During a plenary at TWI grantee Interfaith Youth Core’s conference Interfaith Youth Work: “Leadership for a Religiously Diverse World”, I was struck by Representative Keith Ellison’s, 5 th Congressional District of Minnesota, vehement statement: “let’s differentiate between leaders and leadership.” Clearly positional leaders can demonstrate very little leadership while those of us without positional authority can offer leadership at any moment. Think about the volunteer who, in June of 1963, acted to print 50,000 instead of 5,000 fliers for the march (an immense effort in pre-Kinko’s times) that eventually helped bring over a million people to hear MLK speak in the mall. Or the first Iranian protester to “tweet” about the government crackdown on demonstrations at Tehran University this past June.
This plenary on “Interfaith Leadership, Social Entrepreneurship, and Movement Building” left me asking: What is the construct of leadership embedded in public consciousness and dialogue? In our social movements? In philanthropy?
It occurs to me that I can hardly begin to conceptualize leadership without calling to mind individual, inspirational people. Even my example above of the civil rights volunteer implicitly holds MLK at its center. Yet, this plenary got me mulling over an understanding of leadership in the form of “the invisible hands that move millions” vs. “the Rockstar.”
Every sector and community has its beloved Rockstars. I’ll bet you can name 3 of your favorites now as you read this. They are highly profiled, often tokenized, win awards like the MacArthur or the Gardener and are invited into prized cohorts like the Prime Movers or the Ashoka Fellows.
An evolving definition of leadership might shift the attention into the "invisible" multitudes. Though, given the proliferation social medias, is invisibility even an option? Some might point out that open sourced leadership is already proliferating via social medias at rapid rates and scales, in ways that have yet to be truly absorbed by most of us. So, my evolving definition here isn’t exactly a demand to make of everyone a Rockstar or to de-Rock our stars.
What I’m getting to is a both/and understanding. It’s not about scrapping the model (and existing infrastructures) of the Rockstar paradigm over a completely faceless, open source model.
Those "hubs" or "outliers" (i.e. Malcolm Gladwell) we dub Rockstars have a crucial role in social movements and are in symbiotic relationship with the 10,000 people following them on Twitter as well. The edgiest, most strategic people in positional leadership that I know stay in the closest contact possible with the folks that are on the ground, moving their shared vision forward. So the both/and is an awareness, attention, and resourcing not just the Rockstars but also the 10’s of thousands who are leading from their cell phones, doing what needs done in their homes, neighborhoods, and communities without waving a flag about it, launching untold projects, positively influencing their environments, or, in a million other ways, demonstrating leadership in their own contexts. And connecting beyond those contexts in order to inspire and be inspired.
I’ll be honest. This is incredibly refreshing to me. Having been engaged on many fronts with the “issue” of a supposed “leadership crisis” for several years, conversations about leadership development that stick to a model of finding that singular bright star and resourcing her/him strike me as fantastical as the NBA draft. The “one in a million” construct feels out of date to me. If we understand leadership not as spread among on a chosen few, but shared amongst all of us, what then can we imagine?
How do we (those in philanthropy, those designing civic engagement, those guiding non-profits organizations, those influencing social movements) imagine resourcing that lateral movement of many beyond supporting (funding, endorsing) a leader who is vertically at the top? What does supporting leadership beyond the Rockstar paradigm look like?
I’d love to hear from you. Especially if you are one of the many Rockstars that may be reading this.