Leadership is incredibly important for resistance movements. Yet many of us mistrust leaders—with good reason. What exactly is a leader? Are there leadership models that align with our ethics? How can one develop resistance leadership skills? This piece, excerpted from internal Deep Green Resistance training materials, explores these topics.

By Fred Gibson

Why Leadership is Important

It’s no secret that resistance to industrial civilization isn’t winning. The planet is still dying, and injustice and oppression are rampant; you might say we’re getting our asses kicked.

In part, our struggles are due to the enormity of the problem, and our small numbers. We have no control over the former, but more over the latter. Consider these issues for a moment:

  • Do we have problems with recruitment? Turnover? Commitment?
  • Are we all on the same page regarding purpose, direction, and/or strategy?
  • Do we experience ‘drama’ / horizontal hostility within our ranks, or across resistance collectives?
  • Do you want comrades to struggle with you, to take risks, to actually take direct action, but find the response underwhelming?

It’s not a stretch to suggest that these questions can be addressed by more effective leadership among members of the resistance. It isn’t hyperbole to declare that the planet is crying out for leadership. From John Gardner: “we are anxious but immobilized” by immensely threatening problems. What’s needed is the capacity to focus our energies, and a capability for sustained commitment. This is a call for leadership, of course. We’re at war for the survival of the planet, and we cannot afford not to fight better.

No one has yet figured out how to manage people effectively into battle; they must be led.

— John Kotter

The corporate world and the military invest heavily in leadership development, as they understand the payoff in competitive advantage that leadership capacity brings. They’re organized: we need to be, too. We have to compete and win without traditional leverage (rewards, authority) over others. Comrades need to be led, not managed or coerced.

What is Leadership?

One challenge for us is to choose a conceptualization of leadership with which to work, because embedded in each are assumptions, about: agency with respect to followers or peers; relative worth of comrades vis a vis leaders; acceptability of a hierarchy or power differential; and so on. One conceptualization that fits our requirements comes from Kouzes and Posner:

Leadership is the art [and practice] of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.

This form of leadership fits nicely for us in the resistance. Leadership here is not a position, or about power. This approach also suggests a process of mutual influence, not coercion or manipulation. For resistance members, this ‘egalitarian’ view should be more palatable than management-oriented approaches; at the same time, viewing leadership as a process shared by all avoids a tendency for resistance groups to devolve into cults of personality, which not only limit the existence of the collective to the lifetime of the cult leader, but also tend toward abuse and misogyny.

How then can we practice leadership in this way? By incorporating five “practices” that enable leaders to inspire their comrades to get extraordinary things done.

1. Serve as a Model

(Who are you and what are you all about?)

Effective leaders first “find their voice” – they discover, prioritize, and clarify their values, both personal and organizational. They resolve potential conflicts between their values and those of whatever collective they are part of. Once they have found their voice, leaders ensure they speak in ways consistent with the values of the larger collective, by constantly engaging in dialogue with others concerning what is important, what is not, and why the shared values are necessary for the survival of the collective and realization of its purpose. Clarity and commitment to these values are essential prerequisites for leaders to establish core principles concerning the way comrades, constituents, and allies should be treated and the way goals should be pursued.

Leaders also set the example by behaving in ways that are consistent with shared values. By acting as an exemplar for share values, leaders help comrades see how the values play out in behavioral terms – they teach. By modeling and teaching, leader act to establish and maintain a healthy culture for the group. “Culture work” is a critical leadership function, and all the practices we describe here play some role in influencing the culture of the group.

2. Inspire a Shared Vision

(What do we want our world to be like?)

Resistance leaders need to answer the question, “What are we fighting for?” Collective struggle is fueled by a shared vision of the future – of a realistic, credible, attractive future; an ideal and unique image of the future for a group, organization or larger collective. Leaders envision the future and clearly paint a picture for the group to comprehend.

  • Without a vision for a group, little can happen. If a leader is going to take people places they haven’t been before, constituents need to have a sense of direction. This is the function an effective vision provides.
  • Leaders look forward to the future. But visions seen only by the leader aren’t enough to make things happen; effective leaders therefore show others how their values and interests will be served by a long-term vision of the future.

The visioning process is enabled by laying the groundwork of shared values.

A vision …doesn’t just reveal itself in a flash of light or a brilliant dream! It evolves from knowledge of ourselves, our values, and our desires.

— Laraine Matusak

The process of creating a shared vision isn’t mystical or forbiddingly charisma-charged; it’s pretty straightforward.

  • Know yourself & your organization (or similar groups) – and know the past. Visit the past of your group or your movement to better understand the possible futures.
  • Get in touch w/your organizational values. Determine what you want to fight for.
  • Let yourself dream/get creative.
  • Enlist others in the vision – attract people to a common purpose (discuss it, articulate it, repeat it) by appealing to shared aspirations. Demonstrate your belief and confidence in it, and in the ability of your comrades to achieve it.

