Social justice has a leadership problem

Co-creating structures and accountability for "visionary" leadership

I remember vividly the first time that I learned that I had power; that others saw me as a leader. I was in first grade. I remember feeling deeply unsettled at the profound implications: what I did (or did not do) influenced how others around me acted. I understood even at that young age that my power could be used for good or ill; only much later did I come to recognize the fine line that separates encouragement from coercion.

As a middle child (the second of four) I gravitated toward a mediator role, a form of leadership that sought to connect people, to find common ground, to encourage others. My leadership style in a nutshell: cheerleader and chief of staff. I pump people up, and figure out how to get everyone aligned behind whatever task I was given. This subconscious adaptation offered a tradeoff: I could hold on to my power… but would need to let go of my personal vision. No problem: I never saw myself as much of an entrepreneur or creative type anyway.

Now I find myself in an unusual position. For the first time in my life, rather than trying to implement someone else’s strategy, I’m trying to listen deeply to my own inner vision that wants to emerge in Building Belonging.

Which means that all the power I’ve accrued through my social location (white, male, American, class-privileged, elite-educated, highly networked, etc.) is now being channeled… in service of my vision, not someone else’s. And it feels deeply uncomfortable.

I want to use this post to reflect on power, leadership, and the tension between individual agency and collective co-creation.


We don’t know what to do with visionary leadership

The “we” here is those of us involved in movements for social justice. We’ve evolved: from the unitary savior archetype of the past (Gandhi, Dr. King, Mandela, always a grossly oversimplified version of reality), to the opposite extreme in the “leaderless” movements of Occupy and the Arab awakening. Today’s movements are striving for a happier medium, what the Movement for Black Lives has called “leader-ful.” That feels right to me… but what kind of leaders? Daniel Goleman famously defined six leadership styles.

Looking out at the movements, organizations, and networks that make up the social justice landscape today, it seems to me that we prioritize and value democratic, affiliative, and coaching leaders. We reject commanding leaders, purport to reject (but often elevate) pacesetting leaders… and don’t know what to do with visionary leaders.

The task of leadership (and of life, as Rumi reminds us) is to find the balance between holding on and letting go. And we’re stuck in the tension between holding on to ourselves as individuals (indeed, much of the discourse in social justice space encourages us to find ourselves) and letting go of that as soon as we enter collective space. I haven’t personally encountered what feels like a good balance between individual agency in the context of a collective… though I know I’m not alone in deeply yearning for it.

It comes down to this: we desperately want to avoid coercion — including and especially these visionary leaders themselves — and our models for collective decision-making haven’t kept pace with the speed and scale of change. Our institutional structures, accountability mechanisms, and individual and collective capacities are thus far inadequate to the task.

From “vision” to “prism”

Looking again at Goleman’s list above (or any such typology; I also really liked Deepa Iyer’s recent “roles in social change”), we come across an obvious problem: no one can self-define as a visionary. If you put on your LinkedIn profile “coach” or “facilitator” or even “democratic” leader… no problem. That’s great. If you put “visionary?” Nah; not a good look. So how can we cultivate a quality of leadership — one that everyone agrees is vital to success in any collective enterprise — that we can’t even aspire to?

I want to reframe how we understand what it means to be a “visionary.” I thought I found an answer last summer when Laureen Golden introduced me to the concept of Source. Here at last I was relieved to find a story that didn’t apotheosize the unitary entrepreneur/founder (the hero’s journey), but instead sought to be what Tom Nixon calls a “vulnerable visionary.” But of course… that didn’t quite sit right either (it still required me to accept a role as “visionary,” even if a humble one).

So I made the concept what I wanted it to be: I thought of “source” as the source of a river: the place where water comes above ground. The actual “source” of course is the glaciers, snowmelt, and underground aquifers… and that felt like a more honest rendering of what I was trying to bring into the world. But my religious friends tell me Source has biblical connotations and smacks of holier-than-thou… the very problem I was trying to avoid in the first place. Sigh.

So I want to offer another metaphor/term here: a prism. Well, actually the opposite of a prism. A prism takes one beam of light and scatters it into a spectrum (the image that kicks off this post): I instead want to conjure a prism that takes many beams of light and channels it into one. Like a parabolic satellite dish… but refracting rather than reflecting. I’ll call this a prism, though I know that’s technically inaccurate. If there’s an object/word for what I’m describing, please chime in!

There are three components to this metaphor:

1) The inputs (the many beams of light entering the “prism”): these are sources of knowledge and wisdom. Lived experience, professional experience, academic knowledge, etc. These come from the context in which one lives.

2) The prism itself: this is a person, an embodied self. Our unique selves inform how we interpret and refract our inputs. Even were it possible to have the same set of inputs (it’s not), they would refract differently through my prism as a white man than through the prism/self of a similarly situated Black woman.

3) The output (the concentrated beam of light emerging out the others side of the prism): this is the vision.

The story of us, the story of self, the story of now

My favorite practitioner and teacher of the fine art of social movement leadership (as distinct from, but related to, organizational leadership) is Marshall Ganz. Ganz famously offers a framework he calls “public narrative,” which turns on three stories.

I want to apply the framework to my prism metaphor, because I think it’s helpful in dis-aggregating the components. The story of “us” is the Inputs: it’s the big questions. Who are we? Who belongs? What is happening in the world? The story of “self” is the Prism: what about your unique life experiences influences how you make sense of these inputs? The story of “now” is your Vision: what, therefore, shall we do?

This metaphor helps me get over my hang-up with the word “visionary,” which seems to imply some divine wisdom or some special self. In my rendering, anyone has the capacity to be a “prismatic” leader, primarily by honing your sources of wisdom (as James Clear writes: choose better inputs; get better outputs); honing your specific prism (self-work: mindfulness, embodiment, etc.); and practice (following your own light…. always in community with others!). Prismatic leaders focus intentionally on developing all three of these dimensions.

Here’s the key thing: there is no story of “now” without a story of “self.” In Building Belonging I talk about I, We, World as reminder that we are being invited to think and act at all three levels… at the same time. And the path to action is always integrated across all three; this is what I mean when I talk about the “fractal.” How we show up for ourselves is how we show up for each other is how we show up for the world. Much of what I find missing from the “visionary” leadership literature is the rightful place for ego: not toxic or wounded ego, but ego in right relationship: not privileging the “I,” but not sacrificing it either (subject of my last post).

“Human signposts”: compass rather than map

Vincent Harding, himself a visionary leader, described the role of movement leaders as “live human signposts.” Yes, that feels right. Pointing the way, bringing light into the world. Not saying how to get there, or saying it’s the only way… but still offering through their own specific prisms their learnings, their visions. For others to follow… or not. As Marianne Williamson noted:

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

I thought of this reading the manuscript for David Ehrlichman’s forthcoming book (pre-order now, it’s really good!) where he distinguishes between a map and a compass.

Maps are only useful when the environment is static and when someone has traveled the path before… Detailed maps are quite useless when the landscape continues to change.

When faced with complexity, a compass is a much more useful tool. A good compass points toward a specific direction: your purpose, your North Star, the future you want to create. It does not tell you exactly where to go, but it can help to orient you when faced with unexpected obstacles in a shifting terrain.

As Simon Sinek observed:

Giving direction is not the same thing as giving directions. Directions are instructions how. Direction is the reason why.

Two other qualities I’ve noticed are worth remarking upon here.

First, it seems to me that most visionary leaders — the folks I find myself drawn to — are all deep “bridgers.” I get this term from john powell, who in turn borrows it from Robert Putnam. But there’s another lineage that I find even more attractive: Belinda Robnett famously characterized the leadership of Black women in the Civil Rights Movement as “bridge leadership,” a sentiment evocatively captured in the classic anthology on radical women-of-color feminism This Bridge Called My Back, curated by my favorite bridger of all, Gloria Anzaldúa. That is, their prisms are all forged in liminal space: they live between worlds.

Second, they are what Reid Hoffman calls “infinite learners.” This is the only definition of “mastery” that feels really resonant: infinite practice (indeed, Ganz talks about movement leadership as constant practice). James Clear summarizes the literature: “there are no experts; only learners.” Here’s George Leonard on “mastery”:

What is mastery? At the heart of it, mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path.

[This leaves unanswered the question of how to distinguish master from apprentice, both of whom are engaged in practice. Can we transcend the teacher/student binary, while still acknowledging the vital role of teacher?]

My favorite replacement for Campbell’s “hero’s journey” is what John Hagel calls the “passion of the explorer:” it’s precisely this perennial quest for learning, for improvement; this is adrienne maree brown’s commitment to “working on excellence.” As a journey, intrinsically valuable in its own right; not a destination. A plug here for Monica Guzman’s forthcoming book on the importance of curiosity, which I see as a key contribution in this space.

Power, responsibility, and authority

How can we fix the world if we can’t fix our own organizations?

I can’t remember where I heard some version of this line, but it landed with the ring of truth. We have all these great theories… what do they look and feel like in practice? We say we want a world without supremacy, without oppression… don’t we have to figure that out at a micro scale before we can hope to solve for the macro? This is why the stakes feel so high to me. There are many ways we could solve my present dilemma in Building Belonging… but how to do it in a way that is in integrity with me, with our nascent community, and with the world as we want it to be?

