You’re Not A Leader If You Say You Have No Weaknesses

In the most recent Republican primary debate, the presidential candidates were asked to name their greatest weakness. For the most part, everybody ducked.

Kasich and Christie invented their own alternate questions, and answered them. Huckabee, Rubio, and Paul used the opportunity to compliment themselves. Bush, Trump, Carson, and Fiorina answered by painting themselves as genuine people rather than political hacks. Cruz came through most honest, acknowledging that most of us don’t want to have a beer with him — which, at some level, indicates he’s not a team player (true, true).

Most everyone who has been through the job interview process, particularly on the hiring side, knows that an inability to admit weakness is a big red flag.

There’s something deeply wrong with people who are so conceited they can’t identify areas for self-improvement. They’re awful team members, bosses, and direct reports. Perfect people tend to refuse criticism and act like arrogant, boorish jerks. Their ability to grow is limited, because how much can you learn, much less change and improve the next time, if you’re already perfect?

Most of all, an inability to concede weakness is the hallmark of a craptastic leader. Leadership is not the person in the cape who saves everyone. Leadership is helping others do their best. Leadership is working through other people, and to do that well you need to listen to others, have empathy, and be open to changing your mind in the face of new information or additional perspective.

Otherwise you’re just telling people what to do.

Maybe that works for awhile, as in the case of Bully in Chief Donald Trump’s early dominance in the Republican presidential primary season, although his numbers are slipping; or notorious psychopath Al Dunlap of Sunbeam, who wrote a book titled Mean Business before the company was forced to file for bankruptcy in spite of (or perhaps because of) the merciless staff cuts he made as its ‘chainsaw’ CEO.

Leadership as dominance is never ultimately sustainable, because the little guy has tremendous power, especially through organizing and collective action.

And we should absolutely question why ‘the little guy’ has a positive, go get ’em connotation, and ‘the little lady’ has a very different, condescending one.

There’s been a good bit of attention paid to the pitiful percentage of women in the most respected forms of leadership — executive leadership, public service, religious leadership — and there should be more.

The leadership gap is not due to character defects inherent in women, or a lack of appropriate training, although programs that specifically aim to train and develop women and girls must continue until equality has been reached in the ratio of women and men in leadership.

That said, the ‘but we need to build the pipeline’ argument is a bit of a smokescreen: There is an excess of qualified, capable women who are willing and ready to lead today. Rather than ask women why this is happening, it’s time to ask the white men who continue to wield disproportionate power in virtually every corridor of repute. They’re not sharing, and they have some ‘splaining to do.

Commonly it’s suggested, even by those who identify as feminist advocates, that women are more collegial and more likely to listen because they are women — but this is a gender essentialist trap. However, this argument does underlie an important and real point.

Leadership is actually not dominance — a good leader uses empathy, humility, and listening in service of building and supporting strong people who don’t need a strong, blustering leader. Leadership is growing alongside the people you’re charged to support. Sounds like a good parent to me, actually.

Maybe the character traits and experiences that we’ve devalued as feminine and non-leaderly deserve a fresh look.

 

Feminism Doesn’t Need A Savior, But It Does Need Leaders

The media loves to search for the next Gloria Steinem, as if what feminism most needs today is an iconic leader for everyone to follow. But we don’t need a singular icon, we need the actions of multiple leaders. The solution is reflected in the words of a Hopi elder: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

On the other end of the spectrum, some argue that feminism is best served without any leaders at all. The reason for pause is understandable.

Ironically enough, some of the worst instincts of second wave feminism yielded into a small but noisy sect of hierarchal, top-down leaders who lost sight of the anti-dominance ideals that are at the core of the movement. Further, leadership circles tend to reflect privilege: white, able-bodied, gender-conforming, class privilege. Diversity is not just about who is at the table, and who sees that table and believes they are welcome to sit, but also which perspectives get centered. Finally, speaking for all women, as iconic leaders are wont to do, is a ridiculous urge. Whether it is an individual or a group of people, speaking for ‘all women’ is more harmful than helpful to the modern feminist cause. I’ve written about that before here.

All those disclaimers said — feminism needs more leaders. The great news is that we are all right here. You and me and everyone we know can and should step up to be the feminist leaders of today.

One of the most important places to take leadership is outside the feminist movement. Back when I had a hierarchal title within a hierarchal feminist organization, younger women used to say to me all the time: “I want to do exactly what you’ve done. Tell me how.” And my honest answer is: Don’t. Don’t limit yourself to taking leadership inside feminism, particularly in a movement job that probably isn’t going to pay you very well or provide much mobility (especially at the entry levels).

Feminism doesn’t need a queen or a savior. But looking more broadly, more feminism and more diversity in leadership is sorely needed. Disturbingly, the world is still largely run by white guys doing it by themselves.

So yes, organize and wave your feminist flag everywhere you can (including inside the movement). But go forth and be a feminist leader in government, in business, in your family, in your faith community if you choose to take part in one, and in non-profit organizations that aren’t focused solely on women.

