By Liz Massey, January 2016 Issue.
In this issue, Echo is presenting its Leaders of the Year awards, which used to be known as the Man and Woman of the Year. This change in title is more than just semantics; specifically recognizing LGBTQ community members and allies for their leadership provides us with a platform for discussion about what successful use of that quality means and what it looks like for our movement.
More than two decades ago, my very first leadership experiences took place in LGBTQ organizations in the Kansas City area. I had shied away from leadership all the way through school, but once I was out of the closet after college, I jumped at the opportunity to be on the board of directors of a new community center.
While the effort to build a center was eventually successful, our particular little board struggled, falling prey to organizational infighting, suffering a lack of clarity about strategy and funding, and failing to attract a large number of followers interested in helping build the dream. After that experience, I went back to feeling like I was a “do my own thing” sort of person, rather than a leader.
But then, a few months later, I had a tarot reading done that declared my “personal card” was The Emperor – which is about as leadership-oriented a card as it gets! I was initially horrified, as the idea of the bossy “King” clashed with my self-image, but eventually I decided that if one card was causing me this much distress, I should probably explore what leadership meant to me.
In the years that followed, I exposed myself to a wide range of leadership books, and began observing the behavior of leaders (many of whom were LGBTQ) with a broad range of leadership styles.
What I’ve learned about leadership since that time has helped me rehabilitate my view of what a leader is (which was initially not very positive). Here’s a quick recap:
1. Leadership is primarily measured in terms of influence.
If no one is following you – fans, constituents, employees, interested onlookers – you’re not a leader yet.
2. Leadership involves accountability.
Certainly, leaders must ensure the nitty-gritty project management of an initiative happens, and be responsible for making decisions. But leaders are also accountable for holding onto the vision of an organization – that is, their job is to remember why their company, nonprofit, or volunteer group does what it does.
3. Introverts can make great leaders.
I am so glad I got past the notion that only bossy extroverts can lead. By that criterion, Abraham Lincoln and Mohandas Gandhi were lousy leaders. And research is challenging the notion that extroverts are “naturally” better leaders – recent studies have confirmed that while extroverted business managers may have an edge in situations where “command and control” leadership is necessary, introverts are far better at leading proactive, self-starting employees.
4. Today’s leaders must be flexible and creative.
Almost every sphere of human endeavor is marked now by continuous, disruptive change. Leadership today requires a willingness to experiment, iterate, and scrap things that don’t work any more. Whereas a rules-oriented leader might have been able to hold together a company or nonprofit a generation ago with his or her faithful adherence to “the old ways,” in today’s world, that group will be eaten for lunch, both financially and in terms of relevancy.
5. The leaders we follow reflect the society we are building.
I’ve NEVER been a fan of the “great man/woman” theory, which seems to imply that charismatic, visionary leadership is so necessary that we should excuse a leader’s rude, narcissistic and possibly sociopathic behavior. Every leader is human, and will have flaws and quirks; but strength, vision and empathy are not mutually exclusive qualities, and we should value leaders who can embody all those attributes.
It’s crucial that our community find constructive ways to support our current and emerging leaders. Our leaders need to be grounded in a range of hard (practical) and soft (emotional) skills, have a keen awareness of how privilege impacts marginalized populations in varying ways, know how to take good care of themselves to avoid burnout, and understand the importance of involving the community in important decisions – both to pull in fresh perspectives and to help “followers” feel a greater sense of participation and investment in organizational decisions.
That last point is especially important for the LGBTQ community, because in spite of the wonderful work of national-level organizations, such as Human Rights Campaign, the National LGBTQ Task Force, Lambda Legal, PFLAG, and many others, our initiatives often win or lose based on how well local leaders can create results.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader asserted that, “The function of leaders is to create more leaders, not more followers.” Our queer nation must be a nation of leaders, with each of us ready to play our part in making equality happen, in our own way, when the time comes.