Leading from the fringes: Part two

[They] tied the trials and tribulations of individuals to the trials and tribulations of the society within which they were embedded (Kellerman, 2010, 157).

My personal experiences – my trials and tribulations – speak to a larger collective experience of suffering and struggle. In December 2007, as part of a United Methodist women’s spiritual leadership exchange, I traveled to El Salvador and Honduras. Afterward, I wrote and published an essay about one day on that journey. 

The day began at our Five Star Princess Hotel.  As we gathered to load into the van, I watched mostly men (and very few women) in very expensive tailored dark suits, starched white shirts, and neckties as they gathered in the lobby of the hotel’s convention hall.  It was a meeting of the World Bank and IMF with El Salvadoran elected officials.  Within thirty minutes of leaving the convention center, our women’s leadership group was at the site where Arch Bishop Oscar Romero (the Pastor of the impoverished landless peasants) was murdered in 1980.  The murder of Romero created a huge uprising and a full scale civil war that lasted for twelve years. 

The experience of being confronted with the impact of colonization and globalization on the poor people of Latin America left an indelible mark on my soul.  I was able to identify the shared challenges of rural communities in Montana (negatively impacted by multi-national corporations) and Latin America. 

Then in January 2008, I participated in another faculty and student leadership exchange with religious leaders in Uganda and Rwanda.  Again, I saw first hand evidence that Christian missionaries were complicit in creating violence between African tribes.  The process of colonization included creating false racial hierarchies — as in the Hutus and Tutsis.  The Colonizers found it necessary to rank the indigenous people into hierarchies.  They used these imposed rankings or hierarchies so that an elite minority group of privileged Africans were oppressing other Africans.  In a sense, they replicated their European class system.

I also saw the effects of crop ‘mono-cultures’ designed to efficiently replace native subsistence crops with profitable crops like coffee and sugar.  Tribal people were forced off their land, and the land is now controlled by huge multi-national agricultural conglomerates.  Starving people were surrounded by abundant fertile land that produced sugar and coffee for wealthy foreigners.  Montana has also experienced a decline in the number of family owned and operated farms, with many of the Federal farm subsidies going to the multi-national agricultural corporations. 

I discovered the need for more effective leadership was global, not just a personal experience.

Leading from the fringe: Part one

Then she began, nearly out of nowhere, to write (Barbara Kellerman, 2010, 122).

Is it possible to change the world from the margins, from nowhere, when one is lacking in positional or legitimate power?

For the next several blog posts, I will be sharing personal essays about my experience as a collaborative non-hierarchical leader. Approximately a year ago, it dawned on me that one of the more effective strategies for being a non-hierarchical person of influence (co-leader) is to position myself as a writer and thought leader. I discovered a number of historical role models in Barbara Kellerman’s book Leadership: Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence. (Kellerman, 2010).

The idea of influencing the world through writing is not new for me. In high school and college I had dreams of someday being a writer — a poet, playwright, or writer of nonfiction. It was not a practical pursuit; it was the stuff of childish dreams. A voice in my head told me, I was not really a writer.

There was some minor evidence to the contrary. In high school, I won a scholarship for writing a Voice of Democracy speech. Later, my college professors complimented me on my writing, and on my speeches. These accolades bounced off, unable to penetrate a negative self-image. I was just a small town girl, a nobody from nowhere.

In my last year of undergraduate studies I changed my major from Interpersonal Communications to Business Administration/Accounting, and I passed the rigorous exam to be a Certified Public Accountant. I was not a writer, but I was smart enough to be an accountant and that was a more practical choice.

Although I was not a writer, I did enjoy amazing opportunities for a variety of fascinating leadership roles. In my late twenties I was CFO of a $3.5 million multi-specialty medical practice, supervising over 30 employees and managing a multi-million dollar construction project. Then I became the first woman and one of the first dozen Certified Financial Planners in Montana. That led to an appointed position as Deputy Commissioner of Securities for Montana. I served on two national committees to develop the early consumer protection regulations for the Financial Planning industry.

After a few years, I moved on to a role as CEO of a nonprofit economic development finance organization and a Montana based social venture capital company. I received national and state recognition for my role as a leader in promoting financial alternatives for small businesses. A large part of my work was public presentations before small and very large groups. During the years I worked with rural entrepreneurs, I was considered a national leader in empowering rural entrepreneurs to overcome obstacles to their success.

As I traveled throughout the nation, I loved shattering the prejudices I faced from urban elites. Often their first thoughts were that powerful ideas could not originate from rural outposts like Montana. I discovered I could be a leader from the fringes — from a remote rural place like Montana.

Its a remarkable conceit: the idea of changing the world simply by sitting and writing (Kellerman, 2010, 118).

Is there any real power in communicating through the written and spoken word?

The sense that I was called to be a writer was nagging at me. In my late thirties I began a daily practice of writing in my private journal.

I went through a phase of intense and deepening spiritual growth. My leadership roles were increasingly in formal religious communities. I gradually came to believe my long-standing call to write and speak was a call to be a Christian Minister. Seeking ordination was a path to being a “legitimate” leader within the Church. My three years in seminary was a time of rediscovering my love for reading and writing. I started to dream again, this time of being a writer and a preacher.

Though he himself was without power, authority, or influence, he had the temerity to stand up to, and inveigh against, those more richly endowed (Kellerman, 2010, 131).

