Not everyone can be a leader. If you choose the wrong people to be grassroots leaders, you may find they have no followers.
This post might get me in a bit of trouble.
You see, the progressive movement puts a lot of stock on the idea of grassroots leadership. To quote a line from Wobbly history as told by Utah Phillips, “We’re all leaders here.”
Except it just isn’t true.
Not everyone wants to be a leader, and not everyone who wants to be leader is cut out to be a leader.
Your job as an organizer is to build up leaders. It is to recruit, train, and nurture people who will be able to inspire and lead others in the community.
And not everyone is up for the job.
Just so you know I’m not just saying this to vent, in Tools for Radical Democracy, Minieri and Getsos write:
Although people might be doing important work, thye may or may not be leaders. For example, if a member who comes to every meeting is great at motivational speaking but cannot effectively engage with other members to make decisions, it may not be appropriate to develop her as a leader or place her in leadership situations. [Emphasis added.]
Leaders are important. Grassroots leadership is important. It is important enough to be thoughtful and intentional about. Carefully recruit leaders. Actively develop leaders. And yes, sometimes you will have to, very sensitively, deal with someone who is not cut out to be a leader.
Soon a good friend of mine, Joel Devonshire, is leaving Ann Arbor, and leaving his place as chair of ICPJ’s Latin America Task Force.
For a going away gift, I’m giving him Leonard Doohan’s Spiritual Leadership: The Quest for Integrity. And, because I am cheap want to conserve paper, I’m reading it before I give it to him (and I’m hoping he doesn’t read this blog so the secret doesn’t get out).
Doohan quotes Keith Grint to say:
it seems taht the errors of leaders are commonplace, but what distinguishes a successful from a failed leaders is whether the subordinates can and will save the organization from the mistakes of it’s leaders.
I’ve seen many organizations flounder under poor leadership. What breaks my heart is that too often others in the organization are unwilling to intervene. The board, the volunteers, the other staff are afraid to speak the truth to the Executive Director, or to hold the Director accountable to respond to these concerns.
(Oh, how I wish I could give examples here to clarify this point.)
This raises three leadership questions:
- How can organizations build the internal strength to confront leadership mistakes? One of my fears is that I will overstay my usefulness at ICPJ and that nobody will do anything about it. If I go off the deep end or get out of touch with our members and our mission, I want our Board and Program Committees to be strong enough to deal with that reality.
- How can leaders maintain the humility to accept that they make mistakes and to learn from them? I know I make mistakes. I also know that sometimes I bristle when they are pointed out to me.
Sorry, I can’t offer any simple answers here. Others have written at length about the value of good evaluation, strong boards, and personal development. All of these are hard work; not easy fixes. But given that we all make mistakes, this hard work is necessary
Patrick Hanlon caps his seven assets in Primal Branding with “the leader.”
I expected that he would proclaim the need for a single, charismatic leader: a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, a Jack Welsch.
He lists those, but he also lists more subdued leaders, leaders who base their leadership on their ability to listen, to have vision, to manage multiple skills.
Tomes have been written on leadership, and Hanlon doesn’t dig too deep. He does even give an example of non-traditional leadership such as at the advertising group Mother that has eliminated the role of account executive.
And that’s an important note: just like a brand can have more than one sacred word or more than one icon, it can also have more than one leader.
Indeed, we want many leaders. Our job is to cultivate, train, and empower people to be leaders.
And when we nurture leaders, we give followers and not-yet-leaders something they can connect to, which is what Primal Branding is about.
(For more of my thoughts on primal branding, visit the table of contexts post, photo: National Archives)