Just because your organization has a vision in place doesn’t imply you can’t undertake this important work for whatever part of the organization you’re leading. Your comrades may be hungry for direction and meaning – feed that need.

3. Challenge the process

(What should we do differently?)

We don’t have to tell resistance warriors they need to challenge the status quo (dominant culture), as that’s likely the path that led them to resistance work in the first place. Continue to do that! But it’s less likely these same advocates for fundamental, radical change in the world apply that analysis internally, to their own groups or organizations. Give yourself permission to voice the need for changes, wherever they might be needed. We doubt your group is perfect, so do yourself and them a favor and help them move in the direction of improvement and evolution.

Search for opportunities to change your status quo, because comrades do their best when there’s the chance to transform the way things are. Seek challenging opportunities to test your abilities, and motivate others to exceed their self-perceived limits. We’re not going to make a dent in the dominant culture by doing business as usual, in the larger society or in our respective groups. We must be vigilant for opportunities to change our comrades, our groups, and ourselves. Look for innovative ways to change, grow and improve. To maintain energy and momentum as part of the change process, one thing leaders can do is treat every assignment as an adventure, not just another routine. Even in the resistance world, there are lots of tasks that are less than romantic. Look for ways to keep yourself and comrades engaged as much a possible, and open to suggesting change.

Continue the drive to change and evolve by experimenting and taking risks, by trying new ways of reaching toward the mission and purpose. To that end, constantly generate small wins (incremental successes linked to innovations they or others are trying) and learning from the resulting mistakes, too.

You don’t have to be the creator or innovator – you can recognize and support good ideas, and challenge the system to get them adopted; you can be a champion of risk takers. Create a climate for learning, taking risks, and changing.

4. Enable Others to Act

(How can I help you resist?)

You may need to “decolonize” your mind. Effective resistance efforts won’t be led by the strong loners of our neoliberal movie mythology; they will be led by activists who encourage comrades to thrive in their work. Leaders can’t succeed alone. They create and maintain trustworthy relationships, and build cohesive teams that feel like family. But while good leaders don’t try to do everything by themselves, they don’t just delegate, either; they involve comrades in planning and give them discretion.

Leaders foster collaboration by promoting cooperative goals, facilitating relationships and building trust.

Trust is a core component of collaboration and nurturing effective groups. ’We’ can’t happen without trust. It’s the central issue in human relationships. Without trust you cannot lead. Those who are unable to trust others fail to become leaders, precisely because they can’t bear to be dependent on the words and works of others. From the comrades’ perspective, why should a fellow resistance warrior work hard or take on risk for someone she or he doesn’t trust? Make sure you create a climate of trust – here are some tips:

  • Be the first to trust. Model the way!
  • Show concern for others (often, by listening)
  • Share knowledge and information. Sure, information is power, so share it!

Another best practice for fostering collaboration is to promote joint efforts in staffing tasks or campaigns, and incorporate systems that enable fact-to-face interactions wherever possible. Resistance members are spread far and wide, so it’s difficult to implement these interactions physically, so use what’s available. Technology is evil, but let’s leverage it to build an effective resistance while we can.

Effective leaders continually develop comrades and cultivate their confidence and self-efficacy. They strengthen others by sharing power and discretion, and by delegating with development and challenge in mind. A comrade may not be as good as you in a particular area, but that doesn’t mean you can’t delegate that task to him! Let them do their best and grow from the practice and feedback. Sharing builds competence and confidence as well as trust. It’s a powerful practice.

Generate a learning climate and educate others in other ways, too. Be a coach.

  • Give constructive feedback, particularly when a comrade completes something you delegated to her or him.
  • Probe a comrade for her understanding, reflection and learning following a challenge. Engage in Socratic questioning to further a comrade’s ability to reason and reflect.

Don’t try to do everything yourself – spoiler: you can’t. Develop others – while sometimes time consuming, it’s an investment in your movement that pays huge dividends. When leaders coach, educate, enhance self-determination and otherwise share power, they demonstrate profound trust in and respect for others’ abilities

5. Encourage and Uplift

(What keeps us going?)

Activist work, particularly direct action, is difficult, isolating, stressful, and fraught with risks. It’s hard to maintain motivation, energy, and a sense of purpose. People need encouragement to function at their best and to persist. They need emotional fuel to replenish their spirits. At the same time, no one is likely to persist for very long when they feel ignored or taken for granted. Often the best, or only, way to keep comrades going is through your demonstrated appreciation, pride, and affection for them and what they’re doing. And when they experience wins small or large, these occasions should be all the more celebrated, given the challenges.

Encouraging leaders recognize contributions individuals make. They communicate that they believe in the abilities of their comrades to help them achieve their purpose. Belief in others is crucial, because positive expectations influence comrades’ efficacy and aspirations. Don’t just tell them you believe in them, either – show them by how you behave toward them. And to do this well, get close to them; be out and about or at least in regular contact.

