Re-thinking Leadership

Do you have a teetering stack of books on your bedside table? Mine looks like this: On the bottom, playing a support function, are usually classic texts that I know I should read but never really get around to (apologies to George Eliot). On top of that are books purchased in a temporary bout of self-improvement (currently: Fit at Mid-Life: a Feminist Fitness Journey, written by two philosophers and which I recommend even though I am only half-way through – ha ha!). Then, a friend’s brilliant yet difficult memoir about her mother’s suicide that I really should finish (The Art of Misdiagnosis) and a collection of poetry by a local poet (A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes). Closer to the top is Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, the focus of a recently formed book-group of interesting people with whom I enjoy spending time; our conversations have thankfully been more reflective than the book itself. 

On top of the pile are books given to me in recent months by two different friends, who said some version of “you should read this” as they pressed the book into my hands. Both books are about leadership, and each one challenges our traditional understandings. 

Serving with Grace: Lay Leadership as a Spiritual Practice is written by Eric Walker Wikstrom, who was lead minister at the Unitarian church in Charlottesville, VA. The book is a short, easy read and offers many insights and suggestions despite its brevity. It encourages people to think about the various activities of the church as opportunities for individual and communal spiritual development. 

The chapter entitled “Mindful meetings” is especially helpful. Wikstrom writes: 

As a spiritual practice, meetings give us the opportunity to employ patience, humility, and faith: patience, as we wait for things to unfold rather than trying to push forward our agenda; humility, as we remind ourselves that we’re not here to look good or show off our insight; and faith, as we trust that we’re not the only people in the room with a good head on our shoulders and that things will move forward—maybe even more efficiently—if we’re not always the ones pushing it along. 

Eric Walker Wikstrom, Serving With Grace (Skinner House, 2010) 48.

Looking through a “spiritual lens,” even the finance committee can become a venue for the development of lay leadership and deepened spirituality, Wikstrom suggests.  

The second book that assumes a new paradigm for thinking about leadership is Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown, a self-described “social justice facilitator, healer, and doula” centered in Detroit. The book zips between ideas derived from the science fiction of Octavia Butler and examples of biomimicry to song lyrics by Beyoncé and Rihanna and personal conversations with other activists. I have never read anything like it although it reminds me of the non-linear, “axe-wielding” quality of Mary Daly’s later works.

AK Press, 2017

Brown’s perspective on leadership is informed by Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science (1992). Based on insights from quantum physics, biology, and chaos theory, Brown identifies the “key learnings” from Wheatley as:

  • Everything is about relationships, critical connections; 
  • Chaos is an essential process that we need to engage;
  • The sharing of information is fundamental for organizational success; and
  • Vision is an invisible field that binds us together, emerging from relationships and chaos and information (26-27). 

Emergent Strategy is wild stuff. I feel old at certain points while reading it, bewildered and also provoked. I’m not sure I am the target audience, but as I read it I think of many former students who are changing the world in ways that seem to exemplify the book’s spirit, and this gives me hope. 

{On the need for graduates who are adept at “emergent leadership,” see this piece from 2014 in the Washington Post.}

These bedside-table books were on my mind when I read “Stop Trying to Cultivate Student Leaders” in the Chronicle several weeks back. The author, Shampa Biswas, teaches politics at Whitman College. It was one of those pieces that prompts you to say aloud and to no one in particular “YES. EXACTLY” and then email it to a list of like-minded friends.

Biswas sardonically refers to the “Student-Leadership Industrial Complex” (or SLIC for short), the “sprawling collection” of leadership programs, workshops, conferences, awards, and scholarships, “administered by leadership-training experts, armed with leadership manuals, following leadership best practices.” They promise “quick and seductive roads to mastering the steps of success” including how to “dress sharply, speak confidently, move smoothly, learn to network, pick up entrepreneurial skills.” Many colleges and universities expend enormous resources on such programs. Promising students, usually from already advantaged backgrounds, are directed into such programs and encouraged to not only assume leadership roles but to pursue leadership “as a goal and career.” 

{For a related discussion see Tim Lacy’s “Vocational Image: Inner Identity and Outward Expression.}

In questioning these programs, their assumptions, and the ways in which they perpetuate certain structures and systems, Biswas articulates a beautiful defense of a traditional vision of the liberal arts:

These programs are diverting young people’s attention away from investing in the kind of time-intensive, rigorous, well-founded education that teaches them to read carefully, write compellingly, reason analytically, and think creatively. In fact, students from underprivileged backgrounds, for whom knowledge acquisition may well be the most important inheritance of higher education, are being especially ill served if such leadership training comes at the cost of a solid education. 

Shampa Biswas, “Stop Trying to Cultivate Student Leaders.”

She concludes the essay with three ideas for how we can advise promising students of all backgrounds who might feel lured into the “SLIC.” First, she advocates for reiterating the value of a good, well-rounded education, one that teaches students how to make a reasoned argument, unleashes their creative energies, challenges and perhaps humbles them.

Second: “Show them how to care about the world around them.” Encourage them to pay attention to “those who went unnoticed by SLIC, and who might offer insights they will never learn in SLIC.” 

Third, Biswas suggests that we talk to students about hubris and entitlement (when relevant). We need to encourage students to

struggle in solidarity with others… embrace horizontal relationships of comradeship rather than vertical relations of hierarchy. If they are going to use their privilege, teach them to use it to speak truth to power, rather than aspire to become the power. 

Shampa Biswas, “Stop Trying to Cultivate Student Leaders.”

This is just a sample of her sharp analysis – the entire essay is a quick read and worth your time. And for a pointed yet appreciative retort invoking the alternative model of “servant leader,” see James Wicks’ letter to the editor that directly responds to the piece by Biswas.

For those involved with identifying and cultivating potential leaders among our students, we would do well to pay attention to the shifting discourse around leadership and the new models that are being explored. As for dismantling the “Student-Leadership Industrial Complex,” if adrienne maree brown is right, “the pace and pathways” of change are “nonlinear and iterative” so we have to be patient, collaborative, and perhaps a little bit sly. Consider buying a copy of Emergent Strategy for your favorite student leader as a holiday or graduation gift, and then set-up a time to talk with them about it. We have a lot to learn. 

Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). Currently the Online Community Coordinator, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. 

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