How to Develop Confident Activist Leadership – These 5 Sustainable Ways

“There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less” – Kurt Hahn (20th century experiential educational advocate.)

“Strong people don’t need strong leaders” – Ella Baker (civil rights movement builder and one of the greatest advocates of leadership development in history)

These words exemplify my visions for change. I believe that once someone recognizes their highest potential for themselves, and have the opportunity to express it, then it will facilitate confident and sustained movements.

One of my deepest passions stems from seeing a person’s confidence in themselves grow, which is why I believe understanding leadership development is crucial to making the changes we seek.


Defining leadership development


At its core, leadership development is about showing your commitment to others to build confidence in themselves and their expression of leadership.

Cesar Chavez noted that people learn leadership skills, they are not born with them. He said leaders develop their ability “on the picket line.” Thus, we have to provide opportunities for new leaders to hone their capabilities.

Here are some key characteristics of leadership development:

  • It’s a process, not an end result
  • It has numerous forms and definitions
  • Creates opportunities for others to succeed

We may not know exactly where folks will end up, but by believing in someone’s ability to engage with their leadership potential we foster new pathways for change.


How oppressive institutions limit expression of confident leadership


While I am fortunate to learn about myself everyday and to have dedicated people support me through my journey, there is a huge potential within individuals that our current societal systems suppress and/or fails to encourage.

Too often, people do not have the chance to experience their own potential. Because others may tell them “you won’t be able to do that;” however, once folks are able to make mistakes and learn, these same doubters get to see how well people can succeed once given the opportunity.

At the Applied Research Center’s Facing Race Conference last year, I had many discussions about how many of the U.S.’s institutions view leadership through the prism of U.S. white culture (i.e. the dominant values, acts, and ways of thinking stemming from Western Europe) and masculinity.

Some key assumptions of leadership, as valued by the oppressive institutions of white privilege and male privilege, manifest themselves as the following:

  • Avoiding conflict or anything that is seen as “confrontational”
  • Ability to ignore privilege
  • Listening more closely to those who are assertive/outspoken
  • Demanding “rational” behaviors and dismissing emotional ones
  • Instituting individual/hierarchical leadership over collective leadership
  • Those with privilege are still respected even if they operate outside of the “norms” listed above

I could’ve kept going with this list showing the ways dominant privileges influence our cultural constructions of leadership, but this is a blog post not an anthology.


Principles of just, and sustainable leadership development


While the interest in leadership development has seemed to skyrocket in the past few decades, the practice has been around much longer (e.g. W.E.B. DuBois’ analysis of Black leadership). Below are 5 key principles for sustainable personal growth, that do not focus on dominant narratives of leadership.

Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

1. Build collective leadership (i.e. many leaders with less hierarchy) – The Ella Baker quote from the beginning of this post (“Strong people don’t need strong leaders”) highlights this idea that we should rely on a committed changemaker group, not just a few individuals.

2. Recognize leadership in multiple forms – As noted earlier, oppressive narratives often try to decide who gets to be called a “leader,” so we need to show that we need many types of leaders not just a “monocrop.”

3. Develop intersectional leaders instead of identifying leaders – In Rinku Sen’s incredible organizing book Stir It Up, she describes that instead of just picking out folks who have had the opportunity to express some level of leadership, we need to spend significant time and energy to build activist capacity to fight the “isms” (e.g. sexism, ableism, colonialism).

4. Prepare for leadership rejuvenation – This principle, another great one from Rinku’s book, advocates for putting procedures in place to reduce “burnout” (e.g. rotating work schedule, extended breaks, incorporating mental/physical health into the group’s operations).

5. Expect and push for the best from people – Even if someone doesn’t think they can “be a leader” or achieve something, we must never forget to show our dedication and belief in an individual’s ability to be who they wish to be. Just identify in advance how someone wishes to be “stretched” in their abilities.


Being unwilling to settle for less


For me leadership development gives me energy to build my own confidence.

Although, leadership development can often be challenging and difficult at times, once someone realizes just how much they accomplish then their only course is to strive for their highest potential.

What ways have you seen to foster long-term leadership development? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

By Drew Serres

Drew Serres began working on Organizing Change to combine his dedication to showing impactful organizing practices with his passion for learning. Find out more about him at the About Page and see his updates on Twitter and Google+