June 2019

Sunday Reflection – What Makes a Leader?

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly what makes a leader. I think if you ask most people, they’ll say things like integrity, forthrightness, ability to inspire. And yet when we look at most of the people who are actually in positions of power, it seems like these kinds of qualities can be hard to find.

There’s a big disconnect between power and leadership. And I’m not entirely sure how we combat that, but I do think there is something deeply important about encouraging more people to see leadership qualities within themselves.

If you look at studies about leadership, most of us still picture the straight white man as the image of the leader. It’s not what we want to believe, but it’s still been reinforced in us our entire lives. Heck, just look at our current field of presidential candidates. White men have no lack of confidence in their abilities to be a leader. No experience? Doesn’t matter. No one knows who you are? Don’t care. No one wants you to join? Coming in anyway!

And yet somehow it’s the women candidates who are fielding the questions about likeability or “if the country is ready for them”.

I’m not saying to bring white men down (although some of them really should try a little self-reflection), but I do think we need to do more to bring everyone else up.

We need to embrace the image of a leader as so much more. Someone who is young, someone who is trans, someone who is plus sized, someone who speaks English as a second language.

And it’s not just seeing it in other people. We need to see leadership in ourselves. That our voice matters just as much, even when it feels like no one wants to listen. That our experience is valid, and can help make the path smoother for those behind us. That we know just as much, often more, than those who only care about power.

What leadership qualities do you have? What makes your voice special?

The Best Parts of Being a Leader

Today I’m taking a break from critique. Let’s talk about all the awesome things about being a leader.

Anyone can do it.

Note that when I say “anyone”, I don’t mean “everyone”. There are some people, including some with immense amounts of power, who are about as far from leadership as you can possibly get.

But the fantastic thing is that power doesn’t make a leader. There is no entry barrier to leadership.

When I worked in personnel, I used to do job coaching for volunteers who were interested in getting hired with my organization. I would look over their resumes and make suggestions on improvement. Without fail, time after time, they would put their current volunteer experience under the category “Other”. And time after time, I would gently explain that the work they were doing for our agency was truly “Work Experience”, and belonged in that category. Just because they didn’t get paid for their work didn’t make it any less valid.

Leadership is the same thing. Whether it’s managing a household, speaking up in a community meeting, raising money for a charity, or chairing a committee at work, it is all leadership, and it is all valid.

Leadership is about behavior, not an inherent trait. If you want to be one, you can be one.

Leaders love to learn.

One of the key attributes of a leader is an ability to take in new information and revise your perspective.

Learning isn’t always easy, or enjoyable, especially when it comes to understanding things like the systems of bias and oppression. But there is something truly magical about waking up to the fact that your life is just one small piece of a giant picture. That piece is important, sure, but you can’t define the entire picture through your single piece.

Leaders know this. They know they need other perspectives, other voices. They know that echo chambers and groupthink are dangerous. They admit that they were wrong. And that is a powerful thing.

This is why I see leadership in someone like Elizabeth Warren, who changed party affiliation after seeing the real life impacts of conservatism on low income people, but I struggle to see it in someone like Joe Biden, who claims to have changed and yet doesn’t consistently back it up with his behavior.

Leaders don’t just talk about changing, they actually change. And they do it through learning.

Leaders get to give.

One reason that I tend to be adamant about the difference between power and leadership is that a great deal of power is acquired on the backs of others. If you are rich and powerful, you did not get there through selflessness. Our culture is just not set up that way.

But for those of us who care about a more equitable world, leadership is a venue in which to give back.

There wasn’t a great deal I liked about being an Office Manager, as it was a very demanding job with inadequate compensation. But some of my best memories about being that role are about the days I was able to help someone. The times I was able to advocate for people. For when I was able to sit in a meeting and argue that my staff deserved better. I couldn’t always get them what they deserved or needed, but I was darn well going to keep asking for it.

And the leaders I admired most were the ones who reached out to others. I remember interviewing for a job I really wanted, and not getting it. But the manager offered me personal feedback, and we had a fantastic long phone call where she gave me amazing advice. One of my supervisors used to take me out to lunch, to talk about my goals. She encouraged me to apply for my first promotion. Another manager brought me a card and flowers for taking extra time to help her with a tricky process. I am so fortunate that I have known so many amazing leaders, who encouraged and supported me through everything. They changed my life.

The managers on power trips? Not so much. Although to be fair, I did learn a lot from them. And like I said, leaders like learning.

Leaders get to provide opportunities.

I was fortunate in that I supervised entry level positions with my agency. This meant I got to see applications from people from all different kinds of background and experiences. I was able to ask questions about the things that mattered to me. I didn’t have to care about their knowledge of agency policies or procedures. I didn’t have to care about their experience with specific computer programs. I cared that they would be good employees.

