The Unimportance of Leadership for Collective Action

The Shift from Hierarchal Structures to Networks

Does there always need to be a figurehead or leader for a group to take successful collective action? I think not. Malcolm Gladwell writer of “Small Change” believes that a hierarchal system is the key for successful collective action. Marshall Poe author of “The Hive” helps me show how my argument undermines Gladwell’s view with the success of the website Wikipedia and its leaderless structure. Overall, success can come in many ways and with many different structures given the ever-changing world and technology. The strength of one sole leader calling the shots is brought into question and the existence of Wikipedia helps prove this point. Gladwell and Poe both help create connections to the different types of structures and their success. Both authors discuss the ties that are made between people and how they provide power to groups whether they are face to face or via the Internet. The masses of people in society hold the true power and they are the ones who are able to call the shots without reporting to one sole individual.

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell author of “Small Change” discuss the impacts of how strong and weak ties affect the success of collective action. He continues to discuss how these ties can directly impact the overall leadership structure whether it is a hierarchical structure or a leaderless network. His main focus was on the power and strength of a hierarchical system during the civil rights movements in the U.S and around the world. Also how it rallied the troops to support the coalition. Although Gladwell provides historical events as evidence to support his claim he fails to recognize todays ever changing society. With todays constant release of new technology it provides new avenues for success whether they be hierarchical structures or networks. Gladwell defines a hierarchical structure as a

“carefully demarcated division of labor, with various standing committees and disciplined groups”(236) under a central authority.

Also he feels that members are bound by strong ties, which provide the structure with its strength. A network on the other hand is a structure without a central authority and decisions are made through consensus. Also, a member of a network structure is bound by what Gladwell calls weak ties. Networks of different groups are continuing to grow in todays society and their power is in their numbers. The people of these networks hold the true power and through collaboration they are able to create a successful movement. There does not need to be a sole leader but rather a like minded group who discuss and share their ideas on how to successfully reach their goal. The ties people make over the internet do not need to be face to face or on a personal level to have strength that just need to be driven by the same end goal. These ties will be further explained shortly and how they are perceived to impact these structures.

Marshall Poe

Marshall Poe author of “The Hive” discusses how two gentlemen started the site known as Wikipedia and how they faced different models and structures in order to make the site a success.

Poe outlines two different structures that Eric Raymond calls the Cathedral and Bazaar model. These models ended up leading to the demise of the starter site Nupedia and the success of Wikipedia. This is important to consider because these models help bring light to how hierarchical structures don’t always work.

Poe states “Then there was the real problem: production”(Poe 354) which is referring to how the hierarchical (cathedral model) structure resulted in a lag of production for Nupedia. “They had built a cathedral”(Poe 354) and it proved to be troublesome and a change needed to be made.

This helps prove that what worked in the past does not necessarily work in the present. That a hierarchical structure is not always the best fit in every given scenario. Poe’s main focus is on how “ Wikipedia has the potential to be the greatest effort in collaborative knowledge gathering the world has ever know, and it may be the greatest effort in voluntary collaboration of any kind”(349). This was all because of the efforts of finding the right model or structure to support collective action. I agree with Poe and that this point needs emphasizing in order to bring light to the ever changing society and the structures that are defined by it.

Cathedral Model

Poe first presents the cathedral model, which is a more traditional structure that revolves around source code being guarded by a core group of developers. Essentially, the site and its information would be reviewed and edited by a group of experts. This model instills the image of experts being the leaders who call the shots. Gladwell strongly aligns with this models structure. Gladwell believes that a hierarchical structure provides the brick and mortar (central authority) for a strong movement to be successful but as the success of Wikipedia shows he is wrong.

He also believes that the success of this structure is due to the role of strong ties among members. Gladwell sees these strong ties as essential “And the primary determinant of who showed up was critical friends- the more friends you had who were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest”(234). Gladwell sees strong ties as connections made between two people face to face or friends and that the bond between friends determines the strength of numbers. Gladwell has a point that this bond creates a sound structure under a central authority but in todays society the power of the people alone may be enough to be successful.

A hierarchical structure has proved itself in being successful however it does not mean that in order for collective action to be a success it must be under this one structure. The world and technology continues to change and it provides new avenues for collaboration and challenges the norms of the past. Gladwell states “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past-even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the internet”(233). Gladwell feels that the efforts of communication where always present and that for word to spread you don’t need social media.However, he neglects the thought of changing times and therefore he sees the old way as the only way. Today’s society may disagree especially because of how enveloped society is in the use of social media and the reach that it has into everyday life. This hierarchical structure is undermined by the bazaar model, which can be seen in Poe’s article.

The Bazaar Model

The bazaar model revolves around the idea that anyone is allowed to tinker with the information presented. This model is supported by the view that the speed with which a complex project is perfected is directly proportional to the number of informed people working on it. This model does not have a sole leader and the power is with the people who all share a common interest, which in this case was monitoring the Wikipedia site and its information. This model is what Gladwell sees as a network, which is supported by weak ties. Gladwell defines a weak tie as people coming together through the use of social media or the Internet and never making a face-to-face introduction. These weak ties are essentially our acquaintances that we have on Facebook or Twitter and not necessarily friends.

Gladwell quotes an article on International Security that outlines the faults of a network, which states “ Structural features typical of networks- the absence of central authority, the unchecked autonomy of rival groups, and the inability to arbitrate quarrels through formal mechanisms”(236) which makes them excessively vulnerable to outside manipulation and internal strife.

However this argument is undermined strictly by the existence of Wikipedia. Wikipedia proves that without a central authority a network of people can still be successful in taking collective action.

Also, the autonomy of rival groups does not go unchecked it is further monitored through the efforts of collaboration and a decision-making processes that calls for a consensus. Wikipedians are able to arbitrate issues through the efforts of collaboration whether it is seen as a formal way of communicating or whether it is over the Internet. Gladwell discredits the strength that networks truly have. He uses terrorist groups as an example and states that they have been less successful since the breaking up of the regimes (hierarchical structure). He provides this one example on such a large scale but it is hard to determine just how successful these groups are. Any group’s strength resides in the efforts of collaboration whether it is people working on Wikipedia information or a group trying to spark a protest.


The effort of collaboration is the true strength to any structure whether it is a hierarchical structure or a network. If like-minded individuals come together and communicate there given goals anything can be accomplished through the efforts of collective action. Wikipedia has given us more than just a site to share a wealth of knowledge. It has provided society with a new structure of collective action, which does not revolve around a central authority figure. The people truly hold the power in society and when these networks come together decisions can be reached through consensus or democracy. This ultimately leads to the success of a group who takes collective action.

Work Cited

Poe, Marshall. “The Hive.” The Atlantic Journal (2006):n. pag. Web.

Gladwell, Malcolm. “Small Change.” The New Yorker. 2010. Print.

Like what you read? Give Mike Allan a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.