Leadership and Power Relations in Social Movements

by Anna Marsiana

The Wrong Combination

“You are not to blame. Your being young and a woman is to blame.”

This was said to me six years ago when I decided to leave a non-government organization where I had dedicated almost entirely my career time, since I graduated from the university. I decided to start this paper with that statement not only because it has marked a new start for my career, but also because it is very telling about leadership in NGO & social movements, including women’s movement.

That NGO was known in the country and internationally as a strong NGO, having good vision and good works. It was also well known in the ecumenical circle. But no one was aware of the huge problem it was facing, where management and leadership were understood as one and the same, i.e., in the authority of the leader. The leader is the management; the leader is the system; the leader is the order! In the past, many believed that one man show – really one MAN show – was the best way to keep an organization going, or rather, to make sure that the organization is under control.

Usually no one would see it as a problem until there is a change in the leadership. And so it was with that NGO. Once the leader left the organization, the organization was immediately in crisis. The departure of the leader inevitably meant the end of the order and system. All the people in the legislative and executive levels suddenly found themselves lost because they got neither rules nor model to follow.

After some evaluations my colleagues (the staff) and I agreed to make some changes in the organization. We agreed to change the leadership style, from one man show to a collective leadership, and the system from a ruling leader into a democratic system. Consequently we also had to change the management system, from traditional management that depends so much on the order of the leader into modern management i.e., transparent and accountable. And immediately we discovered that not everyone in the organization was ready for the changes. Soon after that, the people in the organization were divided, and the resistance grew stronger.

That was when I heard that line by the founder of that NGO: that my being a woman and young at the same time was a completely wrong combination that brought only disaster instead of good for the organization. My being woman and young (I was 33 when appointed to the position of director) was thought as the main hindrance. I was seen (or blamed) as too radical and lacking in experience, wisdom and leadership. In a patriarchal society, the senior and the patriarch cannot see themselves listening to or taking orders from a young woman.

Later on I learned that this one person show (or rather one man show) leadership practice was and is still being practiced by many NGOs and other social movements, including women’s movements and that resistance to a young woman in leadership remains high.

Many NGOs that claim to be working for women’s empowerment or for the equality of women and men are in one way or another still practicing a power dominating leadership style. A close friend, a woman activist, shared with me how sorry she was when she had no choice but to interfere from time to time in the management of an NGO, otherwise it would be too late. I also know a very big Christian NGO in India, known to be reputable and strong with a woman in the top leadership. But the leadership style is power dominating style. Even her body language shows it very clearly.

How about women’s movements? Unfortunately, in my experience, many women’s movements are also not exempt from this power dominating style of leadership. Many women are not conscious that they are doing and practicing the very thing that they are against right in their women’s movements. While their commitment for women is unquestionably strong, the issue of seniority remains. In a national congress of a strong women’s movement in Indonesia that took place early in 2010, the issue of dominant leadership came up and in one or two ways caused great tension and violence, verbal and physical violence, which was very much regretted by the members.[1]

Revisiting Leadership, Power, Authority within Social Movements

NGO activists are known to be more critical on the issue of power, authority, and leadership. They are the first to notice and to critically point out anything wrong in our social life that relates to the misuse and abuse of power, authority and leadership. Therefore it becomes natural for us to expect NGO people to automatically practice power, authority and leadership differently. Unfortunately it is not always the case. Nothing happens automatically.

In Indonesia in 1999, most of the ministers and the people in government were actually from the NGOs and social movements. So we expected to see a radical change from that of the previous administration. In many NGO forums I have attended, I learned that many NGOs were in very critical situations mostly due to unsuccessful succession. Leadership crisis is surprisingly one of the common and serious problems of NGOs and social movements.[2]

In my understanding, there are several factors involved:————

for full version of this writing pls check the in God’s image vol.29.  no.2, June 2012. www. awrc4ct.org

  1. 1.      There are leaders but no leadership
  1. 2.      Power and authority shaped in  patriarchal and kyriarchal cultural frame
  2. Revisiting the Concept of Modern OrganizationNearly two decades ago, when I was just a “baby” (a newcomer) in the social movement, I thought of NGO and other types of social movement to be more of a movement than an organization. I thought of them as being more concerned with idealism, process, and community organizing than organizational structure and management issues. In many cases, management is not an issue at all. Idealistically we say that a movement can go without organizational structure, but in reality we cannot go far from an organizational structure. When a movement gets more organized, slowly its structure develops into a kind of modern organization………………………………………….