I still remember one hire, who was literally shaking when she came in for the interview. She was so nervous, and kept apologizing. But when we asked her about why she wanted to work there, she had such a clear understanding of the difficulties of working for a social service agency, and such a profound determination for why she wanted to work there despite the challenges. Hiring her was a no brainer.

It was always strange to me that where I worked, there were a fair number of managers who disliked their staff moving on to new positions. They were open about this. Some of them would even put up roadblocks or actively discourage their staff from finding developmental opportunities.

I never understood this perspective. I genuinely loved it when my staff got promoted. I loved giving references or writing referrals for them to get into educational programs. I loved sending them to trainings or finding them chances to job shadow other workers.

Sure, it was inconvenient to have to adjust work duties, or rehire when someone moved on. But so many of the inconveniences of my job were due to poor management from above, lack of resources, or unreasonable workloads. This was an inconvenience I had the power to choose, and it made someone else’s life better. Why on earth would I not support it?

And let’s face it, I had the opportunities I had because other people felt the same way about me.

Leaders never quit.

I don’t think I need to go into much detail on how exhausting things are right now. Not because things are divisive, because I think things have always been divisive. But as more of us fight against oppression, there’s a huge level of pushback from those who are terrified that the future might not be all about them.

And I have no idea what the next few years will hold. It’s scary, and overwhelming.

But I also know that every time I go online, I see amazing, incredible people speaking up for what is right. I see more and more people from marginalized communities running for office, and fighting the status quo. I see young people with capability and confidence refusing to inherit problems created by older generations. I see people willing to admit when they’ve been wrong, and trying to do better. I see compassion and empathy and understanding.

There will always be those who can’t tolerate change, who respond to what they don’t understand with hatred and abuse. They sit in a darkness of their own creation and rage at the world.

I prefer to look to the bright spots, the leaders. No matter how wide the darkness spreads, it can’t eclipse their light.

Sunday Reflection – Gratitude Check-In

I think we’re overdue for a little bit of Sunday gratitude! We’re heading into summer, daylight is nice and long, and there’s a lot to feel good about.

This month I’m grateful for:

  • Shortly heading out on vacation with my entire immediate family.
  • Having the capacity to keep learning.
  • All the amazing, outspoken women who inspire me every day.
  • Learning to give myself grace in the harder moments.

What are you grateful for this month?

Amplifying Voices – Rachel Cargle: How White People Silence Black Voices

Writer and activist Rachel Cargle has a number of really interesting articles that I would recommend, but today we’ll start with this one, on how white people use a variety of strategies to silence people of color. Link here.

What I particularly like about this piece is that it’s a great reminder for those of us who have privilege to check ourselves. We have a tendency to center our own discomfort in any situation. If we hear something that makes us uncomfortable, or we don’t like the way that it’s been said, we use it as an excuse to disconnect from the underlying message. But people from marginalized communities don’t get that choice. They don’t have the opportunity to opt out of discomfort. So if we truly care about doing the work, we have to learn to walk through our discomfort, and truly listen to the message.

Sunday Reflection – Activism vs Privilege

This week presidential candidate Kamala Harris was speaking at a panel hosted by the organization MoveOn. As she was just beginning to answer a question on the pay gap, a self-described “animal rights activist” ran onstage and took the mic from Harris, and told the audience he wanted to bring their attention “to a much bigger idea”.

Of course, even without my describing him, most people will be able to accurately guess that he was a white man.

Security was slow to respond, but the man was eventually pushed offstage. He faced no consequences, and when questioned on the optics of the situation, claimed he had tried to show his “profound respect for each of the people onstage”.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I read about it online.

On one hand, I do have some pretty strong feelings about hierarchy and the idea that someone should command respect just because they hold a position of power. We should be able to question those in authority and fight to make our voices heard.

On the other hand, this is a perfect example of why white privilege combined with good intentions often does more harm than good.

Besides the fact that so many people were annoyed by this man’s actions that they literally went out and ate extra meat for dinner that night, I think this really exemplifies why we need to be cautious about single issue activists.

To be clear, we all have particular topics we are passionate about. But when you place a desire to help animals over the rights of Black women to be treated as full human beings, you’re not changing the world. You’re reinforcing it.

Racism, classism, sexism, and yes, even animal abuse are all inextricably linked. All of these issues are about systems, and these systems are connected. Being an activist is great. But who are you fighting for? If you’re choosing to do something that makes you feel empowered while diminishing those around you? You are a part of the problem. And you’re saving no one.

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