October 27, 2018

Action Letters, Leadership

025 Getting the Leaders We Deserve

Call it sour grapes, call it whatever you want: I have come to loathe that quote: “We get the leaders we deserve”. A simple google search shows us how meaningless this phrase has become. (and that we really have no idea who said it)

And yet, as Ben encourages me to explore the idea of extreme ownership, I can’t turn away from asking myself. What was my/our part in how we got here?

There are plenty of pieces like Crooked Media’s Wilderness Podcast that are trying to answer this very question. And they’ve all felt like they are missing something. We are struggling to make the invisible visible. Their answers never feel sufficient; I keep searching.

Then, I heard Anand Giridharadas’ interview with Ezra Klein on the elite charade of changing the world.

Anand describes 2016 as a mess of 18 system failures, that cannot be isolated or untangled from each other. Within it he sees a consistent pattern of “progressive elites” undermining their stated values and beliefs for economic, social, or egotistical gains. He describes how many Democratic leaders truly place the maintenance of class hierarchy as their ultimate goal.

This isn’t news to most folks, especially Bernie Sanders. It’s Anand’s stirring look behind the curtain of how the system works that hits me. Anand describes the path of liberal arts college students into jobs like McKinsey or Deloitte, who are then spit out to run our foundations and largest non-profits and political organizations – with completely messed up worldviews and strategies. He poses questions like: why would the largest banks on Wall Street be featured speakers at conferences on eradicating poverty?

I was one of those kids. I remember standing in the library of my alma mater in the winter of my senior year: a little disheveled, a little scared and trying to decide between signing up for a McKinsey job interview or becoming an English teacher in France for a year for sub-minimum wage. We know which one I chose….

Anand describes how distorted the strategies of non-profits and social enterprises have become: leaders try to apply a McKinsey logic model or a Deloitte flow chart to complex situations they were never intended to address. These models and charts aren’t bad in and of themselves. In many instances they’ve done good. Now, they are being applied in completely destructive ways.

Many of our public institutions are rotting from the inside out as our moral compass, our strategies, and our values are shaped by a broken economic system and led by people committed to upholding that system. In many ways, I am complicit in that system, and I need to keep exploring what I can do about it. One election, five organizational equity projects, ten new people of color leaders are not going to right this ship.

That’s why I so loved my conversation with Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Director of Building Movement Project. Sean explodes the “pipeline” metaphor of leadership and talks about what it will really take to get the leaders we deserve throughout the non-profit sector.

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