On Leadership (and Women)

(I’m writing something everyday for #100 days. This is post 2/100.)

Recently I noticed an article making the rounds on social media from the Harvard Business Review, ‘Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?’ Catchy title, right? You should check it out, its worth a read.

After a few colleagues and I published an article this year ‘How We Make Change is Changing’ I thought about leadership a lot. In discussions about how to apply ‘open source’ principles in campaigns and organizing, more and more it feels incomplete without talking about leadership. In reflecting upon my own experiences with leadership, it feels incomplete without talking about gender. I wrote this a while back, its a work in progress, but captures some of my thoughts on this subject. Leadership is deeply complicated, because we are.

Leadership. Its the secret sauce. Regardless of money, structure, flow charts, plans and procedures, leadership is a make it or break it variable. Within leadership are the cues we take on how we treat one another, how we communicate, the culture of our dealings.

And in some ways, the prescriptions of how to lead can parallel the prescriptions on diet and fitness. There are so many options, but in the end it really depends on the person and the situation. The good news is that there are a lot of options to choose from. We have lots of examples of what not to do. The bad news is that, in the avalanche of multiple choices, the answer is more fill in the blank. Its the how.

Maya Angelou said ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I try and remember that when I’m about to do some kind of Dave Chappelle ‘Keeping it real.’ (If you don’t remember the Dave Chappelle Show, I feel for your loss).

Effective leaders understand that charisma alone doesn’t get the job done. They understand that first and foremost, very practically, you can’t do it alone. It is a balance of tightrope proportions. You have to be clear about the task at hand, while also being accessible for input to modify. You have to support people in completing tasks or fulfilling a role, without simply doing it for them. You have to know when to pull back and when to push forward. And, you have to do all this knowing that we don’t engage with each other on a flat surface. Race, gender, class, sexual orientation, language, ability impacts who and how we take and receive leadership.

And in that complicated terrain, it is the most peculiar thing that in fact those of us that have often been conditioned not to lead, that actually hold developed senses that lend towards effective leadership.

For the sake of the conversation let’s call it Feminist Leadership. This doesn’t mean that people socialized as female or women* are the only effective leaders. It is noting that people socialized as female or women*are in fact conditioned and raised a particular way. Don’t be the first to speak, ask questions, set up, clean up. Can you cook the food? Take care of the children? The standard is that it is not about you. But these precise things, they give a sense of awareness of what it takes for things to happen, what people are actually saying, and having an understanding for people’s needs. It creates the potential to turn upside down and subvert the things that condition for a role as the quiet helper, namely a subservient one to play one that leads.

Its often the women in the family who manage resources. Its women who often pass along key information to the rest of the family. In many communities, women and in particular, mothers deeply influence whether and how people pursue a career or higher education. Matriarchs of the family even influence whether or not we vote.

Some of the how this happens is in the approach to building relationships. Leaders who are able to have a very clear inventory of their team, their collaborators and partners are strongly positioned to succeed. This requires 360 degree listening that both listens for verbal and non-verbal cues.

Second, circular consultation. Leaders who consult with their squad have the advantage of ideas being refined, expanded with a greater likelihood of implementation. It really does feel like going in circles, having conversation after conversation, it seems like it would be easier to make a decision and communicate it to everyone at once. Right? Anyone who has had the responsibility of leadership knows it feels like going in circles, either way. Those circles may as well lead to success.

Once a decision is made, input has been given there comes the troubleshooting and making sure things actually move. Move from a place of tend and mend rather than than control and command. This should not be mistaken for tend and mend means avoiding and fixing mistakes for everyone.

Here I think its important to note some of the things that we have to unlearn, and this goes beyond gender norms. Its the tendency to not name things, to avoid conflict. Disagreement and the moments when things just aren’t working are inevitable. We all have a responsibility to communicate. Leaders who have strong relationships and come from a place of genuine support have a greater likelihood of coming out of a conflict intact.

Each of these practices require consistent maintenance and attention to connection to people, relationships are paramount. It allows to understand what’s happening to people in real time, this then informs what you ask people to do, whether or not they need to change their role, etc. It also helps you head off or understand friction or rifts inside of the group. Finally, in the end, because this connection is strong, you are in a prime position to push people when its time to go. And you are in a position to know when difference is actually serious. Its enticing to rely on titles or chain of command to jam things through. Charisma is another.

The fact is, effective leadership actually does require doing the cooking, giving people rides, thinking about how things happen. It sometimes requires listening to people rather than always having the answer. Leadership is not easy on anyone, regardless of where in all the spectrums you find yourself.

This past weekend I went to an event commemorating the renowned Chicana/Mexicana writer, Sandra Cisneros at Arizona State University. It’d been a while since I had to fit myself into those little desks in a big classroom. The academic setting grated my grumpy impatient side. But madre when she finally came up and spoke, I felt like a soothing cool over the frazzled edges. She talked about the need to be a master of your craft, whatever your craft may be. And her concluding statement, it felt like the kind of on point where you feel like the person is speaking to you..except for maybe everyone felt like that. She said, ‘You cannot be just good. You have to be better than good. We don’t have the luxury of being mediocre.’

I think I heard my soul sigh inside of my chest.

*Originally I had written ‘female-bodied’ here, marking that here to thank Salem Acuña for hitting me up and suggesting language that is inclusive and still specific to the point and marking to be real about the ways that I am learning in this process. Its changed throughout the piece.

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