Born Leaders Don’t Exist

I draw a lot of inspiration for organizing from stories, including stories that aren’t about organizing. There is a Zen lesson that has long impacted me: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill them.” This shocking teaching is meant to illustrate that if we get too attached to our idea of what the Buddha is, we may miss the real thing when we experience it in unexpected places.

I think we do this sometimes with the way we talk about leadership, especially the idea of a “born leader.” I don’t believe that born leaders exist, and furthermore, when we refer to some people as born leaders we are discouraging and missing out on leadership from folks who could do amazing things if given the opportunity.

Often, the people who are called born leaders are powerful speakers. They have a narrative that holds your attention, a voice that draws you in, and an eloquent and deep analysis. They have charisma. But frequently, they are not interested in developing other leaders–it’s all about them. They act as lone wolves in a movement.

Real leadership is cultivated, learned and practiced. Of the most powerful community leaders I’ve had the chance to work with, not one fit the description of a born leader. Some had held leadership roles before but many had never “led” anybody. None walked into our organization off the street and immediately wowed everyone with their “born leaderness.” If any pattern existed, it was much more one of leaders emerging slowly through increased participation and deepening relationships. For example:

Shirley, a great-grandmother who had never organized or protested before, sat in the back of the room for a bunch of meetings, making skeptical comments. She went on to commit civil disobedience against the labor-law-breaking factory where she had worked, getting arrested, jailed, and appear on the front page of the local paper in handcuffs in the process and later, directly confronted the US Secretary of Labor in a face-to-face meeting on the uselessness of “worker protections” that have no staff to enforce them.

Vicente told us, “I won’t come to protests, but I‘ll paint for you.” He painted our office in beautiful, vibrant colors, quietly spending lots of time there. Many months later, he went on to take part in a national-level multi-day organizer training and led dozens of coworkers on a direct action at the home of his employer, the owner of a temporary employment agency who was systematically not paying her workers.

Ana came to our organization looking for assistance with filing a discrimination claim with the State Discrimination Commission. She lost the case and disappeared. More than a year later, she came back to take a leadership course with us and grew steadily in her involvement and boldness, from bursting in on legislators who refused to meet with us to leading national-level direct actions with hundreds of participants, and becoming our organization’s President.

I could go on and on.

The traditional markers of impressive leadership matter little to me when I’m working to build a community team. The fact that someone speaks pretty, or has fantastic political analysis, or is camera-ready, or has held positions of leadership before, doesn’t make them a leader. What I look for is the following:

  • Do they build real relationships with people?
  • Do people trust them? What do they do to build that trust/show that they are trustworthy?
  • Do they do what they say they will? (See above: trust)
  • Does injustice make them angry?
  • Are they unsatisfied with accepting the status quo?
  • Do they have a vision of a better world?
  • Are they a good listener? Do they connect what they hear to what they say?
  • Do they treat their community with love?
  • Do they create joy with their presence?

The next few blog posts will focus on grassroots leadership development and some specific tools to make it happen in our organizations. Email me (see the Contact page) if you have specific questions you’d like me to address.

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