What Real Leaders Do with Power
A lot of people think that leadership is about holding power. It's not. Leadership is achieved by creating equity for one's constituents, and equity is about sharing and shifting power. It's about redistributing executive decision-making, programmatic design, and general responsibility to those employees who are oppressed—either societally because of their identities or organizationally because of their level, or, more often, both—but who most certainly have voices, opinions, knowledge, and lived experiences worthy of attention. Sharing and shifting power can feel disconcerting to people who wear leadership titles: CEOs, Executive Directors, Board Members. That's because it ultimately requires the people in those seats to relinquish their power, their ability to veto or approve, and give sovereignty to their employees. Many CEOs and Executive Directors are afraid or don't want to do that. They want the prestige they believe they have earned, for their fancy title to mean something, and to ensure they take home the highest paycheck. If they don't have the authority, what then does their title signify? How can they justify their income? We've been using the wrong qualifiers for "leader" for a long time. Both the private and nonprofit sectors have subscribed to an image of a leader who demonstrates dominion and control. But those are characteristics of white supremacy and patriarchy. And when leaders root their approach in these twin-trauma-inducing systems, their companies and organizations are bound to perpetuate the same toxic dynamics we see in larger society. The same inequities we see in the education, housing, healthcare, and carceral systems mimic themselves in businesses and nonprofits, dooming their long-term success from the start. The leader we need to envision is one who likens a fruit-bearing tree. The essence of the leader is the tree trunk, steadfast and confident while its branches rise and outstretch to offer apples or oranges for the taking. The apples and the oranges are the executive decisions, the programmatic design, the general responsibilities. They are the ideas and the creativity that now belong to the people who have come to taste the fruit. And because the fruit is sweet, the employees stay. They sit under the tree, cool in its shade, and they eat. As the employees eat their fruit they drop the seeds in the soil. Those seeds grow into more trees and each employee experiences a transformation. They too, in turn, become steadfast and confident leaders, sturdy tree trunks bearing their own fruit for the taking. And just like that, the community is fed.
Image description: Jaya smiles amidst a herd of sheep at a sanctuary.