9 traits of the kind of leaders we need in this time and place


flower-108685_1280Hi everyone, this post may be a little more serious than usual. Last week, Seattle lost one of our community leaders, legendary activist Bob Santos. “Uncle Bob” was one of the Gang of Four, also known as the Four Amigos, a group of racially diverse friends who hung out, sang karaoke, and fought injustice. The other three Amigos were Bernie Whitebear, Roberto Maestas, and Larry Gossett. They realized that they, and their diverse ethnic communities, were much stronger together, a philosophy that carried them through countless successful sit-ins, rallies, and other forms of protests in their fights around gentrification, poverty, funding inequity, fishing rights, and other issues. The friendship between these men—who are Black, Native, Latino, and Asian—and their activism, made Seattle better and continue to inspire countless people, including me.

The Four Amigos are a significant inspiration for the founding of my organization, Rainier Valley Corps, which has a mission of ensuring the nonprofit sector has a strong bench of leaders of color. We are building the next generation of 100 Amigos and Amigas. If a Gang of Four diverse leaders bonded by deep friendship can do so much for a community, imagine how much a Gang of 100 social justice leaders can do. This vision is what guides RVC, along with the question, “What kind of leaders do we need in this time and place?”

RVC just finished its first programming year. We recruited a cohort of ten amazing leaders of color, provide them with training in leadership and nonprofit management, and place them to work full-time at grassroots organizations led by communities of color. They help run programs, fundraise, build organizational capacity, and mobilize their communities. Like the Amigos, our fellows are diverse, supportive of one another, fired up about social justice, and great at karaoke.

Not everything we tried in our pilot year worked. We fell short in some critical areas—being too ambitious with our leadership curriculum, not providing our host organizations with enough support, not working close enough with partner organizations—and from those, we learned some important lessons, which I’ll be writing about in the posts to come.

With the passing of Uncle Bob, though, I’ve been thinking of RVC’s fundamental guiding question of the kind of leaders our world needs right now. Reading the news, I get more and more discouraged by the polarization within our society as it wrestles with how to tackle systemic issues. Our “dialogues” are full of blaming, name-calling, refusal to hear any opposing viewpoints, and fear and anger. I’m looking forward for the Elections to be done, but I’m afraid that the tone of our conversations will continue. In light of this, the work of developing our community’s leaders is more urgent than ever.

What kind of leaders do we need to solve today’s challenges? It’s a complex question. But perhaps Bob Santos and the rest of the Four Amigos have given us the answers, by their actions and by their convictions. The kind of leaders we need in this time and place:

See the strength in uncertainty. It was Bertrand Russell who said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.” The issues we deal with are complex and require nuance; nothing is simple and clear-cut. The leaders that we need must be able to doubt themselves, to question their own assumptions, question their party’s assumptions, because that is the only way to see different perspectives and reach the truth. To be willing to admit that we do not know everything, that we and our “side” may be wrong on occasion, is not a weakness, but a sign of humility, and humility is a sign strength. 

Can consider differing viewpoints. It’s frustrating how we have become a culture of “unfriending” people with whom we disagree. In some ways, this is a defense against the type of bullying behaviors so often present in conversations, especially online. But it has reached a point now where friendly intellectual debates are rare. They get heated, and both parties retreat to their echo chambers, surrounded by people who reinforce their views. We need leaders who can bring back civil dialog and collegial disagreements.

Understand that everyone is affected by unjust systems. Systems that perpetuate injustice affect everyone. They affect different communities in different ways and measures, and we must focus our strategies accordingly. But overall, inequity ultimately harms all of us. Once we understand that, it becomes easier for us to lessen the blaming, and it becomes everyone’s responsibility to address systemic oppression.

Believe that we are tied to one another, that there are no “others.” Some call it enlightened self-interest, this belief that we must help each other not out of pity or charity, but because it’s ultimately good for ourselves and for our own families. By helping other people, we help create a safer, better community for ourselves and our kids. The leaders we need believe that we exist in one community, that there are not “other people” that we’re helping, that there are no “other people’s kids.” They believe that our fates are tied to one another’s, that all kids are our kids. They Four Amigos fundamentally believed this, which is why they supported one another across their ethnic differences. It would have been easier to think, “Well, that’s a Black problem; I’m Asian, it doesn’t affect me.” But they knew that their communities are interconnected, and they took up one another’s causes as their own, because those were their causes too.

Can paradoxically ground their work in their own story while removing themselves from the work. I had a professor in grad school who told me, “If you want to be effective in the world, you must learn to forget yourself.” The work we do is often not about us; we must learn to set our pride and egos aside and do what is needed, even stuff we hate. But now that I think about it, the strongest leaders, like the Four Amigos, have a clear sense of themselves, of their heritage, of where they come from. They draw strength from their roots and from their identities. And they use their stories to advance the causes they care about. The leaders we need know that the fight for justice is often paradoxically about them but also not about them. It allows them to be in the spotlight if the situation demands, and to fade into the background and create space for others to lead when needed.

Believe that our diversity is our strength. With so much xenophobia and anti-immigrant/refugees sentiments growing, so many people forget that diversity—of thoughts, of cultures, of identities—is not just something to be tolerated, but something we must all seek. Diversity is a critical factor that makes everything—boards of directors, for-profit companies, hiring panels—and thus our community stronger. The kind of leaders we need don’t just tolerate opposing views, they actively search for it. They don’t just recruit diverse job applicants to say they tried, they actively change hiring practices to make them more accessible to diverse candidates. They don’t just talk about inclusion, they actively change funding practices to make it easier for organizations led by marginalized communities.  

Play the game while they change the game. Sometimes, I meet leaders who are so frustrated by the systems that they don’t even want to participate. Grantwriting is inequitable, so they don’t want to learn how to write an effective grant proposal. Politics is futile and corrupt, so they don’t want to mobilize their communities or even vote. The systems we have are not perfect, and some of them are oppressive, but we cannot change them unless we at least understand them. The leaders we need are good at playing the game, so their credibility is never challenged as they work to change the rules of the game. The Amigos were adept at navigating the systems. They became good at it—fundraising, talking to politicians, negotiating with business leaders—and because of that, they were able to get stuff done.

Unite and bring out the best in people. With so much that divides us, we need our leaders to be able to pull people together. And when people are pulled together, there will likely be contentiousness that naturally arises, so we need leaders who can bring out the best in everyone so they can work effectively across differences. This is not easy. Sometimes, when you put a bunch of brilliant and passionate people together, they become incredibly unproductive. The Amigos throughout their decades of activism, inspired and motivated countless individuals and got them to work in unison for protests and other acts of civil disobedience. To do this, they must fundamentally believe that these are everyone’s struggles, that everyone has a place in the movement, and that we can only achieve our common goals if we respect and work with one another.

Have relentless optimism for an ideal world, grounded in reality. The work that we do in this sector is complex and difficult. We are talking about tackling systemic injustice entrenched by centuries of practice. They are ingrained into our culture, our unconscious. Faced with that, it is easy to lose hope. But the leaders we need can balance the realities of our current world with a vision of what our world could be. They find and bring out the good in everyone and in everything. They find hope and joy in the world even in the darkest of days. The Amigos, from what I know of them, had a great sense of humor. I saw two of them on stage together. They were friends who ribbed and goaded one another, trading witty insults and hilarious stories. Though their work was often heavy, and they knew it, they never forgot to appreciate life’s moments of happiness.

Those are tall orders for anyone to live up to. But if we want a chance to build the kind of world we all dream and talk about, then we must find and be the kind of leaders our community needs.

I never got to know Uncle Bob personally. I’ve met him a few times at various events, and at the Bush Garden, his favorite hangout (and the regular venue for Seattle’s ED Happy Hour). In some ways, I was just too star-struck and intimidated by him and was content to be near the iconic leader and hear of his legendary feats. One day, I told myself, I would summon the nerves to ask him out for a beer and hear about all the cool stuff he did, all the times he got arrested for protesting, what the other three Amigos were like, his advice for the next generation of leaders. I would tell him that his work inspired me and my organization. He was an amazing singer too, so we could probably do an awesome karaoke duet of Elvis or Foreigner or something.

Now he’s gone, a reminder of how easy it is for us to take our heroes for granted. We assume that they will just be around forever, always there to take care of the community as they have always done. We become complacent. But Uncle Bob’s passing is a reminder of the urgency of developing the leaders our world needs. We cannot wait around and hope that people will magically take up the mantles of leadership. If we genuinely believe that leaders like Bob Santos and the Four Amigos are effective at addressing injustice—and time and time again in Seattle’s history they did, and still do—then we must actively search for and support leaders like them. And we must all strive to be the kind of leaders we seek. 

My organization will continue to do its work developing the next generation of leaders of color, the next 100 Amigos and Amigas, and the kind of leaders we need in this time and place. We will continue to work to bring diverse communities together to address systemic inequity. This is not going to be easy. We will succeed in some areas and make mistakes and fall short in others. We may fail a few times. But we will continue forward, building on the legacy of Uncle Bob and the Four Amigos. 

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  • betty barcode

    A fine post. Two modest thoughts:
    “The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men.” [or women.]
    –George Eliot

    Plus, an insight earned from painful experience: Charisma is not the opposite of dullness. It is often the opposite of integrity.

    • Mehitabel

      I share your insight. i’ve had enough experience with charismatic people to be very mistrustful of that particular trait. Not all were bad, but enough of them were. I have learned to be very cautious in my dealings with such people.

    • Carol Clarke

      Interesting!! Experiences I’ve had, but never put it together.

  • Andy Toy

    I never met the other 3 Amigos, but for me Uncle Bob was an inspiration and a role model. The fact that we all knew him as Uncle Bob says a lot. He was like an uncle to many people – understanding that we are all one family. I have a fond memory of taking a tour of the Danny Woo garden with Uncle Bob and my family. The work to create the garden is an example of many of the traits you express, especially the optimism that our vision for a better world is achievable when we join together…even when the odds seem stacked against us :).

  • JL_Laurie

    This is an excellent read and not too heavy at all. I have shared it with my peers in the Banff Centre leadership program “New Fundamentals: Leadership for the Creative Ecology ” https://www.banffcentre.ca/programs/new-fundamentals-leadership-creative-ecology – so many relevant points for our community.

  • SophieB

    This is a wonderful tribute to what sounds like an amazing man and his amigos, so I hesitate to make this comment. Please understand this remark is not in any way about about him, but rather a basic premise of the article.

    Neither does my comment question question the fact that people of color experience biases, prejudices, and challenges both subtly and overtly on an ongoing basis. Nor do I have any issue with programs such as leadership development dedicated to developing new leaders who are people of color. However, I cannot help but feel that if there is truly to be no “other” where diversity is valued as a strength, and we should unite to bring out the best in people (all of which I agree with wholeheartedly) aren’t we all interconnected and shouldn’t the goal be for ALL of us to work together?

    • Alicia Radford

      This is a simplistic example, but to me it gets at the heart of your question — the goal is certainly for all of us to work together (to “see the baseball game,” to go with this metaphor), but we’re not all starting out at the same place. Our institutions were built by, and for, white people, and a long history of racism and prejudice means that today people of color still don’t have the same access to wealth, quality education, leadership pipelines, etc — Vu has written many great articles about how this plays out in our nonprofit sector in particular.

      We all need to respect each other, trust each other, work with each other. But first, we need to move (and build) some boxes.

      • SophieB

        I agree completely and didn’t intend to suggest otherwise. But in the end we are all done a disservice if we don’t work together.

  • JanetL

    Great thoughts Vu. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jennifer Vanica

    Couldn’t agree more.

  • Janet Reasoner

    It would have been great if your piece had even a passing mention of the fact that half of the population was excluded from this little group. If we’re going to talk about diversity, we have to talk about misogyny and exclusion of women at the higher levels of the sector. For example, in higher ed, according to this report (http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Pages/New-Report-Looks-at-the-Status-of-Women-in-Higher-Education.aspx) the number of women serving in a chief academic officer position went down from 2008 to 2013. The Nonprofit Quarterly did a piece on women in nonprofit leadership last year (read it here: https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2015/01/21/women-in-power-or-not-so-much-gender-in-the-nonprofit-sector). It’s disappointing that this blog entry ignored such a huge diversity gap.

  • Stacy Ashton

    Beautiful, and such a good antidote to the kind of leadership we so often see applauded. I strive to be this kind of leader, and I hope I get better as I go. Without taking the long view, and seeding the road with as much joy and laughter as you can, and building up as many allies as you can, nothing good grows. Vu, I love the thoughtful, passionate and hilarious way you approach this work. It is one of the ways I seed my road with joy and laughter. Thank you.

  • Katie Todd

    I am so sorry for the community and world’s loss of Uncle Bob. At a time when our local Board of Directors is grappling with answering the question – what do emerging leaders need to be successful – this timeliness of this post is spot on. We have to be willing and able to build bridges because this dialogue of standing back and retreating to our “safe” zones will never ensure our communities are stronger. Thank you, as always, for your courage & conviction in pushing our sector to be more equitable, more inclusive, more holistic.