Follow the Leader?
Updated: Jul 22
illustration by Karen Hallion @karenhallion.com
2020 was a year full of civil unrest, exhaustion, political and economic uncertainty, all compounded by the pressure of a seemingly unrelenting pandemic.
During this time of turmoil, it is no wonder why we as employees, people, a society have turned to those we trust to show us the way: our leaders. However, lately, the idea of “leader” has come into question. We have business leaders who continue to grow their own fortunes while their employees work in questionable conditions for minimum wages. We have politicians who incite hate, spread misinformation to the masses, and willingly abandon their duties as elected officials during a time of crisis.
It is through all of this that I have been thinking about the necessity of a good leader. I helped found an organization, UjimaNow, which focuses on fostering positive, inclusive cultures specifically in the workplace. “Ujima”, the third principle of Kwanza means, “collective work and responsibility,” is at the center of creating a positive workplace culture. But what is the foundation, the root, of culture? A solid leader. Leaders are supposed to be more than notoriety, a leader is supposed to be the one to make the tough calls, bear the weight of their people, and push their cultures to strive to be their best. It is important to note that one’s “best” does not mean “easy”, nevertheless, a leader is meant to inspire us to not always do what’s easy.
Has the concept of true and admirable leadership been lost? And if so, what can we do to regain it?
Growing up in a home where my mother pursued a doctorate focused on leadership, I was exposed to various leadership templates of historical figures often admired in the West. Figures such as Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall, Michelle Obama, Mahatma Gandhi, Ruth Bader Ginsberg - and countless others. Each one of these individuals did not do what was easy nor did they serve themselves first. In the face of challenge, they did what was necessary, what was for the good of the people, and ultimately, the culture. All of them either risked their reputation and/or lives to do so.
It has always been strange to me that the leaders of yesterday we so admire are not used as the blueprint(s) for the expectations we have for our leaders today. This needs to change. We often praise and admire “leaders” such as Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos for their business savviness and the fortunes they’ve built. But how have they done it? What positive influences on culture and society will their legacies leave behind? Facebook has made billions of dollars off of risking the privacy of its users and providing a platform that encouraged the spread of misinformation to increase their engagement numbers for their advertisers. Amazon generates billions of dollars in revenue monthly and yet their non-salaried employees are still fighting for fairer wages, better benefits, and more humane working conditions. We elect officials like Ted Cruz, who recently, left to go on vacation while his jurisdiction is in crisis during the aftermath of a very harsh winter storm. We elect officials such as Marjorie Taylor Greene who continue to spread misinformation, lies, and hateful rhetoric which finally led to her being stripped of her committee assignments. Her job is to serve her jurisdiction - the reason she should have been elected. Instead, she boasted via a tweet that she would just have “more free time”, and indeed, with that free time she raised over $300k...for what? To support more mistruths!
Sure, there are also various business, political, and social leaders that are the opposite examples of those I mentioned, however, I highlight those examples and others like them given the sheer amount (we are talking millions of people) who continue to admire and appoint them. These are individuals who are not valuing the right aspects of leadership and it vastly affects our culture.
To make it through the continued onslaught of the pandemic, mass exhaustion/fatigue, and civil unrest - we will need leaders who are willing to put people first, to put culture first, whether inside a classroom, home, boardroom, or civil building. It is the only way we as a society will make it through.
Syeeda Briddell, Co-Founder Ujima, and her team help companies invest in their Black and Brown employees and achieve strategic goals. She is the proud daughter of our anchor blogger, Dr. Jocelyn Briddell.