Talking About Leadership


Prior to the start of Skepchickcon, the skeptics track at CONvergence, Skepchick hosted a workshop on effective activism, led by Desiree Schell and Maria Walters. If you get a chance to attend this workshop in another venue, do it. It’s the most productive couple hours on the topic you’re going to find. If you don’t have the chance to attend, at least read the manual (pdf) they put together on the topic. Then use it when you’re planning some kind of action.Before the workshop started, I had a chance to talk with Debbie Goddard, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at last year’s Skepchickcon. Debbie is the campus outreach coordinator for the Center for Inquiry and the director of African Americans for Humanism.

Debbie and I spoke about skeptical leadership, and it was a particularly interesting time to do so. Rebecca’s post on naming names in her talk at the CFI leadership conference had just come out. This was a conference that Debbie had organized and run. Also, earlier this year, I had expressed some criticism of CFI Michigan’s leadership for their promotion of an evolutionary psychology speaker and their reactions to my post and Bug Girl’s dissecting the speaker’s research.

Debbie and I had a good talk, and I’ve been meaning ever since to write up a few thoughts on leadership. Note that these are my thoughts, not Debbie’s, although I’m comfortable saying that Debbie and I agree on a few things:

  • Leadership is largely a set of skills that can be taught.
  • Due to the nature of skepticism and atheism, leaders in these movements may emerge from the ranks based on skills other than leadership. That’s natural and expected.
  • Skepticism and atheism, as broad movements, need to find a way to reliably instill these skills in their leaders to create stronger movements.
  • We need to provide support for leaders independent of the groups that they’re leading. That is to say both that pooling talent and knowledge is more effective and that it isn’t healthy for an activist organization’s leader to receive all their social support from within the organization.
  • We’re only in the beginning stages of treating leadership skills as important, but we’re already making good strides.
  • Moving this quickly, as with any kind of change, is going to produce some pain.

Now, speaking only for me, I think there are some lessons on leadership to take home from the events of the past few months. I will also be naming names here, but I should note that my intent is to provide concrete examples and to draw something good out of painful events, not to shame anyone. None of what I’m about to say is or should be transparently obvious to everyone. These are things we need to learn.

Why should you pay attention to me on the topic? Well, maybe you shouldn’t. My experience with successful leadership is mostly secondhand. However, I grew up with a mother who ran a nonprofit and eventually served in a number of public offices, including as mayor of her small town. I was constantly privy to these considerations as a teenager, and the topic has continued to be something the two of us discuss. In my professional career, I’ve worked very closely with management for over a decade, mostly crafting communications but also acting as a sounding board for all sorts of leadership decisions.

Probably just as importantly, I’ve failed miserably at leadership. It hasn’t happened because I don’t understand the principles and responsibilities (which is why I’ve been given the job more than once). Meetings I run accomplish their goals and end early. Discussions I moderate stay productively on topic. But anything more sustained than that? I fail because the requirements of leadership grate very hard on this particular slightly disabled introvert. I know what kinds of jobs I’m not suited to and why. And that brings me to the first lesson of leadership.

Who’s in Charge Here?

There’s a bit of folk wisdom that gets passed around that the last person you should want elected to political office is someone who wants the job. Being represented by Al Franken and Keith Ellison, I have to dismiss this as unworkably cynical, but there is a small grain of truth to be found in it nonetheless.

The advantages of leadership are generally improved status and a greater ability to push through your own agenda. Neither of these advantages should be indulged indiscriminately. Authority doesn’t make one inherently any more likely to be right, so it’s important to remain approachable and to encourage challenges to your ideas. Also, among atheists and skeptics in particular, an authoritarian leadership style is less likely to be desired or tolerated.

If you’re leading a healthy organization, you will constantly be dealing with people who want to improve it. You won’t be in a position to pull your group along in your wake, because your organization will be vigorous enough to push you in the direction its members already want to go. You’ll be able to steer and to make sure nothing goes off the rails, but the momentum won’t be yours. High status in this scenario simply means that you’re the person everyone comes to with their ideas.

