Through the national media lens, the Occupy movement looks like a directionless, combustible assemblage of young idealists and jaded anarchists, with a smattering of criminals and homeless people seeking shelter and food—all taking place primarily in urban areas. A few rural examples, such as the “Occupy the Tundra” one-woman crusade in Alaska, the “Occupy the Pasture” campaign in the Great Plains and the tiny Oregon town of Mosier’s one week encampment have received national media coverage, primarily as human interest stories.

Local, generally supportive media has covered many other rural Occupy efforts in such diverse places as Ashtabula, Ohio; West Plains, Missouri; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; Tahlequah, Oklahoma; Fort Bragg, California; and Rutland, Vermont; the movement is even “playing in (iconic but not very rural) Peoria,” Illinois. But there’s more to the contrasting images of urban and rural Occupy movements than uneven media coverage. There are different tactics at work that are in part related to the different natures of large and small communities, and these differences offer relevant lessons for any social movement.

While both rural and urban demonstrators have tied income inequality, unemployment, corporate influence on politics, and banking practices together in their emerging messages, they’ve taken on some differences in approach. The urban messages have often included a strong “anti-capitalism” and sometimes even anarchic bent, whereas the rural messages have been more explicitly populist, with an emphasis on fairness. Many rural efforts have included a “buy local” component to bring small businesses into their fold. The role of “occupation” vs. time-limited demonstration has been different between urban and rural areas: with limited population, most rural areas have not emphasized ongoing encampment but rather community outreach and conversations at specific events. Perhaps as a result of this strategy, rural demonstrations have drawn a wider range of ages, and, in particular, older participants who would not otherwise feel able to engage. Finally, social media is not the major driver of rural organizing efforts: according to “This ain’t Twitter country,” organizers in Kalispell, Montana, for example, relied primarily on fliers and word of mouth to bring people together.

Why the difference in overall tactics, and is one approach more likely to succeed than another? These are not easy questions to answer. However, one’s understanding of grass-roots organizing, even of “leaderless” movements, as Occupy organizers describe their work, can be informed by the field of leadership development and in particular by the dynamics of collective leadership roles aimed at system change. Fifteen years ago, the late Jeff Luke of the University of Oregon developed a framework for analyzing and building effective shared leadership that he called catalytic leadership, which has since been used to train public, private, and nonprofit leaders throughout the Pacific Northwest. Luke described four different and essential roles for leaders seeking to act in the public good around complex issues, and noted that different people are better equipped for some roles than others. In the case of the Occupy movement, it appears that urban and rural efforts are focused on different aspects of the collective/shared leadership spectrum as framed by the author. These differences at least in part reflect the differences between large and small community dynamics, and they can be complementary in terms of building momentum for change.

The four essential catalytic leadership roles are:

  • Advocating: Raising an issue and getting it on the broader public agenda. The first, largely urban voices of Occupy Wall Street were a collective outcry of frustration with “the system,” not a specific cohesive message or action agenda. These voices have sometimes pushed the envelope of politeness and made others uncomfortable and anxious, but that’s part of an advocate’s role—to raise an alarm that something needs to be addressed. This “forcing the conversation” may be easier for people in large communities to do first, particularly when the message is complex, because there’s less pressure to conform and get along with everyone.
  • Convening: Bringing people and their diverse voices together to build a sense of common purpose. The rural Occupy demonstrations seem to focus more on this outreach role than on physical occupation of a site, perhaps because “getting along” is an essential survival skill in small communities. For example, in Ashtabula, Ohio, a participant described his purpose as being to “raise awareness and discuss why everyone around here is so broke.” In Mosier, Oregon, organizers went door-to-door to have conversations with their neighbors, and limited their overnight camp to one week because “people are a lot more receptive to what we’re staying when they don’t think we’re going to move in.”
  • Negotiating: Building agreement about goals and action steps, and addressing stakeholder interests as thoroughly as possible. The Occupy movement has been most sharply criticized for lacking this “catalytic leadership” capacity and focus, at least to date.
  • Taking Action: Moving beyond talk to specific actions that inspire many people beyond the demonstrators to act differently. This can happen even before all goals are clear. For example, the consumer revolt against increased fees at large national banks serendipitously fed into the “anti-corporate” message of the Occupy demonstrations, and created momentum for a wave of bank account transfers to community based financial institutions.

At different points in time, different people, organizations, and communities are better equipped to take a lead role than others. Knowing this matters, because, as winter sets in, the act of occupation becomes more physically challenging for even the most committed participants. Furthermore, there are signs of media fatigue with regard to anything about the Occupy Movement but sensational headlines. If the Occupy Movement is to effectively articulate and inspire action to reduce income inequality, reduce corporate influence on government, increase economic opportunities, and strengthen community connections, its organizers may want to revisit their ideal of having a “leaderless” movement and frame their challenge instead as one of how to build effective, collective “catalytic leadership” that can evolve over time. This “collective leadership” frame clarifies how different types of people and communities can contribute, and it suggests a future course of action for sustaining leadership that truly engages with all its communities.