The Obama presidential campaign owed its victory not to a single charismatic candidate, but to the efforts of a disciplined and motivated organisation whose influences go back to landmark civil rights movements. Many of the principles were consistent with the emerging ideas of ‘complex adaptive leadership’.

A recent MIT lecture featured Marshall Ganz, veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement and key activist in the Obama election campaign, who described how the principles and practices he learned over decades of voluntary organising and leadership were applied in last years ‘against the odds’ victory.

Ganz’s view was that leadership involves “taking responsibility to enable others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty.” Leaders “recruit, motivate and develop others, constructing a community around common interests, and building capacity from within the community”. Effective volunteer-based organisations cannot rely on rigid hierarchies or command-and-control strutures but must instead engage and enable lots of people to become innovators who are adaptive in the face of uncertainty.

Such “distributed leadership” draws from and resonates with emerging theories  of complex adaptive leadership. From this perspective, leadership is not about a person, but is rather an interactive dynamic, within which any particular person will participate as leader or a follower at different times and for different purposes. Leadership is not limited to a formal managerial role, but rather emerges in the systemic interactions between diverse actors. As Charles Heskscher puts it:

There is a growing sense that effective organization change has its own dynamic, a process that cannot simply follow strategic shifts and that is longer and subtler than can be managed by any single leader. It is generated by the insights of many people trying to improve the whole, and it accumulates over [time]” 

This kind of “distributed leadership” is precisely what the Obama campaign cultivated and invested in, says Ganz. Thousands of people acquired the skills and practiced “the arts of leadership necessary to self-govern in democracy.”

Some unique conditions made this campaign so successful, including Obama’s story of hope, which drew on a persuasive personal narrative. There was also the campaign’s strategy of developing grassroots capacity to win caucuses and close primaries; its use of the Internet to attract an army of small-scale, repeat contributors; and its capacity for “continual learning” about what was and was not working.

Ganz’s 90 minute lecture can be seen here:

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. Absolutely critical at any level of community or organizational development, and as noted, especially in the face of uncertainty.

    I was just thinking back on a local-driven comprehensive community development project I participated in years ago in rural Oklahoma.

    It seemed like I think one thing that enabled more folks to feel confident enough to spontaneously take on leadership roles as needed was constantly working in teams of at least two insofar as possible–so there was always someone in an observing/learning position in the midst of getting the immediate job done.

    Thanks for the link!

  2. […] The key may be finding ways of experimenting within existing strategic frameworks, and bringing new ways of thinking and theories of change to the table. In fact, it is arguable that some of the most significant successes in our sector have been because of a combination of top-down planning and emergent, self-organised behaviours – think of the Abstain, Be Faithful, Use Condoms campaign for HIV-AIDS in Uganda in the 1990s, and the successful Brazil eradication campaign of the 1990s. Elsewhere, the success of the Obama campaign has highlighted the power of an approach which combines a overall strategy with ‘distributed leadership’ (see a 2009 Aid on the Edge post on the campaign).  […]

  3. […] Empirical research in many different organisations – they range from church-based community organisations to Al Qaeda – has highlighted a number of vital ‘complex adaptive leadership’ qualities. Some of these findings resonate with Marshall Ganz’s analysis of the 2008 Obama Presidential Campaign, examined in a previous Aid on the Edge post. […]

  4. […] as well as collapse, they can also generate cascading change. See for example the lessons from the Obama Presidential Campaign as resounted by veteran civil rights activist Marshall Ganz. But the piece misses out on the […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Campaigns, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Networks, Organisations, Public Policy, Strategy