The Fickle Edge of Leadership

The crowd was edgy. Most people were dispirited by the recent decision by the grand jury not to indict the cop who murdered Michael Brown. None were surprised by the action. Most were frustrated by the fact that they weren’t surprised. To them, it was just another day in racist America.

photo by David Sierralupe

photo by David Sierralupe

A few speakers addressed the gathering. They spoke into a bullhorn. This was a spur of the moment event. It had spread through social media through the University of Oregon crowd as soon as the news come out. No one knew quite what to say. Most of the speakers were young, inexperienced and angry.

My husband and I had shown up to be silent supporters. Rallies aren’t really my thing as an activist. I understand their importance but I am more of a hands-on activist. I get fidgety. That’s why I do activism via a free clinic. It is a lot more fun than listening to speeches.

The leader of the rally was a young college student with facial tattoos. She grabbed the bullhorn after the last speaker and announced that from now on, only speakers who identified as people of color could talk.

The crowd shifted uneasily. I looked across the faces of the front row. There was a diversity there but I did not see any one look comfortable with the choice she made. I sighed. This was an error that new leaders make often. She was being unilateral. She had clearly, by the expressions on the faces of her peers, made this choice on her own. It wasn’t sitting well.

I understand why she would advocate for such a choice. People who are used to be in place of power (such as whites) take the fact that their voices will be heard for granted. The problem was not the choice itself, it was that she was making this choice for an unreceptive crowd. I watched her struggle to enforce this rule without support until the energy died. It was a little painful to watch.

The incident got me thinking about the difficulty of leadership. We are entrusted as leaders to represent the people who gather around us. Making choices is tricky. You have to know your crew, your situation and the time frame you exist in.

photo by David Sierralupe

photo by David Sierralupe

My own group, Occupy Medical, is made up of smart, independent thinkers. They are a beautifully diverse organization. As we have been together for 3 years and have served in extremely stressful situations, we know each other very well. I have learned to predict their choices … mostly. They do surprise me from time to time.

Occupy Medical has many leaders. Each are invested with responsibility to problem solve with their crew for the good of the clinic and the people we serve. It is not an easy task. There are times as leaders when we have to propose an unpopular concept and then talk the crew into it.

To be a good leader, you have to balance representing your group and being the first to stand up in defense of an good idea. Those concepts sometimes run headlong into each other. Sometimes a leader is just dragged along behind as the group pursues an idea that leader dislikes.

My crew sets up 3 large garage sized tents in addition to the clinic bus Every Single Sunday. It gets wearing. As our services have been expanding, it was clear that we needed another tent. This was an idea that I, as clinic manager, dreaded. Yet, for the past few Sundays, the new, 4th tent goes up to shelter against torrential rain, hail and snow.  It is just a pop up tent but still I shudder at the impact of its presence. The time is right for this choice whether I like it or not.

We need this tent and I hate it. It reminds me of how much bigger we are going to have to be all too soon. I pine for the simpler days and so I drag along behind smiling bravely. Ah well.

Unpopular decisions can vital to leadership. The civil rights movement achieved legal status because some people in command made new laws that were not supported by the voting majority. They thought long and hard about what was the morally right thing to do and pursued it even though it endangered their upcoming re-elections. The trick was selling doing the right thing to the American public. Not an easy task.

photo by David Sierralupe

photo by David Sierralupe

This brings me back to the college leader with the facial tattoos. Whether her choice was right or wrong, she enforced it with unpopular and therefore unsuccessful tactics. All she had to do was sell her choice to a few key members of the crowd. She did not make an attempt at this.

When she sensed that her rule was not going over well, she turned her frustration onto surrounding leaders. In her mind, it was her against the world. In the end, she rudely and publicly turned away another proposed elder speaker who did not understand her new rule. It was a fiasco.

I hoped that the college student leader took a valuable lesson about consent away with her. I hope that this did not sour her to activism. Depending on how willing she is to be humble and try again, she might be valiant leader of the future. All skills have to be learned the hard way.

To be a good leader, doesn’t mean you have to be right all the time, you just have to be there and be willing to be brave. You have to listen, consider and respond. You have to be willing to put your ego away and be willing to guide and be guided in return. At the end of the day, you have to be willing to recognize and learn from your mistakes. If the cause is just, it is worth it.

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1 Response to The Fickle Edge of Leadership

  1. karl eysenbach says:

    This is extremely wise advice. Leadership merely means being able to listen to what the collective says more than anyone else, and then following what the collective wants. And when we do this, we operate from a position of great strength.

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