This is a great position for an organization to be in, but it means that the perqs of leadership largely disappear. The downsides of leadership do not.

What Have You Done for Me Today?

As a leader, you help to set the goals and priorities of your organization. Unfortunately, you don’t really get credit for those. As the incident with CFI Michigan’s promotion of the evolutionary psychology event showed, you get the credit and blame for what actually happens at any given time, whatever your intent.

Comments from the leaders of CFI Michigan said that they wanted people to ask questions at events and to challenge speakers. However, neither the email notifying people of the event nor their calendar suggested people be prepared to ask questions or pointed them to the resources they would need to challenge the speaker on the controversial parts of the talk. They also said that they didn’t in any way endorse the speaker or the material, but at least one group leader put out a communication supporting the speaker in the days following my criticisms and Bug Girl’s.

No matter how much work CFI Michigan put into maintaining impartiality toward the events they promoted, no matter how often they told the members who showed up at their events that they should be challenging speakers in the Q&As, for this particular event, their website and their behavior didn’t support those goals. For all the work they do, they were still on the hook for what happened during this one event.

Hands Off

Before you rise to the level of leadership in your organization, you have the luxury of concentrating on the organization’s mission. You can, personally, get an awful lot done. In fact, this may be what propels you to leadership, where a cruel surprise awaits you: It’s time to say goodbye to that kind of productivity.

Once you become a leader, you have a lot more to pay attention to. Do these members or factions need someone to negotiate their differences? Does this member need some extra attention to contribute fully? Does someone need to produce and file paperwork? Does this meeting need to be kept on track? Do new members need to be recruited to fill various jobs? Does someone need to figure out where you’re going to meet while your normal venue is closed for renovations? Does someone need to research your group’s legal responsibilities in some new situation?

You may not have to do all of these personally, but as a leader, you’re responsible for making sure they happen. This leaves you less time to write or otherwise personally get your group’s message out, less time to build relationships for their own sake, less time to sit down and enjoy the purely social aspects of your group’s activities.

Instead, you get to make things easier for everyone else who is doing what used to take up all your time and motivate you to keep going. Delegation isn’t always fun, because it means giving up the place and activities you originally chose for yourself, but it’s critical to the success of your group.

Say Goodbye to Privacy

This isn’t entirely true, but it’s worth thinking about. When you gain disproportionate influence, everything you say and do becomes a little more important. For example, D. J. Grothe has a large number of friends in the skeptical community. He believes in his friends, and naturally, he wants to offer them his personal support. However, he is also the president of the JREF, which means that when he does something like comment on Lawrence Krauss’s defense of a convicted statutory rapist, people sit up and pay attention.

As he discovered in that particular circumstance, he no longer has the luxury of simply saying, “I’m sure my friend is a good guy.” When he comments on that or any other contentious issue, he–and by extension, the JREF–is seen to be taking a side, whatever his intention. His position of leadership meant that he had to bring himself up to speed on all the details of the situation and make a more formal, informed comment. To his credit, he did just that.

This is also the trap in which Stef McGraw found herself unenviably caught in her disagreement with Rebecca Watson. From the way she has responded, she expressed what was intended to be a personal opinion about Rebecca’s video. However, she did so on her organization’s blog. And even had she restricted her opinion to a personal blog, her position as Director of Activities for the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers means that official notice had to be taken of her position. When the number one reason women give for not continuing to attend atheist and skeptic meet-ups is that they’re treated as though they’re only there as potential dates, there is no option for the larger community to ignore her opinions on what women in the movement should consider normal and expected.

Expressing a personal opinion in public as an organization’s leader is a fraught proposition, no matter how much separation you attempt to maintain. This is one of the reasons we need to find better ways to provide social support for these leaders, venues in which they can air those first, half-formed opinions about current events and get feedback before they wade into the public fray.

