Leadership & The Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King and Ella Baker speaking to crowds of protesters during the Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King and Ella Baker – Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Source:http://bit.ly/2AXm7ha

King. Parks. Baker: Three Civil Rights Leaders, Three Practices

The first name, Martin Luther King, we all know and venerate. The second name is also familiar. Rosa Parks symbolized defiance. The third name, however, is not as well-known. Ella Baker played an integral, behind-the-scenes-role in the Civil Rights Movement for five decades.

Each played unique and critical roles. King as the firebrand, Parks as resister and Baker as activist.

Widely regarded as one of the most tireless, modest and wisest activists, Ms. Baker is remembered for saying: “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up the pieces or put together pieces of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

speaking at the Jeannette Rankin news conference, January 3, 1968. Ruby Dee at right.

Ella Baker speaking at the Jeannette Rankin news conference, January 3, 1968. Ruby Dee at right. (Jack Harris/AP Images.)

Some researchers argue that it was none other than Ella Baker who initiated the birth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). A group that would be credited for setting the agenda for much of the Civil Rights Movement, testing out how participatory democracy might actually work in real life.

It was here that Ms. Baker embraced the growing social movement known as “participatory democracy” where the emphasis rested on participation and enlistment. The movement focused on grassroots involvement, minimized hierarchy and heralded a distaste for the charismatic, professional leadership emerging from a growing bureaucracy within the Civil Rights Movement.

King was a brilliant orator and beacon, however, participatory democracy called for direct action that would activate the public voice on a grassroots level. Dr. King would arrive to hold a rally and a press conference, and then needed to move quickly on to the next city. As social activist Howard Zinn noted, Baker and her colleagues took on the work that “famous men did not have the time to do”. They practiced self-leadership, traveling to small towns in the South and sitting for hours taking down the names, addresses, occupations and immediate money needs of people who looked to them for a different kind of leadership.

Change from Above and Below

So what do these three people, each a leader in their own right, have to teach us about leadership? They demonstrate the tension between hierarchy and heterarchy, a flat structure that does not require defined roles to operate within strict limits. In this configuration, people undertake leadership roles when necessary.

Popular opinion argues that Martin Luther King was the prime driving force – the leader perched atop the hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement. However, a compelling case can be made that the early activism of Rosa Parks and Ella Baker established the vital role of being change agents from within.

Ella Baker fused hierarchy and heterarchy by maintaining her presence in Dr. King’s inner circle, while simultaneously registering her skepticism of the leadership at the top of the movement, believing that change needed to come from the grassroots or it might not never happen. With internationally distributed photos depicting dogs attacking marchers and the fire hosing of protesters, change erupted as a result of these brave, grassroot protests.

Martin Luther King was gunned down on April 4, 1968. No doubt, he remains one of the world’s most powerful representatives for peaceful change. But while we still mourn his passing, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t die with him. All three, King, Parks and Baker, played integral roles and had their places in a movement that harnessed differing forms of leadership. Parks was noted for her grit: her mantra was that she was “tired of giving in”.

Demonstrators at the 1963 March on Washington

Demonstrators at the 1963 March on Washington. Carl T. Gossett Jr. The New York Times


Baker never gave in either, maintaining that leadership was a collective responsibility, which she characterized as “the nectar divine” – meaning that it was a celebration of diverse opinions that caused people to take action to advance the cause. For this, she was given the Swahili nickname “Fundi” meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. Ultimately, it was the collective action of the firebrand, the resister and the activist that inspired Civil Rights legislation.

Let’s hope that as 2018 progresses, all of our workplaces are more appreciative of not only their own unique “divine nectar” but the many differing forms of leadership that need to be embraced. It may be more work to take on, but the rewards are there for those who care to listen, to question and to take action.

Leadership Exercises for a Summer Workout: Full 6 Stack

Arthur Miller got it right: for leadership to change, we need to view it differently. A new set of leadership exercises is at the ready.

I’ve tipped my hand here. I love books – lots of books, especially great leadership books that contain leadership exercises. Hanging around in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum Library is my twisted idea of a good time. Those layers and levels of books are fondly known as stacks.