My first job as a Pastor (clergy) was with a small church in a conservative rural community. Every week I would put many hours into planning worship and writing my sermons. I discovered that communication is a very powerful form of leadership — both written and oral. There was an amazing amount of individual and communal transformation that occurred during my one year. And then it was over.

The higher “legitimate” authority, The Bishop, made a decision to end my career as a Pastor, and he had all the power and authority to do that. It made no difference that my ministry was producing fruits, it all came down to submitting to his absolute authority.

I discovered that real leadership is realizing when you have the power to choose your own path, regardless of legitimacy or positional authority. Followers can become leaders, and when they do, leaders loose some of their power.

(Six part essay to be continued).

Emerging Hope: leaders rising from the margins

Bill McKibben’s article (cited in the last blog post) describes his experience of emerging leadership within the environmental movement. McKibben believes our hope resides in a massive, decentralized, grassroots, intergenerational movement.  He also believes in the possibilities of distributed power as an alternative to the multi-national energy corporations.

Most of the influential movements our time do not have a primary heroic leader at the front.  There are many leaders at many levels.  The people getting results in these movements generally lack positional power; they are not corporate executives, politicians, or government officials.  They are young people, indigenous people, retirees, small scale farmers and ranchers, and even children.

First Nations people, the Indigenous Environmental Network, has been highly effective in disrupting the Alberta tar sands production and pipeline.  There are a group of Kids Against KXL and even a grandparents march from Camp David to the White House.

Thousands of young people from over 135 countries are being developed as “organizers”, another phrase to describe distributed or eco-egalitarian leadership.

There are a variety of gifts engaged in leading the movement:  Van Jones (charisma), Jim Hansen (the great climate scientist), Tim DeChristopher (went to jail for two years for civil disobedience), and Tom Steyer (a rare corporate billionaire who quit his hedge fund job and put his time and money into the movement).  There are also positional leaders; organizational leaders employed by a growing number of environmental nonprofits.

We need millions of co-leaders.  This is not a leaderless movement, it is a leader-full movement.

Human beings are evolving.  Creative possibilities are springing up everywhere, anywhere — often in the most surprising places.  Thanks to new forms of communication (cell phones, internet) ideas and information spread remarkably fast.

The Occupy movement was perhaps the ultimate leaderless movement.  Did it fade away? It is no longer as visible. Movements are not institutions, they rise and decline with the energy of the people involved.  Yes, some people may have dropped out due to their frustration and resignation.  However, the energy of the Occupy movement has spread, people are engaged in other ways.

Movements and communities will probably always have some kind of self-organizing system to coordinate the efforts of many people toward shared goals.  It will likely include some modified flattened less hierarchical version of leaders and followers.  That may be one of the lessons learned from the Occupiers.  Perhaps we are not ready to organize without anyone engaging in leading.  Leaders will bubble up from the energy of the community from the combined gifts of the leaders and the shared commitments of the followers to support their leaders.

This is the essence of a culture where everyone leads…  we share leadership…  we take turns.  We follow and we lead.

Hope is rising.  Leaders are emerging and they are us, we are them.

We need your support.  We are creating a co-leader community.  You can make a difference.
Please share a piece of your story in the comments below.

More Wasted Possibilities – Mother Earth

“Managing the economy to maximize profit for the benefit of a financial oligarchy is…a recipe for economic, social, and environmental disaster.”  David Korten

We are eroding the Earth’s capacity to support human life.  About forty years ago, the arc of human progress bent towards unbridled capitalism (and neoliberalism).  Although leading scientists were already exposing the environmental damage of multi-national corporations, capitalism pushed back with a vengeance.  Since the 1980s we have seen increasing concentrations of wealth and power, and increasing denial of the impact of global capitalism on the Earth and on the viability of the human species on Earth.

The first time I came across the term “eco-egalitarian leader” was when I was reading, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, by William C. Conolly (2008, Duke University Press).  It describes an emerging egalitarian leadership culture capable of addressing our environmental threats.

Bill McKibben environmentalist author and founder of 350.org published an article, “Movements Without Leaders” (http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175737/) in which he outlined his belief that the environmental movement will succeed because of it’s lack of a clearly identifiable leader.

Certainly there are many high profile individuals involved in the global movement to address our collective environmental challenges:  Bill McKibben, David Korten, Naomi Klein, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Al Gore, Wangari Maathai.  However, the movement is currently a mass movement with cells and networks of people actively engaged in widely divergent ways.

“This sprawling campaign exemplifies the only kind of movement that will ever be able to stand up to the power of the energy giants, the richest industry the planet has ever known. In fact, any movement that hopes to head off future depredations of climate change will have to get much, much larger, incorporating among other obvious allies those in the human rights and social justice arenas.

The cause couldn’t be more compelling.  There’s never been a clearer threat to survival, or to justice, than the rapid rise in the planet’s temperature caused by and for the profit of a microscopic percentage of its citizens. Conversely, there can be no real answer to our climate woes that doesn’t address the insane inequalities and concentrations of power that are helping to drive us toward this disaster.”  Bill McKibben (article link above).

It is precisely because environmental justice is justice for all (all people, all living beings, and all of creation) that mass movements of co-leaders or eco-egalitarian leaders is the only way to address the challenges and create possibilities that will save the Earth.

We are the leaders we have been waiting for, and now is the time we must rally together for the sake of the Earth.

More about William Connolly:

More about Bill McKibben: