We need to talk about leadership

We need to talk about leadership

Visionary collective leadership to build a world where everyone belongs

What is the quality of leadership we need to build a world where everyone belongs?

I’m specifically interested in that ineffable quality of visionary collective leadership: the rare capacity to inspire and transform a collective to whom you are not in direct relationship. I think here of social movements, especially those which transcend borders: the universal emerging from the particular (Occupy, the Arab Spring, #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, etc.).

It feels so important to me that we get this “right.” While there has been talk of a leadership crisis for decades, I’m particularly concerned with the contemporary manifestation that is undermining our movements for justice. In Moe Mitchell’s ground-breaking diagnosis last year he cited “anti-leadership attitudes” as a core impediment to the transformation we seek. We desperately need bold leaders capable of caring for the whole… what does that quality of leadership look like? How can we cultivate it?

Here’s where I’m coming out (TL;DR): Visionary leadership is the capacity to take responsibility for using power to care for the whole. It is the relational capacity to offer an embodied invitation and a unifying narrative, in accountability to the whole.

To exercise leadership is to offer a gift: a gift that seeks to unlock and channel the gifts of others. To offer that gift is to assume responsibility for the whole, and therefore to accept accountability to the whole.

“Leadership is connecting what was separated”

I love this definition from Marcella Bremer, channeling Otto Scharmer. This feels like a great starting point for leadership that builds belonging, which in my understanding is about restoring connection and returning to wholeness. This provides the prism through which I want to explore leadership today, and the central metaphor through which I understand this work: it’s about building bridges.

In sifting through the literature on leadership for a definition that resonates with how I understand it, I came across this from Kevin Kruse:

Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.

I think this definition offers a solid foundation for our inquiry, and it’s worth unpacking; I’m including here some parenthetical notes about how this definition lands with me and the direction I want to take it:

  • leadership is a process (not just what but how)
  • of influence (it’s about power)
  • it is relational (in service of a collective)
  • it is about inspiring others to do their best (unlocking gifts)
  • and it is in service of an outcome (pointing the way forward)

I will unpack each of these components in turn before offering four additional aspects that feel important to how I understand this quality of visionary leadership:

  • not leading followers, but inviting co-creators
  • leading as an embodied invitation
  • offering a collective narrative
  • in accountability to the whole

Admittedly, a definition of visionary leadership that includes nine components may be a little bold: too many ornaments on the tree, I fear. The point in enumerating them, for me, is to illuminate different domains of practice. I aspire to be the kind of leader who builds belonging, but I have so few models of what that looks like in practice that I often feel like I’m floundering in the dark. This is an effort to provide some light.

Visionary leadership is about process… and product

I struggled with this point for awhile, before finally arriving at this distinction: there is process leadership, and there is outcome leadership. They are different qualities, and each important in their own right; but the quality of visionary leadership I’m talking about requires both. [To be clear: there are many other types of leadership, all of which are vitally important; Alanna Irving offers a helpful overview here. For the purposes of today’s post, I’m focusing specifically on visionary leadership, as distinct from these other forms.]

Process leadership is goal agnostic; the goal is the process. This is facilitation, or mediation; Patricia Wilson defines it as a core attribute of the practice of Deep Democracy:

Process leaders create the container for building trust and shared understanding amid diversity and difference.

This work is necessary, but insufficient: we also need goal-oriented leadership. As Ericka Stallings recently put it:

Leadership is taking responsibility for getting things done.

This outcome focused definition to me is more akin to what I think of as management, or implementation. Also vitally important… but incomplete. Visionary leadership, as I understand it, must include both.

And: the means and ends must align. How we get to our goal is essential to getting there: we can’t strike the rock and hope to make it to the promised land.

Leadership is the right use of power

All definitions of leadership speak to influence: the ability to get people to do something. To me this is about wielding power. Cedar Barstow, who wrote a book on the “right use of power,” defines it like this:

Any use of power that does any or all of the following: prevents harm, reduces harm, repairs harm… to evolve relationships and promote sustainable well-being for all.

So that’s our baseline (power to a pro-social end, as distinct from power as domination). But the right use of power in visionary leadership I think requires four other components:

  1. It is about using your power as a leader to increase the total amount of power available. Power is not zero-sum: a core function of leadership is to generate new power, to unlock latent discretionary energy in individuals and the system. (I love Eric Liu’s work on the idea of power as abundant). This is the core work of organizing.
  2. It is about addressing how systems of oppression impact the existing power available to people. Oppressive systems harm both marginalized people by denying their intrinsic power, and dominant groups by granting them a toxic form of “power-over.” This is the core practice of what Change Elemental calls “deep equity”: working with privileged people to relinquish power-over, and supporting marginalized people to step into their personal power. Hahrie Han put it beautifully:

At the core of organizing is not just getting people to take action but instead it’s engaging people in a transformative process through which they develop their own leadership and their own capacity to make change.

  1. It is about channeling this unlocked power. Power is potential: nothing changes until that power is applied in service of something. This is where vision comes in, and direction (discussed below).
  2. It is about relinquishing your power. Ah, here’s the paradox: there comes a point where for the leader to continue to hold onto power can be a drag on the total power available in the system. Because once others have accessed their own power, they now need to influence the direction: they are no longer “followers” but co-creators… and the original “leader” needs to shift into a new role (not letting go of leadership, for which I think there is always a need, but for letting go of power as initially practiced). More on this below. I’ve been sitting with this line from Laszlo Bock, commenting on what it means to lead in the 21st century:

What’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.

Leadership is relational and collective

This is an obvious but under-emphasized point: to lead is to be in relationship to whomever you are purporting to lead. As the West Wing famously noted (I’m sad this video clip isn’t on YouTube, and HBO won’t let me upload it):

You know what you call a leader with no followers? Just a guy going for a walk.

Celine Schillinger goes so far as to describe leadership as a “collective capacity.” I take her point: all leadership is relational and shaped by the context we find ourselves in. And: the quality of leadership I’m focused on here is an individual capacity enacted in a collective context.

There are two extremes I’m reacting to here: one is the Western aggrandizement of the individual leader, the cult of personality that is the opposite of what I think is needed (see Musk, Elon). This approach to leadership centers the “I” of the leader (often in dangerously egocentric form), and the expression of that “I” through the organization they’ve founded… and either ignores or deprioritizes the needs of other people in the organization/world. But the other extreme is the often-lauded concept of servant leadership; the oppositional response the the apotheosis of the “I.” Where traditional American dominant culture leadership centers the “I,” servant leadership centers others, or the collective. Robert Greenleaf, who coined the term, explains:

The servant-leader puts the needs of others first.

The quality of relational leadership I’m seeking declines to accept this false binary. I don’t think we can be effective leaders if we aren’t in touch with our own needs and desires. Both because we will burn out (self-sacrifice is not sustainable), and because we are depriving the collective of our vision: we forget that “I” is part of “We.” Paradoxically, to not speak for our needs (servant leadership) is to undermine the collective. And of course we can’t be effective leaders if we are only in touch with our needs, without caring for others or the whole: that isn’t leadership, that’s narcissism.

I aspire to a form of leadership that is interdependent. It’s no surprise that our colonial language has words for selfish and selfless… but not self-full: the very idea of interdependence under systems of oppression is in a literal sense inconceivable. The quality of leadership I long for instead seeks to simultaneously meet the needs of everyone: what in Building Belonging we call I, We, World. In this understanding we don’t put anyone’s needs “first”; rather, we hold them all as equally important and not opposed. As nonviolent communication reminds us: needs are universal, and never in conflict.

Leadership is about unlocking gifts

This to me has always been the core of how I understand leadership. It’s related but different to the point around power: it’s not just supporting others into tapping into their power…. it’s about helping people identify and share their gifts. This to me is the subtle but important difference between “servant leadership” (which subjugates the self) and leadership that is of service: grounded in the I, connected to the We and the World. Rachel Naomi Remen has my favorite treatment of this distinction, explaining:

We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected… Serving makes us aware of our wholeness and its power. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life.

The key point here: we actually can’t be of authentic service (we can’t lead) if we aren’t deeply connected to ourselves… grounded in the “I.” Dominic Barter’s exquisite meditation on empathy really captures this idea for me (thanks to Miki Kashtan for introducing me to his work). The whole thing is worth a watch: so much wisdom and insight packed into a few short minutes. The definition of empathy I want to highlight here:

Lending my sense of them back to them… that helps them connect to themselves in a deeper way… That inner connection is within myself, and that inner connection allows me to engage with someone else without me being submissive to them or attempting to dominate them.


I would echo Dominic and go further: we need others to help us identify and share our gifts. I don’t think—especially as we are socialized into cultures of domination—that we can fully grasp our own gifts without them being refracted back to us through someone else’s lens. Indeed, it is this act of what Dominic calls empathy and Rachel calls service that I consider the foundational act of leadership. It is to offer the first gift: to give others the radical gift of being seen and celebrated. I love Robin Wall Kimmerer’s writing on the power of gift:

Leaders are the first to offer their gifts… leadership is rooted not in power and authority, but in service and wisdom… This is our work, to discover what we can give. Isn’t this the purpose of education, to learn the nature of your own gifts and how to use them for good in the world?

