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A Look Back: “A Community Organizer’s Definition Of Leadership – How Can It Be Applied To Education?”

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In February, this blog will be celebrating its ten-year anniversary! Leading up to it, I’m re-starting a series I tried to do in the past called “A Look Back.” Each week, I’ll be re-posting a few of my favorite posts from the past ten years.

You might also be interested in:

 A Look Back: Best Posts From 2007 To 2009 

 A Look Back: 2010’s Best Posts From This Blog

A Look Back: 2011’s Best Posts From This Blog

A Look Back: 2012’s Best Posts From This Blog

A Look Back: 2013’s Best Posts From This Blog

A Look Back: 2014’s Best Posts From This Blog

A Look Back: 2015’s Best Posts From This Blog

This post was originally published in 2016:

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See Part Two here.

I’ve written, spoke, and shared a lot about teacher leadership (see The Best Posts, Articles & Videos On “Teacher Leadership”).

Over the years, in my discussion of that topic, I’ve alluded to how I think about leadership through the eyes of my nineteen-year prior career as a community organizer but, perhaps, not in great detail.

Today, I saw a New Yorker article about what passes as the concept of leadership today, Shut Up and Sit Down Why the leadership industry rules.

It prompted me to dust-off my old Masters Thesis on leadership written long ago, which discussed how we organizers for the Industrial Areas Foundation thought about key qualities of leaders, and then looked at a key social change figures from throughout history to see if and how they exhibited those characteristics.

I thought readers might, or might not, find the first chapter of that thesis interesting and, if so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how it can be applied to education.

I’m publishing it in two posts (with minor edits from the original), with Part Two appearing next week (that is, it will appear unless I get reader feedback telling me that no one is interested 🙂 )….

Chapter 1

Leadership Qualities

What is Leadership?

When I led workshops on leadership for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), I often began by asking people what is the “bill of goods” that our dominant culture tries to sell us about leadership and leaders. I ask them to think about what is talked about in the media about political campaigns, rumors of who may run for office and why, and even when they think about people being considered for official leadership positions in their own organizations or congregations. What are the qualities the dominant culture promotes regarding leadership?

Typically, the list people say includes someone who speaks well, is good looking, has degrees, official titles, positions or inheritances (e.g., Cuomo, Kennedy), is a celebrity, or who are workers or volunteers who take responsibility.

There is nothing wrong with these qualities, but in the eyes of community organizing they have nothing to do with the core of leadership—whether someone has followers and can produce these followers. Sometimes you can have the qualities listed above and produce followers, but often you can have these qualities and not have anyone following you.

If these are not the qualities of leadership, then what are they?

Anger

We would say that the most important quality of leadership is anger—good leaders have lots of anger. The word “anger” comes from the old Norse word that means “grief.” Having anger then does not mean having a temper or feeling hate. When we grieve we are feeling a sense of loss. This loss could be for something that was but is no longer, such as a job, a safe neighborhood, a loved one. Or, this loss could be for something that could be but is not—a child who is stuck going to a bad school and therefore will not be able to get a good job, an immigrant who is unable to become legalized.

Anger is connected to this sense of loss. Anger can turn into hate and violence. On the opposite end it can turn into depression and apathy. Ivan Illich says that this kind of depression is connected to a feeling of powerlessness, and that people who feel powerless either kill or die.

In organizing, we are looking for leaders who can balance the two and have the ability to turn “hot” anger into what we call “cold” anger and into a positive force. I first met Carolina Juarez (not her real name), a leader in our local broad-based community organization, when she was very angry about the City Council not approving a program to assist low-income people to purchase their own homes. She told me she was going to go to the next Council meeting and, in her words, “give them a piece of my mind.” I questioned whether that was going to result in anything other than her possibly feeling a little better, and suggested that a community organizing campaign might be more effective. She then helped organize hundreds of people in a six-month campaign, culminating in four hundred people attending a City Council meeting where the Council did indeed approve the homebuyers program. This story illustrates the difference between the two angers.

Memory

In order to grieve for something, you have to have a good memory. The Latin root of the word memory actually means to mourn sorrowfully—to remember your loss. But if we get stuck in memory we can get stuck living in the past. Examples of what results from being stuck in the past include the Nazis and their obsession with the Aryan race and the Ku Klux Klan and their focus on how things were before the Civil War.

Vision

A part of being a good leader is balancing a good memory with having a vision. A leader has to be able to imagine what might be, to transcend previous experiences, to be able to see possibilities outside of what is. The Bible tells the story of a group of men who brought a disabled family member to see Jesus to be healed, but the line into the house to see Jesus was far too long and their was no way they were going to be able to see him. Instead of just giving up, they found a hole in the roof and lowered the disabled man down to be healed. Another story that illustrates this point is the one about the man who was walking down the street and saw a bricklayer beginning work. The man asked the bricklayer what he was doing, and the worker replied, “I’m laying bricks.” The man walked down a few more feet and asked another bricklayer what he was doing. That worker replied, “I am building a wall.” The man walked a few more feet and asked the same question of another worker. He replied, “I’m building a cathedral.”

It is important for a leader to have both—memory and vision—in balance. Nelson Mandala had great reason to be bitter and hateful about the past, but he knew operating out of that hatred would not solve anything. He had a vision for a different type of society. He created the “Truth Commission” where the perpetrators of apartheid would receive amnesty in exchange for a truthful admission of their acts of oppression and an apology. Martin Luther King, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, showed both qualities—memory and vision.

If a person only has vision and no memory, though, they can live in a fantasy. Visionary activists tend to be stereotyped as not grounded and just living “in the world as it should be.” Leaders need to keep the two in tension and in balance. An example of the difficulties that can occur when someone just has vision is when a pastor comes into a new church and immediately begins to change everything. The pastor meets great resistance because he or she has no connection to the institutional memory and has no relationships.

Humor (or, at least, a very refined sense of irony or sarcasm)

Good leaders must have additional qualities. Leaders need to have humor and irreverence in order to balance their anger. There is not a whole of fun in many of the institutions in which we organize, particularly religious congregations and labor unions. In organizing, leaders have to have fun and play. One organizing campaign in which I worked was a push for city subsidies for childcare. Hundreds of us brought baby rattles to the City Council meeting where our proposal was discussed, which led to a headline in the following days newspaper that say, “Council Rattled by Community Group.” Another time several years ago when then California Secretary of State Bill Jones was intimidating Latinos who were trying to vote, we presented him with the “Bull Connor Award” for doing the most to reduce ethnic minority voters since Bull Connor. The award had a huge picture of a Birmingham police officer and his dog attacking an African-American trying to vote in 1963.

Irreverence is essential, but not clownish behavior, such as that frequently exhibited by former wrestler and past Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. The opposite of irreverence is self-righteousness, and there are numerous examples of failed leaders who had more than their fair share of that quality (e.g., Presidents Nixon and Carter, Ken Starr).

What do you think so far?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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