Do not be afraid to take leadership ever. It is incredibly feminist to take leadership. Feminism needs more leaders, not fewer leaders. The modern feminist leadership is action-oriented rather than iconic or symbolic, collaborative, diverse, dynamic, and external, not internal, in focus.

You Are The Ones You Are Waiting For: Successfully Working With People You Already Have

We could [do this really cool thing], but we don’t have enough people yet.

Ah, recruiting more activists to come to meetings before moving forward with plans to change the world. Having worked with a lot of activists I can tell you this is one of the most common ways people get derailed.

Truth is, you are the ones you are waiting for. Why would you delegate your readiness to be the change you want to see to a mythical army of people you haven’t met yet? They may not exist. But you, brilliant feminist, certainly do.

When you believe in yourselves and work together, small groups of people can be incredibly successful to seed cultural change, force a bad actor to change course, or create or implement a new policy. Many times I’ve pulled off successful actions with small core organizing groups sized anywhere from three to 10 people.

Using a small core organizing group doesn’t preclude you from having a large event where many people show up — and it means you don’t have to keep calling meetings expecting all those people to show up until you give yourselves permission to act (under those pretenses, that day may never come).

Still don’t believe me? Anthropologist Margaret Mead knew a thing or two about peoples and cultures. She said so, too:

“Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

So ready to get cracking? Here are some additional tips for successfully working with people you already have:

If you’re a leader, be a feminist. Delegate. Listen. Lead in the shape of a circle (emphasizing interconnections and intersections) rather than a triangle (emphasizing hierarchy). It’s not just the right thing to do — it works better.
Although some people never get this memo over the course of a lifetime, it’s especially common when first thrust into leadership to believe that you need to prove you can do it all by yourself and/or tell others exactly what to do and how to do it. That’s a disaster! Not only will you burn yourself out and drive people away, your activism will suffer as a result. More thoughts and more skills create more opportunities to kick ass.

Leadership is working through other people. Orient your thinking around what your small group can accomplish together to boost your odds of success.

Activity: Have everyone go around the room and say three things they can do really well (in the context of an action or campaign).
I love this activity! You may think you know your friends and colleagues, but chances are you don’t know what skills each other has. Next time you’re together, take the time to each say three things you can do really well, such as negotiating, or writing, or editing video, or dealing with difficult people in crisis situations, or logistical details or … Chances are strong you will learn about skills within your group you weren’t aware of before. This becomes really helpful in divvying up tasks.

Due to socialization, it’s more common for women to announce what we can’t do. Affirming what you and others can do is power.

Make sure everyone gets included in discussions.
Some people like to talk. Some people don’t hesitate to throw out the first idea or reaction when the room is silent. Some people are comfortable speaking up in the middle of a spirited conversation. The people who don’t fit in this category have insights no less valuable, so it’s up to you to be a feminist and make sure everyone is included in the discussion. If someone hasn’t spoken in awhile, ask them directly what they think. Or think back to the skills activity and ask them “so what about this from a, for example, photography perspective? Any additional thoughts?”

Elevating the softer voices in a room is one of the most important aspects of feminist leadership. At a micro-level. At a macro-level. Practice it routinely.

Everyone has a job. Every new person who shows up leaves with a job for next time.
Being part of something larger is what energizes people, but don’t mistake sitting there and soaking in other people’s work as filling that hole. Successfully working with the people you already have means engaging all of them. Make sure everyone has a role. Want people to come back (especially first-timers)? Don’t ever leave a meeting or an action without a new activity for everyone to do. That could include something as simple as an invitation to join a celebration potluck after a demonstration, or agreeing to research a policy before coming to the next gathering.

Both new people and existing people are precious. Don’t just treat them that way, acknowledge their worth by explicitly including their presence and their work at your next gathering.

Use the people you already have to recruit people for your big day(s).
Publicizing is great — do it online, do it through social media, do it through likeminded associations, do it through reporters and public relations, do it through public calendars and bulletin boards — but don’t just do that and expect your big crowd to fall out of the sky and into your event. Leveraging the core organizing group you already have means counting on your people to bring people to show up on your big day. Depending on the scale of what you are doing, you might want to ask everyone to commit to bringing one friend to the delivery of a formal letter to a decision-maker (just promise me you’ll record what you’re doing and post the video online), or you might want to ask everyone to commit to recruiting 50 signatures for your petition.

The people you already have are your most important asset, and that includes not just their skills but their networks. Use them or lose them!

A bias toward action is the seed of feminist change. One of the best ways to foster that bias is to believe in, and work with, the people you already have. The likelihood that someone is going to mythically appear and give you permission to move forward is low. The odds are statistically against your favor if you believe that holding meeting after meeting will somehow give you enough people to suddenly believe there are enough people to do something more than meet again and hope for more people. But your ability to kick ass is omnipresent. So grab it and go!