Leadership: Why We Need It

I’m finding myself obsessed with learning about leadership. Leadership isn’t reserved for government offices and board rooms. In one way or another, we’re all leaders. We’re parents and partners, activists and volunteers, business owners and officials, peers and collaborators. Above all, we are leaders of our own lives.

I want to play my part in bringing more harmony into the world, and leadership feels like a missing piece in the transformation puzzle. The wars, the racism, the destruction of our climate, the interpersonal discord… These crises mirror who we all are—and aren’t—as leaders. I’ve therefore embarked on a path to learn about transformational forms of leadership, so that I can see my own strengths and faults more clearly.

Earlier this month, I attended an intimate forum at a leadership org in Amsterdam. About 30 of us cozied into the warmly lit room, perched on stools or nestled into couches and chairs. It was, as the Dutch say, gezellig. We were eager to hear what the prominent South African activist before us would say about resilience and creating change. I was invited there by a marketing/recruitment employee of said org. The others in the room had paid €15,000 to €35,000 for a 6-month leadership training (gasp, I know. I’ll come back to the cost), and this conversation was one of the program’s closing activities. What I learned by joining the talk:

1. It’s exhilarating to sit among people determined to be their best selves and to do their best work in the world.

The upbeat energy was palpable and contagious. If there’s anything we could use more of these days, it’s the pragmatic hope that filled that room—it’s the antithesis of apathy. It’s inspiring to be around people who are hungry for personal and social transformation.

I also appreciated the atmosphere of respect. People listened to others with curiosity and fascination. Some sat poised with pens and notebooks, engrossed by ideas. Change doesn’t occur in silos; the best ideas often rise up by cross-pollinating perspectives and disciplines (the program comprised participants from all over the world, with equal representation from the corporate, nonprofit, and academic sectors).

Apple is a great example of how cross-pollination succeeds on a commercial level. By making minimalist design its core business/marketing strategy, the corp changed our values around technology aesthetics (resulting in consequences that often work against the changes we need, but I’ll skip that discussion for now to stay focused on the topic at hand).

At the grassroots level, Edwin Rutch aims to bring dignity to politically divisive situations with his Empathy Tents project. Through this initiative, he organized a discussion between a rally organizer and a counter protester ahead of a Patriot Prayer rally in the US. The point with such dialogues isn’t to create equal moral footing but to change conflict dynamics: violence (including white supremacy and neo-Nazism) can arise when people feel unheard and socially disconnected. Fights broke out at the rally, but that doesn’t diminish the potential effectiveness of dialogue: there will always be conflict among humans, yet engaging conflict constructively is possible with the right will. Daryl Davis’s brave experiments in befriending white supremacists for the sake of undoing their racism exemplifies the power of proactive conflict engagement.

2. Resilience is not an individual endeavor.

My ears perked up when the activist shared his experiences with burnout, as I’ve journeyed through several bouts of it myself. Challenging the religiosity of overwork rings my bell: there’s nothing heroic about working ourselves to the bone, til debilitating panic attacks (in my case) and extreme fatigue (also in my case) finally slow us down. What good are we doing by ignoring the weight of exhaustion?

During the Q&A, I asked about the activist’s personal resilience strategies. His simple response: “There are no personal strategies, because resilience isn’t something we can do alone.” That was a lightbulb moment for me. Of course we can’t establish resilience on our own. Social support is nourishing; isolation is draining. His response sounded so obvious when I heard it—in hindsight, it was feelings of isolation that prompted me to ask the question to begin with. It was, I’m sure, feelings of isolation that motivated me to enquire about this org’s leadership trainings.

That leadership trainings like this bring together diverse people to share and grow is what makes these programs remarkable. But:

3. Democracy calls for new models of leadership training.

Leadership trainings tend to require huge sums of money and/or existing bodies of work. So they tend to be out of reach for people who could make huge strides with training but who lack the funds and projects. The Amsterdam org I visited doesn’t list program pricing on its website, but you can tell from the supremely good branding and impressive roster of people that it ain’t cheap. When I was told the pricing in person (only after asking for it), I fought to keep a straight face—I couldn’t have guessed that it’d be that expensive. That’s, like, my annual pay at the org I work for (where there’s no personal development budget).

After the Amsterdam talk, one of the program participants chatted me up. She’s working on her PhD and this leadership training, she told me, has been the best investment in herself. She explained that synchronous run-ins with influencers at institutions like the World Health Organization have been invaluable. I was truly happy that she met mentors who can further her work. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that expensive leadership programs seem like exclusive clubs: you buy a seat at the table. Hmm. Doesn’t this sound a lot like our existing politics, where the monied people drive the decisions?

What might new models of leadership training look like, then? Suggestions:

A. Financial Diversity: the Obama Foundation offers a bright spot here. For its 2-year fellowship starting in April 2018, the org will cover the selected participants’ travel expenses. That undoubtedly eliminated monetary hesitations for the “talented, but not connected” people who applied for consideration. Still, the fellowship supports those who are “at a tipping point in their work.” Yes by all means: give “civic innovators” the tools to be more effective. But there’s a dearth of leadership programs for people who are struggling to get anywhere at all. That’s where there’s some serious potential for innovation. This thought flows into the next point:

B. Expertise Diversity: During the talk at the Amsterdam org, I wasn’t lost to the irony that a room full of financially privileged people were discussing bottom-up change in a top-down fashion: they had the ideas and the resources, and therefore they would be the changemakers. No one said this outright, and no one put on airs—in fact, the activist called out issues of privilege. Yet high-cost leadership trainings reflect a top-down approach. Those with financial resources are regarded as the leaders and experts.

Programs like the one I sat in on could be even more diverse if people without financial means were invited into the mix, on a full scholarship basis. These programs could be much more useful to society if people who actually live some of the issues that need changing were a part of the program, as co-participants—the people who live the issues should be seen as experts.

C. Participatory Frameworks: We don’t need more top-down leadership models; we need participatory leadership models, because creating any system that functions as a genuine democracy calls for it. People everywhere are creative and intelligent, regardless of income, education, and work histories. This case study from Alabama illustrates how effective participatory models can be for community development.

What’s also needed along this vein: leadership programs that recognize the potential of people who want to transform themselves and their communities but don’t have a leg-up. People dealing with disempowering circumstances need support too! The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign provides trainings on matters like community organizing, accessing and using technology, taking over housing and land, growing food.

D. Contemplative Frameworks: I’d love to see leadership programs include mind-body practices. So much of what we do (or don’t do) in the world is governed by our sense of possibility and our commitments (or lack thereof) to compassion. Yoga and meditation have helped me transform some personal traumas, freeing up a whole lot of energy and understanding about my place in the world. That’s important to note, since it’s energy and clarity that fuel action. These practices have also helped me trust my own voice—and to use it as boldly and compassionately as possible when necessary (like when I must educate white family members about my personal experiences with racism—they just don’t get protests against racism, and that saddens me immensely). Skillfully voicing ourselves is paramount to making meaningful changes.

Perhaps most importantly, contemplative practices invite us to slow down. The world would be a much saner place if we simply stopped doing so much. If we worked less, for example, we could simultaneously: reduce our carbon footprint (cutting down traffic, diminishing power usage in office buildings, etc), explore our individual humanness (more free time = more time to freely think), and enjoy being fully present with our loved ones (tiredness gets in the way of that, doesn’t it?).

Do you work in a leadership and/or leadership training role? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Share your thoughts.