Yes. Building on my last post: it is to make others feel like they belong. It is that felt sense of belonging (which includes safety) that allows people to unfurl, to blossom, to acknowledge to themselves and share with others their gifts. Thinking about this post I was pleased last week when picking up my kids from elementary school to see this poster in the cafeteria:

Yes. And it is a fundamental task of leadership to help people identify their unique gift and contribution.

Leadership points the direction…

Unlocking gifts is necessary but insufficient. To unlock gifts is the work of an educator. A leader goes a step farther, and channels those gifts in service of the whole. It is this aspect that distinguishes visionary leadership from process or facilitative leadership.

But: to lead in a direction is not to direct; there is a quality in visionary leadership that is distinct from the “goal leadership” of traditional management structures. I like this nuance from Simon Sinek:

I also like the implication here: it’s not about a destination (a defined outcome), it’s about a direction. There is something important about the ability to chart a course through complexity, to navigate uncertainty… a quality that some have called “emergent leadership.” This is the “visionary” part of visionary leadership: it is seeing a path that others do not yet see. In my last post focused on visionary leadership, I talked about visionary leaders as “human signposts” (following Vincent Harding): illuminating the path forward without necessarily defining where it ultimately leads.

There’s something important here about humility: the kind of groundedness that comes from embodied presence and clarity of vision… paired with the recognition that of course the “leaders” doesn’t have all the answers. Adam Grant calls this “confident humility.

…and invites others to shape the path (co-creators, not followers)

We’re now expanding the definition of leadership that we started with. I’ve unpacked and added nuance to the five elements Kevin Kruse named, and now want to introduce four other ideas to complete my inquiry into the qualities of visionary leadership that build belonging. The first concept I want to offer here is the invitation to co-creation: it is the piece I struggle with the most.

True visionary leaders recognize that leadership is not about seeking followers, but about inviting others to share and shape the vision… and the direction. The goal is to build a movement, not an empire (a line I first heard from john a. powell). Visionary leaders may point us in the right direction, but ultimately we must walk the path. We cannot stay in the follower role. As Gloria Anzaldúa reminds us: “we make the bridge by walking.”

This was the struggle I took up in my last post wrestling with visionary leadership: it’s that perennial tension between holding on (right use of power as leader to catalyze collective action: illuminating the path) and letting go (relinquishing that power to relax into co-holding and co-creating: joining others in walking that path, and together creating the bridge). Let go too soon, and no one sees the path, or feels emboldened to commence the journey into the unknown. Hold on too long, and people never develop the capacity to build the bridge and shape where it goes. And of course, the visionary leader cannot alone determine the destination; in this I differ from the Source work that Tom Nixon has been synthesizing, building on Peter Koenig (though I find it insightful!)

I recently came across a couple ideas that feel like they get at the quality I’m seeking here. I haven’t found a name for it, which is part of what makes it so hard to describe: it’s not quite co-visioning, but it’s something like that. adrienne maree brown recently explained:

There is a difference between inviting you to join my imagination, and sharing your own imagination to see where we might meet.

Yes. Richard Rohr expressed a similar sentiment in sharing his vision for the world, and for building transformative movements. I love this distinction between followers and fellow travelers:

Not people who love me, but people who love what I love.

I’ve had the experience a couple times now where the audacity of my vision is not only welcomed but reciprocated by fellow bridge-builders… and it’s nothing short of delightful. Where I can offer the fullest expression of my gifts, and experience the power of others offering theirs. This is Norma Wong’s invitation in action:

How do we stay in relationship with each other’s gifts?

To do so well is an artform (work in progress for me!), and simultaneously incredibly difficult and incredibly liberating. This is what I think Miki Kashtan was getting at when she observed:

The deepest form of human wisdom is mutual influencing.

Visionary leaders tell a good story

The second thing I want to add to Kruse’s definition is the importance of telling a good story. Jay Van Bavel names this explicitly:

One of the most important roles of leaders is creating a narrative.

Yes: humans learn through story; we make sense of the world through narratives. Jacqui Lewis cites Howard Gardner’s foundational work, explaining:

Good leaders tell compelling stories that change the stories in the minds of followers.

Here Lewis conceives of storytelling as an act of transformation: it is the invitation into a new worldview, a new way of making sense of the world and our role in it.

I’ve come to believe that there are three components to an effective narrative, which guide my work in Building Belonging. First, it must aid with sensemaking: it must help the listener/audience understand the world as it is AND their role in it. Second, it must include an invitation to imagination: to temporarily cast off the shackles of the status quo to situate ourselves in a different and better future. It is to remind them (and ourselves!) of Paulo Coelho’s radical truth:

People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.

