Thoughts on Leadership, Justice and Wellbeing

I have filled notebooks with my thoughts on leadership: What does leadership mean? What is my relationship to power? How do power and justice relate? What does leadership mean as a practice? What does it look like to step up, to hold space, to lead with intention and grace and accountability in a time that finally seems to be ready for different leadership styles.

I was listening the other day to an interview on the podcast Nerdette with Dame Steve Shirley who built an extraordinary company in 1962 that didn't exist before. Taking up her space in the software industry she founded her own business, Freelance Programmers, and hired a bunch of women from IBM. She even changed her first name from Stephanie to Steve in order to get the attention of potential clients (acknowledging that women are not taken as serious as businessMEN). The whole interview is beyond fascinating but something she said stroke me in particular. “I wanted a company that was suitable for me [and] that I would like to work in,” Shirley says. “And I knew there were lots of women who had also hit the glass ceiling and were completely and utterly ignored by the industry.” She continued to talk about the structure she built within the company and than she said something that I've been thinking a lot about: "I think of myself as a gardener, I can grow people."

I think this is a notion of leadership I haven't heard before. Usually leadership is described as having a strong vision and getting people to work towards one specific goal. We seem to forget that good leaders are also mentors who see potential and trust their teams to find new ways and hold a space for them.

I am tired of the connection between leadership and the notion of specialness, competition and exercising power through establishing oppressive structures. Adrienne Maree Brown writes in her fabulous book “Emergent Strategy” that funders have traditionally preferred the narrative of a rock star leader, and have invested in individuals more than in missions.[1] I think we need to expand our thinking around what success looks like and how to translate that into institutions. My thinking is shaped through my work in the art world and the sort of leadership I see and want to imagine there. Culture - in my understanding - can give us deep insights into how we form relationships, how we relate objects to one another, how we connect artists to a broader narrative, and ultimately, how we relate to the world. And what is leadership if not a relationship and role we take within a community?

I’m interested in the sort of leadership that establishes systems for a healthier workplace where growth is connected to wellbeing. Sustainable leadership in cultural institutions needs to give up the toxic belief that sacrification will eventually lead to success and aim for a healthier connection between money and creative work. It is essential to understand that leadership needs to be much more connected to a community and less about personal status.

Justice, Anger and Leadership

We live in complicated times where we look up to leaders, might wait for leaders to make decisions, and are eventually incredibly disappointed by these decisions. It seems that leadership became so connected to the quality of strength that we forgot that two other virtues are essential for a sustainable leadership: Justice and Temperance. Justice is connected to cause and effect. Right now, and throughout history, we see justice stepping up in the form of anger in movements like Metoo, the fight against Xenophobia, the fight of the LGBTQ-community for their rights, feminism, environmental justice, and many other important causes. Anger can be a powerful tool when used intentionally to bring about change.

Being heard and hearing of others can bring an empowering sense of unity. Anger has it’s time but it will burn you alive if there isn’t a time after anger where healing and new options can begin to take their form (that said, let me make clear that I’m not writing this with the intention to diminish anyone’s anger in the face of injustice). This world is loud and we often need to be louder to get a chance to be heard. And there are so many ways where privilege tells a story about who gets to express her anger. I can’t wait to read Rebecca Traister new book " Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger" (Simon & Schuster) exploring the social and historical power of women's anger. She’s been recently on the “Call your Girlfriend podcast” and you should absolutely listen to her episode.

Anger can be also intentionally used by people in leadership positions to manipulate others, spread fear and exercise power. There is a strange connection on how we assign credibility to leaders and the amount of possible threats they are confronting us with. The leader I’m envisioning adapted for our current times has to be capable to tamper anger, not necessarily to deny or suppress the anger of others, but to find strategies to moderate anger in opposition to extremism. Great leaders understand their legacy and give credit to those who contributed to their thinking and value those who are imagining new structures of being that create more space.

Justice is a enormous and heavy concept and there are many thinkers better suited to make deep conclusions about it than I am (I’m still at the stage of thought in progress). That said, I’m somewhat skeptic to connect the concept of justice to individual leaders, as Jenny Holzer noticed “The abuse of power comes as no surprise”. It’s a fine balance between justice and consequence, when punishment becomes about crashing others. We have seen that power in connection to justice has often transformed individuals into not being capable to reflect on their own mistakes, suddenly they become justice themselves and are blinded by their power. Any determination has to be capable to adjust to the circumstances. Stubbornness in the methods is a lack of imaginations for alternative paths. I believe that leadership comes with lots of compromises that don’t look always like revolutionary changes but these little changes, the adjustments within the structures we all live and work in, can add up and have an impact over time. Knowing what we fight against is important but knowing what we stand for will have an even bigger impact, as it reflects if our actions mirror our beliefs.

From Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy, p. 14.

From Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy, p. 14.

Wellbeing and leadership

I’m interested in the notion of leadership that doesn’t rely on obedience or that embraces dogmatic attitudes. An embodiment of leadership that we grant the space to make mistakes and to reflect with accountability. I’m thinking a lot about how we as a community hold space for leaders, in a time funding is involved in a lot of difficult decisions and leaders might measure the future of projects against the involvement of third parties. How can we not just call each other out but call each other up and grant leaders with space to grow into a position and get familiar with their leadership practice?

Here are some thoughts of Adrienne Maree Brown that I find connect eloquently community, leadership and privilege:

Task: We must become scholars of belonging.

Need: Separation weakens. It is the main way we are kept (and keep each other) in conditions of oppression.

Truth: Belonging doesn’t begin with other people accepting us. It begins with our acceptance of ourselves. Of the particular life and skin each of us was born into, and the work that that particular birth entails.

Mantra: Where we are born into privilege, we are charged with dismantling any myth of supremacy. Where we are born into struggle, we are charged with claiming our dignity, joy and liberation.

Possibility: From that deep place of belonging to ourselves, we can understand that we are inherently worthy of each other. Even when we make mistakes, harm each other, lose our way, we are worthy.

Practice: Learn to apologize. A proper apology is rooted in this worthiness – “I was at my worst. Even at my worst, I am worthy, so I will grow.”

Practice: Move towards spaces that value us, let ourselves belong to those communities that know they want us, know they need us, know we have worth, know we deserve more than transactional care.”

From: Adrienne Maree Brown, excerpt from Sublevel: Report

I am getting more familiar with leadership styles where ambition is rooted in wellbeing and not oppression. Coming back to the image of leadership that is connected to “growing people” that Dame Steve Shirley was talking about. It’s an image that talks about being willing to acknowledge that others take up space and to understand that people will transform over time if we are able to remain flexible to see their growth. And than there is the second part in her image of being a gardener: The understanding of interconnectedness, we form critical relationships with others that shape our environment.


Understanding leadership in relation to being a gardener resonates very much with my own belief that we go through seasons in our life and in business. There are cycles that every project or institution will go through, we do understand that pretty well and try to measure the growth or stagnation through different metrics (from visitor numbers in museums, to website traffic to sales etc.). While these measurements might keep us accountable to board members and funders they don’t necessarily tell anything about the impact, the increase of wellbeing or the sort of community that is forming around the long-term mission.

Leadership like a gardener takes into account that seasons do have an impact on the flowers or vegetables it wants to grow. How can leaders embrace that knowledge and translate it into their leadership practice? We all go through seasons that have an impact on how we approach work, may it be due to (mental) health, obligations to take care of others, mother-/fatherhood, grief or any other adaptation that needs our attention. While we admire leaders for their visionary thinking, the leadership that resonates with me is strongly rooted in the Now and takes human seasons into account. Balancing the institutional stability while holding space for the individuals within it costs energy. Leaders need strategies to cope with keeping their balance and wellbeing. How do we grant leaders with this necessary space to recover? How does vulnerability and leadership relate? How do we incorporate mercy and compassion into leadership?

I’m also thinking a lot about how activism and leadership connect and I’m aware that not everyone taking actions in favor of or against a cause wants to necessarily step up into leadership, despite caring deeply for the cause. A paragraph from “Emergent Strategy” referring to engagement for what we care for has actually described something that I really believe in “When we are engaged in acts of love, we humans are at our best and most resilient. [..] If love were the central practice of a new generation of organizers and spiritual leaders, it would have a massive impact on what was considered organizing. If the goal was to increase the love, rather than winning or dominating a constant opponent, I think we could actually imagine liberation from constant oppression.”[2].

Anger is a strong energy engine but it is not sustainable in the long-run. Most of us do have a sense of what wellbeing or even a pleasurable environment looks like. I’m still working on my thoughts but I think connecting leadership and wellbeing will transform outdated models and ask for new sustainable leadership practices. “Pleasure evokes change”.[3]

[1] Adrienne Maree Brown: Emergent Strategy, p. 101.
[2] Adrienne Maree Brown: Emergent Strategy, p. 9/10.
[3] Adrienne Maree Brown will publish a new book in 2019 on Pleasure Activism and I really can’t wait to read her thoughts on the subject.