Editor’s note: As often as is possible I’ll be handing the keys to this newsletter over to paid contributors (pitch me! It’s $450 all-in). These special editions, which I am calling The After Party, will be available to all subscribers. If you’re a paid subscriber, you’ll also be getting another missive from me this week. - smi
This installment of The After Party is hosted and written by Lam Thuy Vo, a person whose creativity and committment to interdisciplinary excellence inspire me on the regular. You might find Lam developing climbing routes, or teaching a pottery class, or making clothes for her friends - and that’s outside of her full-time responsibilities as a reporter.
“Managers are either sh-t funnels or sh-t umbrellas,” someone told me a few years ago.
“Sh-t funnels take all the pressure they feel and funnel it down to you,” they said. “Umbrellas shield you from it and help you do your work.”
These blunt metaphors for the leaders we may encounter blew my mind. The leaders who angle to secure their position in a hierarchy or perhaps operate on the basis of their own unchecked insecurities, and the ones who prioritize the fulfillment and growth of the people who are led by them, I recognized both types.
I’m the last person to believe in neat binaries. Most leaders likely seesaw between these two polarities, with tendencies towards one. But the analogy provokes interesting questions around the competing ways of organizing a team or an institution.
There’s something extractive in the traditional leadership model that puts the person in charge on a pedestal they often did not earn. A worker’s skills — sometimes described as rare, sometimes seen as low-level and replaceable — are placed in the hands of this leader figure to be used to create profit, reputational gain for an organization, or both. It breeds homogeneity and encourages people to contort themselves to offer whatever skill is assigned the most dollar signs at any given point.
Contrary to that stands the idea of the nurturer, or to borrow a term coined by a writer Robert K Greenleaf, of the “servant leader” whose role is to listen, acknowledge difference, empathize and serve people to help them grow. Leadership is earned because their genuine care and goodwill inspire those who want to be led to choose this person as a leader.
I imagine the role of a servant leader as akin to a gardener: someone who provides soil, water and food for plants to thrive, listening in on their every need when weather and other factors affect their growth. In the end, everyone wins: the garden thrives and the gardener reaps the fruit of this labor.
Since the onset of the pandemic, I’ve been reporting on all kinds of community organizers who have been pushing for change and who have implemented a version of this kind of leadership. Black single mothers turned tenant organizers in Florida. Queer Latinx mutual aid providers in Brooklyn. Asian chefs who feed Chinese, Korean and Japanese elderly, concocting 250 meals from their Manhattan apartments.
The emergence of their organizations fascinated me for many reasons but one in particular stood out: it was really hard to pin their leadership down to a singular person. Instead, multiple people found ways to create conditions for people to thrive and partake in change in their own ways.
During a recent lunch outing in Jackson Heights, I discussed this notion of servant leadership with my friend and writer Kendra Pierre-Louis. She mentioned that when she wrote about the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015 it was largely framed as “leaderless.” In reality women of color were building and sustaining the movement behind the scenes, she said. “Leaderfull” was a word multiple organizers used in conversation with her, she said.
To some degree this perception of “leaderlessness” may be a function of the narratives we have been taught to believe. We are conditioned, whether through corporate org charts or reductive Hollywood stories, to adhere to the ethos of the singular leader. But these new movements have a different kind of leadership in which a small number of people set the conditions for every person in their group to donate their unique skills to a greater cause and thrive within those roles, growing in their own, particular ways.
In many ways it harks back to thoughts and ideas that have swirled around since the 1970s, now just spread at the light speed of online communications and memefied quote cards that push them through the ether on Instagram, Twitter and other social networks.
“Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist,” Audre Lorde wrote in an essay called The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House in 1979. “For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.”
Power may be the key word here. In an era of hyper-speed communications and in which the contours of a community stretch far beyond typical geographical confines, power has been redistributed to larger, purpose-driven groupings of people, who mobilize like swarms of bees and wield this power with undeniable might.
In their book New Power, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms describe a new way to understand power. If in the typical model, power “works like currency,” they write, and is “held by few […] jealously guarded […] closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven,” then new power “operates […] like a current,” is “participatory and peer-driven” and is most “forceful when it surges.”
In corporations and institutions across the country, there are clashes between an old model of leadership and a new kind. Some of this is the result of generational and class-related differences, sure. But we are also witnessing the conflict between an old and new way of understanding power.
And how might we think about this in a national context, where we are also witnessing a tension between the model of the authoritative decision maker and the nurturer helping a larger community thrive?
If the past 18 or so months have made us all question the very structures and systems within which we exist, perhaps it is time to run experiments that counter some of our automated beliefs.
Maybe it’s a recalibration of our goals and accepting that continuous growth for a brand, company or personality shouldn’t necessarily dictate our modus operandi. Perhaps it’s accepting that a project can be finite. Perhaps it’s the idea that failures can be glorious learning experiences that are all part of the process. Perhaps it is a listening-first approach that allows us to dive headfirst into the discomfort of not knowing exactly where we’re headed but that is driven by our trust in the process.
Perhaps it is all of these things.