You’re All Alone Up There, or You Should Be

Another reason we need to encourage leaders to exchange ideas and support each other behind the scenes is that groups of freethinkers shouldn’t ever be placed in the position of “My group/leaders, right or wrong.” We have some justifiable pride in our organizations and their leaders, but if that pride becomes tribalism, we’re undercutting our own mission.

There will be mistakes made by the leader of any group. Even if most of our leaders weren’t fairly new to leadership, this would be true. Similarly, there will be differences in groups’ priorities and missions that will result in disagreements between individuals at the leadership level. People will not always agree on how to work together.

This is understandable and inevitable. It can, and will, also generate frustration and misunderstandings. The ratio of reward to annoyance will sometimes become ridiculously tiny. A leader in that position needs a safe place to vent all those negative feelings.

That leader’s organization is the wrong place for that. Social media is often the wrong place for that. Why? Because as a leader, you’ve lost the ability to make public personal statements on official business. You are speaking as your group, and people will respond to that.

If someone disagreed with you, they will be seen as having disagreed with your group–and the people in it. If someone insulted you, they will be seen as having insulted your group–and the people in it. And if they didn’t do either of these things, because you misinterpreted what happened, they will still be seen as having done so because you have put your authority behind your interpretation. Then you will have, not two people who need to straighten things out, or simply decide whether joint goals are more important than bad feelings, but two groups of people who need to do that. That is a significantly larger proposition.

Leaders need confidants who are not invested in the leader’s organization, people who are not in a position to be led, preferably people who also have leadership experience. They also need to exercise discretion in what conflicts they treat as matters that concern their entire group.

Final Thoughts

This isn’t as coherent a whole as I’d intended when I decided to write about it, which is part of why it’s been a month between the conversation and this blog post. I expect I’ll be revisiting the topic as I dig into it further. I also hope to engage Debbie in further, more public discussion on leadership.

In the meantime, however, I’m interested in others’ thoughts on the matter. What leadership lessons are particularly important to broad, only loosely organized movements like the skeptics and atheists?

Comments

  1. says

    Here is what I learned from TAM from Desiree: Have goals and evaluate your efforts. When I was with Minnesota Atheists, it was "let's promote atheism!" with too much of an effort on "raising awareness" which can't be analyzed. That simple point made a lot of sense. Sure, you can raise awareness, but have goals which you can measure. I think I would have done better had I done that, and engaged membership to pay attention to the impact the organization had.

  2. says

    This is a great essay, and I enjoyed reading it. You talk about a lot of leadership issues that affect leaders in all fields. It's true that leaders need to manage the lead/manage/do triangle .. I'll add this: to be effective, pick no more than two.You talk about framing, without using that term directly. Setting the context through framing is an important part of being leaderful. It allows a leader to communicate more effectively. Although I disagree somewhat; with appropriate context, it is possible to make a personal statement without drawing yourself into a highly charged, politicized argument. But it is very difficult, and often dangerous. You highlighted the key, though – you can't make those statements from an organization's blog. That puts your words in the context of the organization, so they are no longer personal statements.I also liked that you addressed the maxim of " what got you here won't get you there." This is an important leadership lesson that is very difficult for new leaders to grasp. It is the most challenging obstacle for many. I talk about this all the time, in the context of "relative importance." (And yes, I do still mean to write that guest post for you sometime.)Most importantly, you mentioned (albeit briefly) not just being a leader, but an enleader – building up the next generation of an organization's leaders. The ultimate responsibility of any leader is to prepare his/her successor.Thanks for the post!

  3. says

    I agree, Bjorn. I suspect that also would have helped with the internal intergenerational strife. If you can show that the young people are accomplishing the organization's goals, it's a lot harder to not take them seriously. By the way, the manual I linked to is for the same workshop that was presented at TAM.JH, thanks for the feedback. You do understand how few people are going to get that you're using "enleaden" as deliberately coined jargon, though, I hope. :)

  4. Jodi says

    This was excellent. From the limited experience I have with leadership at work I agree with everything you've said.