Solo Leadership: It’s Time to Change the Story

by , June 13, 2016

We need to break away from the traditional, Westernized story of the heroic leader toward a more expansive, sustainable, and community-oriented leadership approach. This is the premise of this piece by Senior Project Director Michelle Gislason, which takes readers on a journey starting with thoughts on our current political landscape and ending with how we can create change in our communities—with stops along the way to consider adaptive leadership, outdated power paradigms, and nonprofit leadership. Enjoy the ride!


frog princeI have been watching the recent election coverage with a combination of dismay and disillusionment. As someone who self-identifies as progressive and works for social justice, the majority of the candidates not only don't speak to me, they don't speak for me. Personal attacks, verbal attacks, racism. And this is just from the left. The leading candidate for president on the Republican side is a racist, misogynistic demagogue. Just, wow. How disheartening and enraging. The one candidate who has come close to speaking to me? Well, the irony is not lost on me that hope for a revolution has been claimed by a 70-year-old white man from Vermont.

I know I'm not alone in my dismay. I have seen more than one "We’re Screwed 2016" bumper sticker in my fair city. And despite a woman making history in securing the democratic nomination, many of us wonder if we're falling into the #GirlIGuessI'mWithHer category. It makes for a very sad story.

But, here's the thing. I don't believe it's the right story. This story is limiting. It is a story that is focusing on a very old narrative. One that focuses on a Western individual model of a heroic "leader" who will save us. Electing one person into office, even if it is considered the highest office, is still a focus on one individual. This is an outdated, white-dominant paradigm.

Making All People Accountable to Their Communities

My colleague Asha Mehta recently shared the book Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block with me. As Block shares, we have a habit of depending upon and accepting an individualistic culture. One that focuses on one positional leader as the "leverage point for building a better community." When we do this, we put the positional leader front and center and put citizens into a background role. "This is a deeply patriarchal agenda … and proposes that the only real accountability in the world is at the top." Not only does this reinforce individualism and dependency, it "undermines a culture where each is accountable for their community." (Block, 41)

And it's a model for leadership that we see everywhere. Many nonprofits continue to focus on hiring one traditional, positional leader (e.g., the executive director) to take on the massive task of managing an organization, even though much has been written on the importance of building up the collective and shared leadership of the entire organization.

This feels true for politics as well. Vote for one person and stand back and wait for change to happen. During an election cycle, we look for a simple answer to complex civic issues. One person to solve for issues such as education, economic justice, welfare and poverty, healthcare, gun control, civil rights, immigration, and foreign policy. Let alone solving for the ignorance, bigotry, and fear our nation is currently grappling with. We throw all of our hopes and expectations onto that one person. And by doing that, we also defer a tremendous amount of power to her or him. But that's really a technical fix. A simple solution to a very complex problem. What we have here is an adaptive challenge. One that will require a lot of people at every level of politics as well as in our communities. One that pivots from focusing on the impact of one leader to the greater magnitude of impact available through leadership by many.

Voting in just one person to be solely responsible for everything is a set up. It also lets us off the hook to do the very needed and difficult work of also leading.

Signs for Hopetree rings

So while the focus on electing one uninspiring individual into office sends me into despair, organizations and movements like those listed below give me hope. They are just some examples of a more expansive definition of who a leader is and how leadership can be structured that highlight the ongoing evolution of community leadership:

  • The Association of Young Americans, a fledgling nonprofit that believes if young people lobbied like senior citizens, it would be a powerhouse that could change our politics on prisons, climate, and student debt.
  • Black Women's Blueprint and Farah Tanis, who have been instrumental in convening a Tribunal of the U.S. Black Women’'s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Co-conveners included the U.S. Human Rights Network, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UN Women, Department of Public Information, and Women's Hands Establishing Entrepreneurial Leadership Skills (WHEELS).
  • The #BlackLivesMatter movement, with its national, decentralized, chapter-based structure, is rebuilding the Black liberation movement and raising these issues to the national dialog. One of the (many) strengths of Black Lives Matter is its ability to be unapologetic about dispelling the myth of "respectability." It has been really intentional about dispelling commonly held ideas of who is worthy of care, of justice, and of protection.
  • The National Domestic Workers Alliance has been working to catalyze the movement of domestic workers and caregivers to bring dignity and respect to the work and also to contribute to the movements that it is connected to for racial, economic, and gender justice.
  • The Occupy Movement, another diffused movement which first erupted in 2011, is now considered "dormant." However, this video (start at 45:40) on how the New York Occupy movement morphed to address unmet needs in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy testifies to the continued latent power in this group, and potentially similar collective leadership structures.
  • The Young Women’s Initiative, New York's City Council's is a two-year, $20 million initiative—$10 million from the city budget and $10 million from foundations that works to support the city's women and girls and fuel programs to increase access to birth control, improve health care for Transgender people, and support survivors of gender-based violence. This work is the result of recommendations and demands put forth by Girls for Gender Equity and more than 200 other community-based groups and policy experts.
  • We Belong Together, an initiative of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the National Asian Pacific American Womens Forum, and others, to bring attention to the ways in which unjust immigration laws affect women, children and families. In light of the Orlando shooting, they convened the June 14 vigil, "Women Together Stand with Love to Stop the Hate, Stand with Love to Stop the Raids, Stand Together to Stop the Violence."

And while focusing on elected officials still emphasizes traditional leadership, which reinforces a solo model, these particular political leaders embody progressive, collective, community work. They (and others) would also ensure that social justice values are represented at every level of government. Here are a few of those inspiring figures:

  • Pramila Jayapal, phenomenal and progressive fighter (and the only woman of color in the State Senate), is running for Congress in my home state of Washington. She is an activist and movement organizer at heart and her campaign is reflective of this.
  • Civil rights attorney Lorena González is the first Latina to be voted to Seattle City Council and is paving the way for other leaders of color while she advocates for labor rights and fair voting systems.
  • Democrat Donna Edwards is taking the lead in the Senate race in Maryland. A black single mother, she has made diversity a core part of her campaign.
  • Activist, organizer, and MacArthur genius award winner Lateefah Simon is running for a seat on the Bay Area Rapid Transit board to ensure public transportation is accessible in the Bay Area community.
  • At my workplace, CompassPoint, colleague Kad Smith is tackling racial profiling and implicit bias as Police Review Commissioner in Berkeley.

Do even more women and leaders of color need to be in even more law-making and decision making roles? Absolutely. And do we need to continue to raise up less mainstream, collective leadership models in our organizations and communities? Absolutely. There is so much more work to do. And there is so much already happening that deserves the spotlight and more media attention like these articles from The Washington Post and New York Magazine.

As adapted from Block, the dominant context that values scarcity, leadership, individualism, fear, and fault prevents anything positive or hopeful from taking root. There is a great deal that is taking root that is indeed positive and hopeful. I choose to put my energy there. There is certainly a great deal of work to do to dismantle the beast that has given refuge for, and voice to, white fear and anger over the inevitable changing demography of the country, the erosion of the center, and the rewarding of whiteness as a commodity.

sunflower closeupStand for Light

There are a lot of reasons to rail against so much darkness. To paraphrase Move to End Violence faculty member and Zen teacher Norma Wong, darkness has so much energy it can draw you in. However, darkness to fight darkness does not work. It is not strategic. When we are triggered to retaliate, we only generate more darkness. The bravest thing is to stand for light. We can make a choice about what we stand for.

The individuals and efforts I mentioned are merely a handful of the fierce and amazing things at work in our communities. They each stand for light. As a citizen, I choose to fan the flames of possibility and hold myself accountable by participating in my local and state politics. As a responsible citizen, I will work to ensure hate is not elected to an office that holds power and authority. I will not be complicit, to be sure. However, when it comes to hanging my hopes on one heroic leader to save the day, my energy is directed toward a different story.

Michelle Gislason is a senior project director at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. Michelle develops and manages CompassPoint leadership initiatives and coaches and trains in the area of leadership.


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(2) Comments

Very well said about Solo leadership. Your blog was worth reading. Thanks!

I think you mischaracterize a 70-yr-old white man from Vermont as "claiming" that ultra-individualized hero spot that mass-media driven culture assigns to the presidency. It serves dominant culture and the aforementioned dominant message-makers to characterize this iteration of progressive movement within that framework. It's a sign of how well their spin works that many of the supporters of this candidate treat him that way.