Third, it must offer a path from here to there: a bridge from painful present to delightful future. Writing on my personal blog way back in 2012 in an extended reflection on moral leadership, I said this:

A successful leader builds a narrative both around what is wrong (problem definition) and a path to a solution.

To build a narrative is to build a world: it invites people into a different understanding of reality. And most importantly: it invites them into agency around creating that new world and reality. I like this line from former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty:

Building belief is about moving people to embrace an alternate reality for themselves and others, and then to willingly participate in creating it. It’s the first major step if you want people to change, because they have to understand and believe in the change. (emphasis in original)

Leadership embodies the invitation

The third thing I want to add to Kruse’s definition combines two ideas. The first is to conceive of leadership as an act of invitation: if we are serious about building a world without coercion, we must practice it from the beginning… by inviting people into choice. I love Richard Bartlett’s simple offering here:

Leadership is the capacity to make a compelling invitation.

This to me is the central capacity of generating new power in the system, of what I think of as positive-sum leadership. Alanna Irving, a collaborator with Richard in the Enspiral project that has birthed so many lessons on emergent leadership, explains:

Invitations to responsibility can create space for others to achieve.

Second, that invitation must be embodied. This is so often what separates good leaders from great leaders, and remains a source of deep aspiration for me personally. I understand the need intellectually to embody the invitation. But as always, my cognitive understanding is far faster than my body’s capacity to integrate and embody… sigh, work in progress. Reviewing Howard Gardner’s work, Warren Bennis notes that one of the four distinctive qualities of leadership is:

A relationship between the stories leaders tell and the traits they embody.

Right. Humans have a deep and visceral ability to attune to body language and detect incongruence. This is why we are so drawn to magnetic figures like Barack Obama, whose public narrative was so powerfully embodied in his own story and body. This is the art of embodied leadership, and thankfully we’re slowly waking up to how fundamental this is to the entire enterprise. Places like the Strozzi Institute or generative somatics, and new offerings like Prentis Hemphill’s Embodiment Institute are seeking to meet this emerging demand.

To exercise leadership is to be accountable

One final idea here before I close. This to me is the natural companion to the notion that leadership is collective: to act on behalf of the whole is to be accountable to that whole. So often in dominant culture renderings of leadership there is no accountability, or if there is it only flows from those on the bottom to those on the top: did you meet your deliverables, did you do the thing I asked (or told!) you to do. To me leadership properly understood is mutual and accountable: the leader invites from a place of noncoercion, and in accepting responsibility accepts accountability.

This is partly why leadership is terrifying for so many: in our punitive carceral culture, we don’t have practice with accountability inside of interdependence. I loved this whole interview with Nwamaka Agbo, but this line in particular continues to resonate:

We don’t know what it means to lead, until we have to make difficult decisions and take accountability and responsibility for the consequences of those decisions.

Here’s how I see the flow: first, to have a gift is to have responsibility to offer that gift. As Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us:

Duties and gifts are two sides of the same coin… A gift is also a responsibility.

Second, because all gifts properly understood are in service of the whole, to offer that gift is to take responsibility for the whole. Miki Kashtan sees this as the defining characteristic of leadership:

The willingness to take responsibility for and care for the whole in interdependent relationship with others.

Third, to take responsibility is to invite accountability: in serving the whole, we become accountable to the whole. Peter Block calls this the foundation of accountability, explaining:

Accountability is the willingness to care for the whole.

Laureen Golden helped inspired this reflection in me with a recent post, where she offers this definition:

Leadership is a quality of presence that enables us to be responsible and response-able; it’s a capacity to connect with and be guided by the animating force of Life. (emphasis in original)

This is subtle stuff: we are accountable both to the We (the collective to whom we are offering our gift of leadership), and to the World… in service of life itself. Ideally these are integrated and the same thing… but of course we humans have our own traumas, shadows, projections. So we must learn to discern between the invitation to appropriate accountability (in touch with source, attentive to impact) and the faux accountability that we rightly critique in “cancel culture.”

Brian Stout is a systems convener, network weaver, and initiator of the Building Belonging collaborative. His background is in international conflict mediation, serving as a diplomat with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington and overseas. He also worked in philanthropy with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, before leaving in early 2016 to organize in response to the global rise of authoritarianism and far-right nationalism. He recently returned to his hometown in rural southern Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two children.

originally published at building belonging

featured art by Paul AkiikiWe Belong Together

Network Weaver is dedicated to offering free content to all – in support of equity, justice and transformation for all.

We appreciate your support!

donate in the box above or click here