The Kind of Leaders We (Don’t) Need

Leadership. We hear the word all the time in our society. You have to prove it on your college applications. “List all leadership positions you have held.” We value leaders. We write them down in our history books. We put their faces on coins.

As someone who is on the path toward ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister and someone who is at seminary, I hear the word “leadership” a lot. I hear it in my classes, when my professors remind us that we are here to be “religious leaders.” I hear it in interfaith organizing, when we want to build coalitions of religious leaders.

Leaders. Leadership.

I’ve been thinking about what that word means for us in a new millennium–and in my generation of Millennials.

I read the article “#BlackLivesMatter: Lessons from a Leader-ful Movement” the other day. Take a read. Trust me. It explores the leadership of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which is presenting a model of “high-impact, low ego leaders” who are “focused on a facilitative style of leadership, where sustainability and outcomes are more important than shine or visibility”–despite “the tendency for traditional media to seek a single charismatic leader to deliver the message.”

In other words, the movement is more important than just one face or voice. It’s about making change.

I thought about leadership the other day, too, when I attended the 4th Annual Student Multifaith Leadership Conference at Occidental College here in LA. The keynote speaker, Father James Heft, made a strong statement about leadership (among his many jokes, the best of which was, “A saint is just a dead sinner whose life has been carefully edited.”). He said that what the interfaith movement needs are “contemplatives in action.” At a later panel, another panelist said that what he sees as the theme of the Millennial generation is “spiritually grounded resistance.”

So I’ve been thinking about how these themes fit together. About the kind of leadership we want to foster and grow. About being leaders who care about the movement, not about our air time–and who ground ourselves in life-affirming spirituality that keeps us feeling a part of the interconnected web of existence.

Sometimes people say that we Millennials are the “gold star for everyone” generation. Yet I think that, behind the world of all those gold stars, we still received a subtle message that the leaders–the quarterback of the football team, the drum major of the band, the president of the student council, the valedictorian–were somehow the most valuable. The golden boys or girls with the best public speaking or charisma or persuasive power. And so we strove to be those kind of leaders, even when our causes were just.

This is a significant assumption to deconstruct for those of us in the interfaith movement, who are all religious leaders in some way (be it in a titled capacity or as an impassioned activist). It’s an assumption that I think needs to be examined more in theology programs like mine as well. These are questions we need to face. Do we want to be leaders, or to be a leader-ful movement? Do we want to root ourselves in both humility and justice? Do we want to be contemplatives in action, leading spiritual resistance that does not put us on pedestals but rather in solidarity with all those we work alongside?

For it is not just the ends that we achieve in our movement that matter. It is how we get there–how we lead there–how we live throughout it.

Image Source: Smnyst (Attribution via Wikimedia Commons).

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2 thoughts on “The Kind of Leaders We (Don’t) Need

  1. Abigail, thank you for this post — you have articulated questions and thoughts that have been rattling around just out of reach for a little while now, and you put them so much more succinctly and eloquently than I could have. I think we need leaders who bring others along with them, not give instructions or make demands from far ahead or high above.

    I also love the phrase “contemplatives in action” – we have to stay introspective and critical, intentional and discerning, especially if we expect others to come along with us, or we hope to be of use to those we join. This is true not just for movements like #BlackLivesMatter or with interfaith work, but really for a new generation of leaders in all areas of life. Thanks again.

  2. Abigail,
    I want to echo what Esther said. These are similar thoughts that I have about leadership. I have found that the current “leadership” of the Interfaith movement spend a lot of time in conferences, writing overtures about interfaith friendship, and shaking hands. But, the real work is done by thousands of unnamed community organizers, spiritual guides, and activists.

    How do we wrestle with the human need to gather around a person (like how MLK became the figurehead of the Civil Rights movement, although he had extensive networks of active supporters and a brilliant cohort of leaders at his side)? It’s not just the media that wants a charismatic leader – people, too, crave a person/persona to gather around. And, publishing books and being on the speaker circuit puts money in the bank – how do we balance “leading” a movement if we have to draw our incomes from something else?

    These might be among the mundane, but I think they are essential questions for those of us who want to support and engage in the struggle to create a more just society.

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