Leadership is a concept that anarchists shy away from, and rightly so. Most phenomena that fall under the term run counter to our principles. From the Left, no less than from the Right, leaders (usually self-appointed) have risen up to mold their groups to conform to their own agendas. History is replete with examples of individuals stifled and crushed in the name of the Leader.
Yet, I hesitate to totally discard the concept of leadership. I have witnessed social phenomena in the anti-authoritarian milieu that could be described by that word. I refer here not to the official and unofficial heads of various anarchist sects. Rather, I mean that certain individuals manifest a non-coercive influence upon others, a capacity to inspire their fellow anarchists to achieve. In a milieu based more on small, independent groups than large organizations this looks like individuals and small groups taking the initiative to build up various projects. They may then encourage others to help them in their projects, or inspire them to start up projects of their own devising.
This style of “leadership” (if we wish to use the term) is based on informal and spontaneous social relations, not predetermined social roles. Colin Ward in his Anarchism as a Theory of Organization quotes John Comerford’s description of this process happening in an experimental health facility:
Because they [leaders] were not consciously appointed, neither (when they had fulfilled their purpose) were they consciously overthrown. […] They followed his [sic] guidance just as long as his guidance was helpful and what they wanted. They melted away from him without regrets when some widening of experience beckoned them on to some fresh adventure, which would in turn throw up its spontaneous leader, or when their self-confidence was such that any form of constrained leadership would have been a restraint to them. A society, therefore, if left to itself in suitable circumstances to express itself spontaneously works out its own salvation and achieves a harmony of action which superimposed leadership cannot emulate.
Authoritarian leadership is not restrained just to official positions of power. As both Cathy Levine and Jason McQuinn have asserted in responding to Jo Freeman’s The Tyranny of Structurelessness, oppressive social behavior can occur in both informal and formal groups. The difference is that in formal organizations the power dynamics favor entrenched leadership. Self-appointed leaders can crop up in informal groups, but in these cases there is no structural obligation to let them remain in leadership positions. In either case, the social dynamics of any group should be critically attended to.
As Chris Crass notes, denying the presence of informal leaders can actually play into inequitable power relations. His experience was situated in the particulars of a group lead by white, middle class males that denied their own actual, though informal, leadership to the detriment of group cohesion. I once belonged to a consensus-based group spearheaded by mostly white, middle-class females. Due to our unwillingness to acknowledge our leadership roles, we unwittingly allowed a dissident male parliamentarian to sabotage our consensus process, which contributed to the dissolution of our group.
Building up non-authoritarian leadership practices seems like a Sisyphean task. In actuality, as the example cited by Ward seems to suggest, the natural inclination against authority, even among those unaware of anarchist theory, can provide the impetus.