Let's Stop Talking About Leadership
“We’re constantly questioning ourselves. Are you working hard enough? Are you organized enough? Are you the leader these times require?” Tamir Novotny, executive director of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP), looked out over the crowd of 200 or so young professionals who gathered in Detroit, Mich. two weeks ago for the 2018 EPIP annual conference. He continued, “That’s the Great Man Theory — that one person is going to save everything … And it’s not gonna happen. Let it go. Release yourself from it.”
Novotny put into words what many emerging professionals struggle with: the notion that true success is achieved by and through individual people. As philanthropy’s aspiring leaders, we wrestle with the inspiring, and often daunting legacies of the many behemoths of our social change mythology. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Gloria Steinem — these names stand out, in many ways, as lone figures, self-sufficient American heroes hacking a new world order out of the wilderness of their times.
Yet, that’s the kind of leadership Novotny was warning us against, and it was the focus of the conference. This year’s theme, The Road Ahead: Leadership in Uncertain Times, offered professionals from across the country the opportunity to reflect together on what kind of philanthropic sector we want to build. And if there was one conviction that shone through every plenary and break-out session I attended, it was that the time for the Great Man Theory is over.
The Great Man Theory comes to us from Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish intellectual and writer who published On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History in the early 1840s. In it, Carlyle argues that world history has been shaped by the decisions and charisma of great, heroic men — men like Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte. “The history of what man has accomplished in this world,” he argues, “is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modelers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain…”.1 Individuals, Carlyle claims, and individuals alone, shape the world and influence its direction.
But that’s not exactly true, is it? It never has been. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, did not conjure up the Montgomery Bus Boycott out of thin air in 1955 as a green 26-year-old.2 He relied on the extraordinary and existing leadership of civic activists and community groups from around Montgomery, Ala. — of whom Rosa Parks was only one — to orchestrate a massive, city-wide mobilization. Neither was Parks acting alone by deciding to refuse to give up her seat on that bus. By the time of her arrest, Parks had been an active member of the NAACP for 12 years (Rosa Parks, 2018), and had just that summer completed a course on nonviolent civil disobedience at the Highlander Folk School, a training center for social justice activism that opened in Tennessee in 1932.3 Parks’ leadership, her willingness to make tremendous personal sacrifices on behalf of the movement are undeniable, but her leadership alone was not responsible for the change achieved. Parks had an entire network of advocates behind her.
As I wove in and out of break-out sessions, plenaries, and networking dinners over the next two days, I couldn’t help thinking about Montgomery’s example of community activism, and about my own stress and drive for leadership. (It helped that in another break-out session, a fellow attendee had posed the question, “What did philanthropy do during the Civil Rights Movement?”) When I heard the words “release yourself from it,” echo out from the podium, somehow, magically, I did. I felt the tension fleeing away as I reoriented my thoughts to the notion of participation, rather than leadership. Because, to my mind, that’s what Montgomery’s African American communities had been doing for decades before December 5, 1955 — they participated. They showed up at neighborhood associations and church groups, political committees and social clubs.4 And because they had shown up for so many years, when the moment came to stand up together to lead change, they were ready to do so.
Participation is the essence of democracy, and it’s been core to our civic life since its earliest days. That great observer of the American experiment, Alexis de Tocqueville, pointed out that civil society is about showing up to the places where other people are. “In democratic peoples,” he writes in 1835’s Democracy in America, “… all citizens are independent and weak; they can do almost nothing by themselves, and none of them can oblige those like themselves to lend them their cooperation. They therefore all fall into impotence if they do not learn to aid each other freely.”5
One of the plenary speakers at the EPIP conference, adrienne maree brown, recently published a new book, Emergent Strategy, and she drew on its lessons during her talk. After hearing her speak at the conference, I picked up a copy and have been reading it ever since. In it, brown explores the ways in which social change organizing can and should mimic nature — the flocking of birds, the running of water. Part of the point is that nature is collaborative, it is grounded in the mutual and the collective. “The idea of interdependence is that we can meet each other’s needs in a variety of ways, that we can truly lean on others and they can lean on us,” brown writes. “It means we decentralize our idea of where solutions and decisions happen, where ideas come from.”6
In other words, let’s stop talking about leaders (and leadership) and start talking about the group. Let’s stop putting unrealistic pressure on ourselves to create and lead the revolutions we dream about entirely on our own, and instead start joining the revolutionary movements that already exist. There are others who share your dream and could use your help. We can start by learning more about nonprofits in the U.S. — there are over 1.5 million according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics.
And there should be no shame in the fact that serving as a member is easier than serving as a chief executive. As brown also writes, “what is easy is sustainable. Birds coast when they can.”7 It is not a bad thing that showing up is a comparatively easy lift. It means we can keep doing it.
I’m a Millennial. I received, at ages four and five, two of those infamous soccer team participation trophies for which my generation is so much derided. I’m sure I got a few more over the course of elementary school. And I’ve been thinking about participation for quite a while now as I’ve bucked against the pundits who characterize my generation as soft and entitled.
But I have a theory. What if all of those participation trophies, ribbons, and pizza parties, were actually teaching us that simply showing up matters? Maybe we learned that being part of something bigger than yourself, something that relies, for its very existence, on the continued commitment and basic participation of many individuals, is important. You don’t have to be the captain of the team to be valuable to it. You just have to be on the team.
Back at the conference, I was struck by how comfortable and balanced the rooms felt. At EPIP, I was surrounded by my true peers: emerging professionals eagerly trying to navigate and decipher their career paths and the difference they want to make in the world. We may not have known each other well — or even at all — but we were on a team anyway, bound by our mutual dedication to the work of social change. And by the mere fact that we were all there together.
Philanthropy is often colloquially defined as the giving of time, talent, and treasure. It’s a big tent; it captures everything from neighborhood associations to the Giving Pledge. The word itself comes from the Greek word philanthrōpía, meaning love for mankind, and when we engage in our communities — by volunteering at a food pantry or running a voter registration drive — we share that love through action. Most of these acts have nothing to do with leadership, and they wouldn’t necessarily benefit from more, or better leadership. But humanity would certainly benefit from more such acts.
So let’s value that. Let’s pause all this talk of leaders, of how we can be better leaders, and start talking about how we can be better participants. Let’s give out some trophies to those who show up.