    Revisiting Gender Mainstreaming Program in NGO/Social Movement

    Gender mainstreaming has been part of NGO discourse for nearly two decades. But there are still many NGOs that have not even reached the level of understanding the definition of gender mainstreaming. In one workshop on designing gender mainstreaming in organization and its program held in April 2010 in Jakarta[3], only less than 25% of the participants came with good knowledge and understanding of gender mainstreaming, why we need it and how we can do it in our organizations. From the workshop and also my personal encounters with many NGOs in Indonesia, the issue of gender has been part of NGO programs for many years, but was addressed as a partial issue in a partial program.



    NGO, Social Movement and Motherhood Syndrome?

    A final topic that must be examined when talking about leadership and power relations in the NGO/social movement circle is the motherhood syndrome. I observed that this is true not only in NGOs and other social movements but also in women’s movement. There is a kind of ……………………

    Visioning Asian Feminist Leadership within NGO/Social Movement Circle


    Feminist Leadership: From Power Exercise to Power Sharing

    Feminist Leadership Should Aim at Breaking Down Pyramids


    We are all products of our cultures. Since cultures are very much a part of our lives, it is not easy to change everything we do not like in our cultures.


    Leadership in a Modern Organization


    We know that as long as we deal with an organization, we cannot get rid of structure. We need structure to help organize and do the work, not to create bureaucracy. Structure should serve the vision, mission, and the work, not the other way around.

    From Gender Analysis to Critical Feminist Analysis

    Gender analysis and gender mainstreaming have been very helpful as tools to analyze why women are always at the bottom of the pyramid…………………..

    Overcoming the Motherhood Syndrome by Owning the Vision and Mission, Not the Organization When thinking about feminist organization, I would rather think of an open and fluid organization ………………………………………………


    Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

    Marsiana, Anna. Kepemimpinan Feminis dan Keadilan Gender (Feminist Leadership and Gender Justice), a paper presented in one day seminar on Christian Leadership, at the event of YAKKUM aniversary in Yogyakarta, 29 March, 2010.

    Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her. New York: Crossroad, 1986.

    _____.  Wisdom Ways. New York: Orbis Books, 2001.

    Summary on Gender Analysis Framework, accessed at http://www.gdrc.org/gender/framework/g-framework.html

[1] Logical Framework Aprroach is a management tool mainly used in the design, monitoring and evaluation of projects. It is also widely known as Objectives Oriented Project Planning (OOPP). LFA is widely used by NGOs in many countries. A new tool, focussing on impacts instead of results is now being introduced. In my understanding this one is much better than the former one.

[2] I could not find the word self-split in the Oxford English Dictionary but I use the word in this article to mean a condition where the self experiences a split in different ways for different reasons. One example is a split between what one believes in and what one speaks and does. I think this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed when talking about leaership, power reltions, and transformation.

[3] A workshop on gender mainstreaming for NGOs was held in Jakarta on 22-23 April, attended by 25 people from 14 NGOs in Indonesia.

[4] Anna Marsiana, “Kepemimpinan Feminis dan Keadilan Gender”(Feminist Leadership and Gender Justice), a paper presented in a one-day seminar on Christian Leadership, at the event of Yayasan Kristen Untuk Kesehatan Umum (YAKKUM) anniversary in Yogyakarta, 29 March 2010.

[5] For a summary of what gender analysis framework consists of, see http://www.gdrc.org/gender/framework/g-framework.html

[6] One-day Seminar on Christian Leadership on the event of YAKKUM anniversary was held in Bethesda Hospital, Yogyakarta, Indonesia on 29 March 2010.

[7] Fortunately the voice of the LGBTQ community is getting stronger that their issues have now been an integral part in the analysis.

[8] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

[9] See Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad, 1986); Wisdom Ways (New York: Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 2001).

[1] Fortunately later, the members were able to settle the case in a more mature and peaceful manner. But what happened during the congress, including the violent reaction from those who wanted to defend their positions, showed that even women’s organizations are not completely free from power domination.

[2] Finding from three different meetings of NGO forums on the issue of partnership, organization development and capacity building: in 2008 (7 NGOs), 2009 (30 NGOs), 2010 (19 NGOs), and from personal visits to individual NGOs in Sumatera and Java islands, Indonesia, from 2004-2009.

[3] See “Reformasi 1998 Dinilai Gagal” (the 1998 reformation is a failure), http://nasional.infogue.com/  reformasi_1998_dinilai_gagal, accessed on 15 June 2010.


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