in particular, is still evolving. It is unfortunate that the result is a lack of “impact,” but it is what it is. Leaders will emerge. Probably not in time for the 2008 election, but who knows? In any event, with any luck at all, the world will not end in 2008, and netroots will continue to grow in strength and grow its leaders as well.

    • pico on October 29, 2007 at 06:49

    I had no idea we were relevant in the first place!

    Seriously, most people don’t read blogs and don’t know that blogs exist.  The feeling I get from political leadership is that blogs are like unwanted bees: you can sometimes get honey from them, but generally you just avoid them so they don’t sting you.  So far the blogs have been more effective at generating outrage over relatively minor events (Macaca!) than at organizing anything with a strong practical result. 

    I don’t really see that changing, for one big reason: the people who are using blogs do so because they came looking for a venue to talk – the ones who want to act are generally already activists, whether they blog or not.  The net can be an excellent place to coordinate activism, but it has to start from the activism, not the net.  Likewise the leadership.

    For positive change, I think smaller and more focused blogs are the way to go: nothing kills an agenda like having too broad of one.  “Progressive politics” is absurdly large, which is one of the reasons that the #1 complaint on any related site is “How could you not cover issue X, you fascist!”  That’s also why smaller focus sites, like T&P and NION, have action items in nearly every one of their stories. 

    I don’t see strong organizational efforts much beyond that, because blogs are really just online bars/cafés where people gather to chat.  A good place to spread ideas, a good place to learn a few things – but generally not a good place to organize into an effective front. 

    Just my two cents.  I’m on cynicism mode this week.  🙂

  6. Various media-outlets reported that yesterday’s National Day of Action to Protest the War in San Francisco gathered between 10 to 30 thousand protestors, the largest of 8 demonstrations across the nation.

    The population of the United States is 300 million.

    Ten thousand demonstrators times 8 demonstrations sites equals 80K (or generously, 120K) demonstrators nationwide.  This is approximately, more or less, about 5-one-hundredths of 1% of the 300 million population. 

    As someone on this site said recently, (was it Opol?), things don’t look good for the home team!

  7. I think that we must remember that if you aren’t a NeoCon there is no vision that your leadership may hold that will have had any light shown upon it now or the past 6 years.  David Sirota is an amazing leader who uses this medium.  Armando is an amazing leader who takes the most hair tearing “f”ing soul trying contests that we have to deal with with these NeoCons and breaks it down into small pieces then writes to encourage work and energy being applied to breaking the NeoCon power structure one tiny weld at a time.  Everybody is still learning and we have had to begin this schooling under the administration of the biggest mother fuckers in American history.  I think we’ve done okay, not perfect but I don’t know how we could have done any of this perfectly under the existing conditions.

    • fisheye on October 29, 2007 at 19:39

    ostensibly for more than 2 centuries by laying down the the core values and principles shared by consensus of it’s founders. It followed a vigorous public debate of letters, opinion, and historical and current analasys. Democracies and democratic movements are not lead by leaders they are lead by ideas. Many blogosphere ‘leaders’ per se, have made themselves apparent by deseminating, in print, the shared ideas existing in the community accurately. The next phase, if history is any tutor, would be to expicitely narrow the core values of the community and establish them through broad consensus. The progressive measure of the endeavor would be by it’s relative inclusivity.
    I’ve seen blog proprietors quickly dashed amidst any perception that paints them partisan within the scope of their mission.
    How are our shared values identified most succinctly and specifically? I’d like to see multiple cross site-cross posted polls to begin identifying the commonalities of the progressive blogosphere. It would not be difficult to begin identifying and itemizing ‘values’ based on polls as well as basic behavioral preferences and incentives to define the community.  Can we all agree our personal carbon footprint contributes to global warming? Can ‘membership’ or participation in the community be coupled with behavioral pledges or ideals? to increase the meaning, force and effectiveness of the individuals participation? The ideas are already living in the community and people are chomping at the bit feel empowered by a solidarity and common purpose. The writing of our constitution like the progressive blogoshere movement was a collaborative organic effort.

  8. http://www.dailykos….

    in reaction to Naomi Klein’s book, the diariest is seeking ideas

    • TheRef on October 29, 2007 at 22:43

    but one that is fraught with many unworkables in a divergent community such as the blogosphere.

    NETROOTS as a constituency:

    I agree with those up-string who challenge whether or not the “netroots” were ever relevant in the first place. But for the moment let’s go with the approach that there is some relevancy to the gang of us whacking away at our keyboards, blessing the Internet bit stream with our writings, whether or not anyone ever reads what we so creatively pound out.

      The relevancy, I believe is that it gives many of us the opportunity to express ourselves at whatever level we are able to transcribe [via the keyboard] our thought process to computer coded script. It provides an outlet to otherwise bottled-up thoughts. If not for the blogging apparatus, many of us would drown in our thoughts with no channel for expression.

      The conundrum of this new-found outlet is that while broadcasting one’s thoughts out to the community at large the thoughts are exposed allowing these thoughts to become categorized (e.g., left, right, middle; progressive, liberal, mainstream, conservative, right-wing; etc.). Unfortunately, there is no limit to the depths of categorization by others of one’s thoughts once submitted to the netroots masses.

      The community of potentially relevant interest can be very broad, or it can be sliced, diced and narrowed by a set of exclusionary practices. Thoughts expressed to the multitudes soon label a person or persons and/or his or her thoughts into the aforementioned sub-categories. One need only drive through most any small southern town and count the number of Baptist churches to understand the principle of exclusion.

      In the Baptist example, a fairly common [and broad] categorization of one Protestant religion breaks down into dozens [hundreds in larger towns and cities] of segments. “Leadership” in such circumstances usually equates to one proponent of a set of ideas heading off in a direction with a few members who will follow his lead …a new Baptist church is born. Exclusionism occurs over and over within the main body of the Baptist community and in the sub-categories as other pockets of compatible ideas fragment off the original whole. Each time, a new Baptist church is born. It is very difficult to lead, and keep whole, a congregation not compelled by some organizational, philosophical, cultural, or other personally rewarding experience or in the negative a restraining punitive outcome.

      In the netroots community, the circumstances are much the same. But, there are some striking limitations / differences. One quality missing as compared to some more structured groups, there is no cohesive substance, single ideology, or guaranteed rewards for coalescing around any particular thinking. In the netroots society, the thought process is free-form…. Everyone is a maverick.

      The participants and content of the various sites [or many times within a single site] tend to balkanize around multiple sets of narrower and narrower “core” thoughts, values, beliefs, principles. The focus of the group shreds into multiple cores. The inside players become extreme, radical, closed in their process, in their thinking, in their actions. This occurs to the exclusion of others. What may have started as an open, inviting forum quickly becomes a closed and outsider-shunning sect. When this happens, you begin to see a shrinking of the following of any particular netroots entity. The netroots, spinning on its axis, following an often repeated pattern of group dynamics explodes out as it fragments into narrow thoughts, passions, and actions. Unfortunately, even leadership cannot provide the gravity that keeps the group’s feet on the ground nor to apply the centrifugal force that will hold players with different motivations, different needs, different objectives, together and forward leaning. The netroots becoming a singular entity, unlikely. More likely, a repeat of the big bang.


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