My wife and I and about 1300 of our closest acquaintances rode bikes through the streets of San Diego’s downtown for about 3 hours. This was the San Diego edition of Critical Mass, an event that got its name in San Francisco in 1992 and now takes place in around 300 cities around the world in various forms.

The form it takes in San Diego is this: bicyclists of all ages and descriptions, on bicycles of all kinds, gather at the fountain in Balboa Park on the last Friday of every month. There is no official leadership and no route announced in advance. As the dark insists, bike riders begin circling the fountain. Various subgroups may take off in some direction and, if the mass doesn’t follow them, they return to circling. At some point, and you can feel the energy rising to a point in the crowd, a group begins heading west down the stairs and across the bridge and all at once there are more than a thousand bicyclists traveling into the city.

You can read more about it on Wikipedia and you can see the movie I created from our experience on YouTube.

While there are no official leaders and the routes are decided on the spot, I’m certain that certain people with credibility within the group exercise significant influence over how it proceeds. The term xerocracy was coined to describe the power of someone showing up with the best photocopy of a possible route.

This event generates a considerable amount of controversy for several reasons. One is that the “critical mass” of riders take over the streets and the traffic of automobile and bus drivers and pedestrians is significantly disrupted. The other is that, since the people involved do not give it a specific meaning (some portray it as a protest against the lack of safe bicycling routes, the general indifference of drivers to bicyclists, or a blow for reduced dependence on fossil fuels for transportation; others claim it’s just a great community party…a spontaneous celebration of the freedom associated with riding one’s bike with a group that makes it possible to travel routes a solo biker could never tackle safely) it is impossible to characterize.

It is a considerable problem for public safety officers. San Diego police have decided to take a low profile response, following the group throughout the evening, but otherwise only responding to problem incidents. Some cities have tried to crack down (the group rides through red lights in most cities, for example), but no responses have been seen as very successful.

For students of leadership, it is helpful as a question mark: What does leadership mean in a group that wants to assert that it is “leaderless”? Clearly it demonstrates the Center’s viewpoint that leadership does not reside only in leaders, but it also raises questions about how leadership emerges and how social movements grow without acknowledged leaders.

Your two-wheeling friend,

Doug

4 thoughts on “Political Statement or Really Good Party?

  1. Chris Deaver says:

    Doug,
    Great post. Interesting questions. I guess the answers lie in what the objective of the group happens to be at any given moment. I work at Dell in the Global Talent Management arena, and I find that people are often looking up to Michael for general organizational direction, but they remain very autonomous in day-to-day activities.
    I also been in many situations where there was not a clearly defined leader per se, and the group functioned effectively, perhaps even more effectively than if there were a clearly defined leader. This has mostly been in such settings as a group of friends deciding what to do on a Friday night, a group of Boy Scouts deciding which area in the campground to explore, or a team of animators visioning the direction of a short film. In every scenario, having a leader clearly defined (at least in the early stages) would have likely stifled the creativity and maybe even killed the innovation of the group. Overall, the level of leadership needed seems to depend on the activity at hand. If the group of friends wants to learn to play soccer, they will likely engage with and follow the lead of the talented soccer player. If the Boy Scouts are moving away from the campground and actually hiking a trail to their next destination, then they will likely follow the lead of the Scoutmaster. And if the team of animators finally converges on a great idea, they will likely need to assign a Director, or one will emerge, who will be accountable for execution of the vision.

  2. Chris Deaver says:

    Doug,
    Great post. Interesting questions. I guess the answers lie in what the objective of the group happens to be at any given moment. I work at Dell in the Global Talent Management arena, and I find that people are often looking up to Michael for general organizational direction, but they remain very autonomous in day-to-day activities.
    I also been in many situations where there was not a clearly defined leader per se, and the group functioned effectively, perhaps even more effectively than if there were a clearly defined leader. This has mostly been in such settings as a group of friends deciding what to do on a Friday night, a group of Boy Scouts deciding which area in the campground to explore, or a team of animators visioning the direction of a short film. In every scenario, having a leader clearly defined (at least in the early stages) would have likely stifled the creativity and maybe even killed the innovation of the group. Overall, the level of leadership needed seems to depend on the activity at hand. If the group of friends wants to learn to play soccer, they will likely engage with and follow the lead of the talented soccer player. If the Boy Scouts are moving away from the campground and actually hiking a trail to their next destination, then they will likely follow the lead of the Scoutmaster. And if the team of animators finally converges on a great idea, they will likely need to assign a Director, or one will emerge, who will be accountable for execution of the vision.

  3. Doug Riddle says:

    Great examples, Chris, and I think you frame the kinds of circumstances in a helpful way. I haven’t seen much in the literature about the ways locus of power shifts under different circumstances. Your observation makes me think that one characteristic of group power is its focus or diffusion and we might even be able to derive a metric based on the amount of diffusion. Theoretically, the most diffuse expression of power is in a group in which every member can veto the actions of the whole group, and the most focused expression is in a personal militia in which only the “strong man” has a gun. Democracy has a preference for the most diffusion possible (except in a crisis). When we are impatient with the process of a group, I think we all move toward favoring more focus. Our (CCL)research shows that stable personality characteristics also play a role and provide some guidance for those responsible for group formation. However, our recent research on leadership as a group characteristic rather than solely a leader characteristic suggests caution is wise when using personality as a predictor or management tool.

  4. Doug Riddle says:

    Great examples, Chris, and I think you frame the kinds of circumstances in a helpful way. I haven’t seen much in the literature about the ways locus of power shifts under different circumstances. Your observation makes me think that one characteristic of group power is its focus or diffusion and we might even be able to derive a metric based on the amount of diffusion. Theoretically, the most diffuse expression of power is in a group in which every member can veto the actions of the whole group, and the most focused expression is in a personal militia in which only the “strong man” has a gun. Democracy has a preference for the most diffusion possible (except in a crisis). When we are impatient with the process of a group, I think we all move toward favoring more focus. Our (CCL)research shows that stable personality characteristics also play a role and provide some guidance for those responsible for group formation. However, our recent research on leadership as a group characteristic rather than solely a leader characteristic suggests caution is wise when using personality as a predictor or management tool.

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