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Leaders buckling under ‘the wisdom of crowds’

Updated: March 14, 2012 8:06AM

So much has been made of “the wisdom of crowds” — a term coined by James Surowiecki to describe how large groups of people can be better at solving problems and coming to wise decisions than the elite few — that I fear the wisdom of people in charge is fast becoming meaningless.

Take, for instance, the flap over the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation announcing that it would no longer fund breast cancer screenings at controversial Planned Parenthood.

From an organizational governance standpoint, it made sense for Karen Handel, Komen’s senior vice president for policy, to take up a suggestion — one that had been in the works before she took the post — to avoid harm to the foundation’s brand. Headline-grabbing protests at Komen fund-raising events by those who oppose Planned Parenthood’s abortion services were a mounting concern.

Handel and Komen’s executive leaders decided that disassociating themselves from Planned Parenthood was vital in order to maintain their ability to continue the foundation’s mission of curing and eradicating breast cancer.

“The crowd” — which is to say those who were enraged by this turn of events and rose up in a fury of social media — pressured Komen into reversing its decision. Before you knew it, Handel was out, the foundation had been rocked to its core, and though Planned Parenthood’s funding has been restored, it’s unclear how the foundation can move forward with pro-choice and anti-abortion supporters disappointed.

Add that to the pile of contentious issues decided by crowds.

In 2010, the Gap clothing chain felt no other option than to revert to its decades-old logo after those who despised the new one took to Facebook, Twitter and blogs to complain. SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, was recently torpedoed by social media outcry, and the Obama administration’s much-criticized decision to require Catholic universities and charities to offer women birth control free of charge got an official White House backpedaling.

There’s nothing wrong with giving the customer what he or she wants. Nor with leaders of an organization being responsive to stakeholders. But there’s a problem when the crowd has such an outsized effect that even the possibility of its social media wrath drives leaders’ decisions.

You have to wonder if that’s what happened with Susana Mendoza and Stickergate.

Despite lacking any hard evidence that the special-needs student who designed the city sticker had any intention of including vaguely gang-related images, Mendoza yanked it over fears that it could be “misconstrued.”

It’s easy to imagine Mendoza fearing that the sticker would become such a huge problem that it was better to put an end to it before someone from “the crowd” called for her to step down. I guess she wasn’t worried about enraging the crowd of 18,000 Chicagoans who voted for the design.

Our appointed and elected leaders live in a society where individuals expect organizations to treat them like Burger King — “Your way, right away, now” — and to bow to their demands via electronic “vote.”

Not only are they in danger of becoming slaves to “the crowd’s” reaction, but of routinely acting in anticipation of them — making them nothing more than figureheads reliant on correctly forecasting petitions, public opinion polls, and tweets-per-minute to make tough decisions.

You might hate that idea or love it. Meanwhile, the very notion of what leadership entails is being turned on its head — and our “leaders” are at risk of following “the crowd” off a cliff.

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