Celebrate the values and hard-won victories, even if they are small wins. Create a sense of community: celebrations are among the most significant way people display respect and gratitude, renew a sense of community, and recall shared values & traditions. Celebrations are important ways leaders communicate what’s important to them and the organization.

Leaders can also provide social support, and champion systems that enable support for all comrades. Supportive relationships among comrades, characterized by genuine belief in and advocacy for the interests of others, are critical to maintain vitality. Social support networks are essential for sustaining motivation & work as an antidote to burnout. Keep your comrades on the road, as they say, by supporting them.

Invest in fun. In a difficult climate for activists, people need to have a sense of personal well-being (which fun can contribute to) to sustain their commitment. And leaders set the tone. Be yourself, but build fun into the work itself, celebrations, or personal / team recognition.

Leadership as a Role

It’s exceedingly difficult for resistance organizations or the movement writ large to function without a broad spectrum of individual activists taking on leadership roles. Characterizing leadership as a role is important, because such a representation emphasizes that anyone can assume leadership, depending on circumstance, task, and so on. This realization also de-emphasizes the importance of organizational position and hierarchy, to – in fact, our movement is more likely to be effective when leadership is widely dispersed. Then, we better leverage the diverse talents and experiences at our disposal. We also generate better ‘bench strength’ so when a leadership position or new role emerges, we have the capacity on board to meet that challenge.

When we accept that leadership is a role, we free ourselves from the assumption (myth) that some people are ‘gifted’ with leadership ability, while others are not. Everyone possesses leadership potential, and as resistance warriors we are behooved to develop the skills and values to sharpen our capacity to lead. In this way, ‘leadership’ is wholly consistent with our collective identity. Anyone can take on the mantle of leadership, depending on the circumstances and the makeup of the group she or he find himself or herself part of. Depending on your task-relevant skills or passion, you may be asked to take the lead. And if you’re not asked, step up anyway. We need more of you to do just that.

In case you think you can’t use these skills if you’re new to resistance/your group or not a top staff member, think again: You’re likely a member of some team, task force or committee that can benefit from leadership. You’re also part of some community that needs leadership to deepen, evolve, or thrive.

Don’t wait for an invitation to lead.

Becoming a Better Leader

Reading through this entry, and even checking out other resources, will not make you a better leader, any more than reading about becoming a better baseball hitter will get you to the major leagues. So how can you improve your leadership? Same way you get to Carnegie Hall.

We know leadership consists of observable and learnable behaviors. Even if you’re a highly experienced leader, you can improve your ability to lead if you commit to this process:

Adopt a model of leadership to aspire to, with a behavioral basis. Otherwise, you’re just guessing about what to observe and practice. You have that model – the one we introduced here.

  • Observe positive models of those behaviors.
  • Get feedback on your present use of the desired behaviors based on this model. This can be via written feedback, discussions with peers, or working with a mentor or coach.
  • Reflect on the results.
  • Set goals for yourself and/or build a development plan.
  • Practice the behaviors.
  • Ask for and receive updated feedback on your performance.
  • Set new goals.
  • Repeat.

You don’t need to take this trip alone, and in fact you’ll find it much easier with others. Consider getting a mentor or coach, or joining a leadership support group. You may have to recruit, perhaps with the promise that you are working to improve, but the results can be enriched substantially.

Final Thoughts

If your Mom was dying, you’d do anything to save her. Well, she is and you will. Resistance is risky, and direct action scary, but learning to be a better leader and maybe occasionally being uncomfortable? C’mon! You can do it.

Fred Gibson is an environmental and social justice activist. Living in Colorado off and on since 1970, he’s witnessed the native beauty and biological diversity of the Front Range, as well as its ongoing destruction. He is determined to reverse that trend. An organizational psychologist, Fred offers his experience to build effective leadership and organizational capacity to groups that resist the destruction of the planet. In addition to his DGR membership, Fred is co-founder of Communities that Protect and Resist.


Reading List

  • James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner: The Leadership Challenge. 2012. San Francisco: Wiley. (The basis for the practices. There’s more detail and anecdotes to flesh out the topics we discussed. You may also be able to find the text online.)
  • Larraine R. Matusak: Finding Your Voice: Learning to Lead…Anywhere You Want to Make a Difference. 1997. San Francisco: Jossy-Bass. (A good ‘intro’ to leadership: accessible, non-academic, with a practical bent. Has a motivational component, and is pretty short.)
  • Richard L. Hughes, Robert C. Ginnett, & Gordon J. Curphy. Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience. Boston: McGraw-Hill. (Considered by many the gold standard for teaching leadership, especially at the undergrad level. Comprehensive account of the major systems and theories of leadership and its practice. Lots of reflection questions and developmental work, too. )


You can check out Communities that Protect and Resist for a conceptual model and examples of how to build an oppositional community. https://ctpr.home.blog

Contact DGR to sign up our Leadership for Resistance course.

Featured image: Kurdishstruggle, CC BY 2.0