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The notion of leadership, or more specifically the lack of designated leaders, seemed to prickle the pundits as they sought to define the Occupy Wall Street movement last fall. “Who is your leader, your spokesperson?” reporters asked, “and what are your demands?”

News outlets were left to their own devices as they sought to gather various comments, complaints and sound bites from demonstrators on the streets, and weave these into a narrative that could be explained on the evening news.

And as the many Occupy demonstrations gradually gave way to arrests, evictions and pepper-spraying public servants, civic leaders breathed quiet sighs of relief. But while the squeeze of authority has brought calm to the streets and parks, it has helped inflate a more significant aspect of the Occupy phenomenon – the empowerment of the individual.

“We have no leader, we’re all leaders,” was a common sentiment from demonstrators, and this awareness may be the driving force which sustains the movement going forward. But regardless of the future of the Occupy movement, the notion of individual ownership of the movement is profound. The responsibility which comes with ownership fosters accountability for our own actions, and stimulates us to find our own solutions.

In accepting the mantle of leadership, as individuals, we assume a degree of control. We may not have the sweeping powers of senators or congressmen, but we’re no longer helpless victims of the 1%, the changing climate, the depressed economy, the banks or whatever events or institutions bring upon us.

  • We are the 99% who consume 99% of fuel. It is we who can reduce carbon consumption the most, and our reduced demand for oil can result in lower fuel prices.
  • We are the 99% who consume 99% of food. We have control over food quality by the choices we make at the market. Those of us with yards can grow some of our own food, or support local organic farms. In cities, we can join community gardens or support CSA’s.
  • We are the 99% who use 99% of energy. We have control over our use of energy, and our choices influence the costs, sources and impacts associated with energy use.
  • We are the 99% who live in communities across the land. We can choose to disregard contrived divisions such as liberal/conservative, democrat/republican, religious/atheist, hawk/dove, red/blue…..groupings which sow division. We can choose to come together locally to reduce our differences to a human scale, and work towards common local goals.

A defining complaint among the 99% is the accelerating trend of income inequality. Besides the apparent shifting of wealth and opportunity to 1% of the population, this trend has another unfortunate consequence: it diminishes the perceived value of individuals who are not part of the “1% club”. It furthers our feelings of impotence. When we feel ‘unimportant’ as individuals, it is more difficult to muster the optimism and creativity we need to develop progressive solutions for the future.

But while income inequality is real and destructive, it is counter-productive to allow this to diminish our personal sense of worth.

Individuals and institutions which hold power benefit when we give in to our own feelings of powerlessness. We may decide to not bother voting, for example, since our influence seems infinitesimal, but this only transfers additional power to those in control. When we choose as consumers to purchase the cheapest goods regardless of their provenance, we help entrench the corporate stranglehold over our economy and our politics.

The national discourse seems to favor the extremes, but this is not our experience of life at the local level. Disproportionate media time is given blowhards and eccentrics, which does not reflect local demographics. Every community has its extreme personalities but they do not steer the community dialogue. We have a better shot at successful governing at local levels.

Individuals and small groups are not only empowered to lead, we are in fact the only leaders. Our elected “leaders” are hobbled by the need to be re-elected. Politicians want job security like the rest of us, and they need a continuum to develop and shepherd legislation which may take years to enact. The path to reelection in our democracy requires extensive funding which is most readily available from corporate interests. Ordinary citizens have less to give, especially in a tight economy. And the recent Citizens United ruling by a corporate friendly Supreme Court further entrenches this imbalance in representation.

Quick Quiz: Can you name three current leaders elected to national office who are environmental champions? I can’t.

Yet on the local level, people in small communities across the country are working together to arrive at solutions to challenges we all have in common. In my small community there have been numerous initiatives underway which each bring the community closer to self-sufficiency and sustainability. Most folks have home vegetable gardens, many people have small poultry and livestock operations, and there has been a movement towards cooperative food purchasing and delivery, seed shares, a farmers and crafters market, a recycling collection and even a free store where clean useful items are dropped off and made available to others. Most importantly, there is a palpable sense of individual empowerment and common purpose.

I would like to see more stories of individual and local successes at the grass roots level, as these examples provide inspiration and encouragement to others. This year Eartheasy will be featuring stories of local sustainability initiatives, from individuals to local groups that are making a difference and may serve as models for others. Please send us your story to share if you feel it has value to others!

The 10 Grassroots Leadership Principles

1. Lead by Example.
Grass Roots Leaders know they must demonstrate changed attitudes and behaviors first, before expecting their team to change. They respectively listen, discuss, and commit to decisions during meetings. They proactively “walk the talk.”

2. Communicate Purpose & Meaning.
They help their team members understand – collectively and individually — how their work contributes to the success of the overall mission, and understand how that work supports their own personal goals. They clarify desired outcomes and set clear expectations for individual and team assignments.

3. Create a Climate of Trust.
They trust their team members and cultivate trust from their team. They make themselves available and accessible to each team member and communicate the fact that all ideas and opinions are valued and considered. They are open to criticism and aren’t afraid to admit when they are wrong.

4. Look for Results, not Salutes.
They focus primarily on maximizing the performance and expanding the competencies and knowledge of their people rather than achieving personal recognition or higher status within the organization. They trust their team to make the correct decisions within established guidelines.

5. Take Calculated Risks.
They encourage their people to take responsibility in making processes better, and promote thinking about what’s best for the organization. They believe that the reason they are successful is because of the performance and decisions of their people. When there is a better way of doing something, they encourage their teams to take action and make the right decisions without asking permission first.

6. Go Beyond SOP.
They define Standard Operating Procedures as guidelines, not as a rigid rule that must be followed at the expense of achieving excellence. They know that SOPs do not change as rapidly as environmental and competitive factors. They understand the importance of fostering a climate that encourages people to discover more innovative ways to accomplish their goals.

7. Listen Aggressively.
They don’t simply listen — they listen intensely and carefully to what their people are telling them about their experience, as well as short and long term goals. They devote attention to each team member and value all ideas and opinions. They seek to understand issues from all points-of-view.

8. Strengthen Others.
They focus on expanding the personal growth, skills, knowledge and opportunities of every team member by creating an environment where everyone can flourish. They understand that, as a result, the team is strengthened. They encourage team members to develop individual goals, and provide opportunities for the development of new skills.

9. Generate Unity.
They work relentlessly to help their team see the benefits of working collaboratively. By committing to treat everyone with dignity and respect, Grass Roots Leaders level the playing field and create an environment that encourages all team members to perform at their highest level. They value and leverage team member differences to make the team collectively stronger.

10. Cultivate Quality of Life.
They actively integrate fun into the work experience and strive to ensure their team has as much fun from 9 to 5 as 5 to 9. They encourage their people to work with the same passion, enthusiasm and creativity they enjoy in their personal lives, and work to create a climate that makes this possible. They promote a balance between personal and professional interests, and strongly support personal goals and priorities.