Dare Not to Lead
Last Christmas, my mom gave me a copy of Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. No shade to Brené, I like her, but I still haven’t read it. A quick Google search tells me she wants us to think about bravery, not the traditional trappings of power, when it comes to leadership.
What I’m thinking about is, for some of us, the bravest thing we can do is not to lead at all.
I was born to be a leader. The daughter of a feminist free-thinker and a physicist-turned-CEO, I was promised from an early age that I was brilliant, that I was strong, that I could do or be anything — not to mention, my family had the money and privilege to back that promise up. I never once questioned if my voice had merit, if I deserved to be heard. Those stories you hear of young girls conditioned to be meek and acquiescent? Unfathomable.
Perhaps as a result, I’ve always believed I would change the world. I got interested in politics at the age of seven, started my political science degree at seventeen, and worked my way up the academic ladder through two universities that combined have produced eighty-seven heads of state and over a hundred Nobel laureates. But instead of catapulting me to the top, my young adulthood inspired me to dig to the bottom: to the roots of the unjust and unsustainable systems I see poisoning the world around me. Rather than leadership, I started thinking about democratization, decolonization, cultivating systems of equitable power and shared ownership.
Yet even within the world of anti-hierarchical social movements, I still imagined myself a would-be leader. I was always pushing myself to find an ultimate solution, some grandiose plan or strategy that would send global capitalism crumbling and just fix everything. Like a San Francisco tech bro, I was convinced my genius could disrupt and revolutionize — I just had to think up the right ideas and get everyone to follow them. That was my destiny, after all. I was born to be a leader.
Now, on the edge of turning twenty-seven, I’m forsaking leadership altogether.
I had one of those paradigm shift moments last month when a friend told me, “I don’t trust white people’s ideas.” It was an off-hand comment, said with that smile-grimace typically used when you know something is uncomfortable to hear.
We were talking — as usual — about how to change the world. Maybe it was some plan or project more specific than that, maybe we were speaking generally, but either way, her words ring true: we have all been led by the ideas, voices and desires of white people for way too damn long. The solutions we need to this climate-crisis-fascism-extreme-inequality mess are not going to come from continuing to elevate the people and ideas that got us here.
Now — I don’t think identity is everything when it comes to social change ideas (I’ll take Bernie over Kamala any day). But I do believe that the lived experience of oppression is critical to undoing it, and the sanctity and power of experiential knowledge should make us all reevaluate whom we view as our leaders through this moment of global transition.
As a rule of thumb, I think those who are most likely to become leaders are least equipped to lead. Theirs are usually the lives shaped by the privilege and power that make grandiose leadership a realistic goal. Theirs are often the minds driven by Ego, by domination, by a belief in scarcity and the need to compete for it. They’ve risen to the top because they can play the game to their advantage.
But the problem is the game. The problem is hierarchy, the power it instills in the few, and the violence and oppression it creates for the many. The problem is a system built by and for Ego, by and for fear, by and for competition.
We know Ego doesn’t transcend itself. Equality doesn’t come from the top. They come when the force that held the reins no longer has control.
Far from making me feel shunned or uncomfortable, my friend’s distrust of white people’s ideas left me feeling liberated. It was the spark that burned down a little Egoic fort deep inside my psyche, spun back the wheel of conditioned privilege and cast everything in a new light. Of course I am not the leader of this movement. I don’t feel disempowered, I feel free — free not to figure it out, not to bear the crushing weight of impossible leadership, and instead, to approach the future with humility, curiosity, and service.
I don’t have to solve it all. I don’t have to lead. I shouldn’t lead. It won’t be the movement I want to lead if I’m leading it.
I don’t believe some shiny, new, disruptive idea will bring us the solutions we need to survive this crisis and transform our world. I think, by and large, those solutions already exist. From transformative justice to traditional forest management, from communal self-governance to watershed restoration, the ideas we need have been honed all around, by those who’ve had to learn them most. They don’t look like the kinds of innovative solutions we read headlines about and invest in, and neither do their creators. Yes, ideas can always be adapted and improved, but the innovations that will carry us through climate change won’t be found in a new startup; they were here long before we were, or forged in fire on the front lines.
To those of us who have not lived on the front lines — I invite us to step back and stand behind. To pass the mic, do it more than we think we have to. To quiet our voices more, not assume they need to be heard in every conversation. We the privileged and powerful, the would-be leaders, we do not need to lead the world through this. We need to listen to those who have been creating solutions on the margins of leadership all our lives. We need to listen, and learn, and follow.
Our sinister systems of hierarchy and control, of oppression and violence — these are systems grounded in fear. Control and fear are inseparable. If you rise high by treading on the backs of others, your position is forever tenuous. It needs defense from those who could topple you, and they are to be feared.
To move beyond hierarchy and control, oppression and violence, we can only move towards trust. We trust each other’s knowledge and experience, each other’s autonomy and decisions, and come to our communities eager to learn and reflect. We learn from each other, and learn most from those we’ve silenced the longest.
Building a truly equitable world takes enormous trust — not only in the ideas and actions of others, but in the very process of democratizing power. We learn to trust that the best path forward comes not from following the brightest-shining star, but from navigating with the combined wisdom of a galaxy. We stop listening to the voices who’ve screamed loudest for centuries, and hear what they keep drowning out. To reach equilibrium, we actively lean in the opposite direction.
Am I advocating that we have no leaders, or that we only have leaders who have long been systemically marginalized? My answer is Yes. My answer is, I don’t know. I don’t have to figure that out. Don’t ask me — I’m not in charge here.
Far from thinking I could have all the answers, I’ve begun to deeply understand how much there is that I don’t know. How much there is I’ll never know, that I don’t even need to know. Not all knowledge must live inside me for me to trust in it. I don’t need to be in control to be of service. Taking direction from another’s wisdom does not mean sacrificing my autonomy; it means using my autonomy in choosing to listen, to be taught, to serve.
Me, I’m done trailblazing. My world is so sick with blazed trails, I think it’s time I let some wilderness grow back in. I’m following the paths I did not carve out, that could never have been made by me. I’m becoming brave enough to trust, trusting enough to be quiet, and daring not to lead anymore.