Today’s post builds on my last public reflection on power, here. If power is decision-making, this is where the rubber meets the road: who decides? What is the proper structural role for prismatic leaders?

The good news is, there is a wealth of incredible learning and practice emerging in real time from organizations intentionally experimenting in what it looks like to self-organize without coercion. Lessons coming out of Enspiral; Manuel Küblböck’s sharing from Gini, Frederic Laloux’s work on Reinventing Organizations, Samantha Slade’s work on Going Horizontal.

Yet none quite answer the mail for me; something feels missing. Here’s what feels clear to me:

1) The purpose guides everything — the specific purpose usually starts with one person (the source vision: the person who issues the first invitation, or what the Art of Hosting community calls the Art of Calling) but becomes a shared purpose as soon as that initiator steps intentionally into co-creation.

2) Form must follow function: structures only exist to serve the underlying purpose. We want the minimum viable structure to enable emergence.

3) The goal, to the extent possible, is to have the formal structure make visible the power dynamics at play: it is easier to address something that is in the open rather than lurking in the shadows. (This to avoid the famed “tyranny of structurelessness”). As Alanna Irving notes, the goal is to “align power with responsibility.”

4) We also want to align responsibility with authority. I don’t agree with everything in this post, but Max St. John offers some useful insights here. Basically, you have authority over what you have responsibility for… and vice versa.

Where it gets murky for me: distinguishing between creative authority (I like, with a very important caveat, Charles Davies’ definition of authority-as-authorship here) and formal authority. As Tom Nixon notes:

Formal and creative authority are distributed differently. Formal authority can be distributed by giving more people more authority to do more things... Creative authority cannot be shared or simply bestowed on people.

This gets to the heart of the matter. Tom’s answer is to form a “creative hierarchy…. a space where other people can take responsibility for parts of it.” But that doesn’t quite sit right, either. I’m reminded here of an insight from one of my favorite college professors, the late Jeffrey Ferguson. He taught an absolutely mind-bending comparative literature course exploring Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man, read in dialogue with his many influences (Emerson, Joyce, Du Bois, Wright…) And he said that the author’s perspective on his own writing was only one valid view among many about authorial intent… and not even the most valid view.

It blew my mind. And as I thought about it, I saw his point. Contrary to what Davies says about “authority as authorship”… the author is not the only — nor always the best — judge of their own vision. We are not perfectly self-aware; we have blind spots, subconscious drives, sublimated expression. As Whitman observed: we are vast. We contain multitudes.

Dreaming accountability

Here’s what I find myself yearning for: accountability for creative authority in prismatic leaders, reflected but not permanently reified in our organizational/network structures.

I think many of the tools discussed above get us there for individual components: we can structure and align formal and creative authority, responsibility, and power around our public presence or branding, e.g. But I don’t think we’ve found a way to do it for the whole.

I don’t want followers. I want companions. I want them to trust my gifts, and I want to trust theirs. I don’t want to hold back my gifts; I don’t want them to hold back theirs. I want everyone to be their full, beautiful, creative, powerful selves. And I want us to support each other in making that possible. I believe it can be done.

I want accountability for my vision. I have an intuitive sense — which I am learning, slowly, to trust — about where we need to go… but not necessarily how to get there. That sense of course is a function of my unique prism, but far more than that it’s a function of so many beautiful inputs. This newsletter is one way for me to share my inputs, to invite others into collective sense-making around what I’m seeing (my annual best-of lists are where I synthesize and share back my ongoing learning journey). I want to know what you’re seeing: what are the inputs you have that I don’t? And I want to know what your unique prisms are telling you — how are you refracting the same inputs…. is your light pointing in the same direction?

My vision is not mine at all: it’s the synthesis of all the visions that I’ve been orienting toward my whole life, contemporaries and ancestors. And it is mine: it’s refracted through my imperfect prism. So: where do I belong? What is my role in Building Belonging, this emergent community that I love? How can I take up the right amount of space… no more, and no less?


Bit of a cliffhanger, perhaps, but Substack is giving me the all-too-familiar “email length limit” warning… a necessary boundary for my propensity to think out loud in long-form prose.

I’d love to know what resonates, what doesn’t, and specifically what structural role might feel like a good way to address the tension I’m naming here. Are there organizations or entities that have done this well? The one I’m watching with most interest right now is the Yet-to-be-named Network, which seems to be doing a really good job of collective sensemaking/strategizing around a dynamic vision… though I’m not sure whether/how Source plays out there.

Anyway. Deep breath. Holding on. Letting go. Trying.