Rijksmuseum Research Library, Amsterdam

Leadership 6 Stack: 
Part 1 of a Summer Series Workout for Leaders

With my love for old fashioned stacks, you can imagine how my interest was piqued when I came across its digital doppelganger in a NY Times magazine article. The term stacks now represents how new products and services are built by layering software. Maestros of the digital world, full stack developers as they are known, are masters of software knowledge. Feel for them, they are perfectionists, rarely sleep and can’t remember when they last saw their children.

Digital language, like the term stacks, is creeping into our lives. You can see these shifts as we move from sports terminology in business (remember swinging for the fences?) to techno-metaphors. Time is bandwidth. Co-workers talk off-line. Hacking used to be something you did when you had a horrible cough, but now refers to clever shortcuts and illegal activities.

Forces within culture, business, technology and economics fuse language together. We use these words and phrases to articulate our goals, accomplishments, frustrations and barriers. If they aren’t already, leaders will soon be talking about having their own full stack – a holistic program to develop their leadership. The term has already invaded the world of body builders and athletes, some of whom, share their stack as a secret methodology to enhance performance. So with summer here, there’s no better time to work on your leadership 6 stack in preparation for what will be a busy Q3 & Q4.

What’s in a leadership stack?
As part of my recent Ph.D. research in relational leadership, I’ve learned that leadership exercises are vital to success. There are 6 components contributing to a healthy leadership stack: experience; talent; knowledge; process; practice; and performance.

And here’s the thing: most leaders aren’t anywhere near harnessing their full stack.

As I interview leaders for my upcoming book, many acknowledge that they rely largely on only two of these stacks: experience and talent. This is a problem. Anyone trying to get into shape this summer knows what I’m talking about. That bathing suit isn’t going to look so great if you focus on developing your upper body and have legs that look like, and are as weak as spaghetti. You need the full body workout. Leadership development is the same thing – and just as much hard work.

This is where the stack comes in. Working together, these 6 stackables support leaders to achieve results. Adhering to a regime of leadership exercise, means no one is going to kick sand in your face in any longer! The full stack accomplishes this through providing a more holistic view of leadership behaviour. They support identification of blind spots, development of greater self-awareness, penetration of context and appreciation of individuals and teams. The 6 stack is essential as leaders seek to become more relational in our disrupted world.

What’s in your leadership stack?
Let’s begin by examining the first stack, experience. When asked about how they lead, experience is often the go-to for leaders. While it is a good teacher, when unexamined, experience can be one of leadership’s biggest liabilities. Most leaders tell you they go with their gut and that they have good instincts. But, both gut and instinct are housed within…our experience. I’ve seen many leaders flounder worse than a fish out of water if they are unable or unwilling to make sense of poor, wrong, or bad decisions, interactions, and actions.

The first in our series of summer exercises, then, begins by asking yourself a simple question: “How do I lead?” Trite answers don’t count: “I have an open door”; “I lead by example”; “I’m authentic”. I’m talking about solid processes and practices of leadership – the guts of how. What I’ve found, is that it’s only by asking yourself how you lead that you can begin to understand your leadership practices and enhance them. When I ask leaders this question, they skate faster than Austin Matthews. Their eyes search the ceiling. It’s just not a question leaders regularly encounter. 

You know why? Because many of us have been trained to think of leadership development like a one-way banking experience – someone makes a “deposit” into your grey matter. It could be a leadership keynote, a leadership book or maybe being “volun-told” that you need a 360 psychometric test. These activities are enlightening, sometimes fun, but they run along the surface and don’t inform how. Keynotes, books and tests don’t come close to the self-revelation that happens when you interrogate yourself. Leaders regularly use these activities as a means to fulfil development needs but let’s face it, while they provide coping skills, they are get of jail cards. Whew leadership work is done for the year, now I can move on. Sorry it’s never done.

Source: etsy.me/2tmIv3m

Keynotes, books, and tests may check a box but they will not take the place of rigorous leadership exercises.

Three Levels of Exploring Leadership Experience
Try working with these three levels of awakening leadership to generate greater self-awareness and insight into how you lead: the literal, reflective and critically reflexive.  The first level is the space we are most comfortable with: the literal. It’s where we examine physical surroundings, context, and generally observe what’s happening around us.

So here’s your first summer exercise to begin thinking about how you lead. Recall the biggies of the week: you know, the conversations, events or incidents that have stayed with you. Turn the biggie into a story. Stories show us how we think, act, behave and perform as leaders. 

Source: http://bit.ly/2tm8DvK

Summer Exercise 1: Time capsule your story just like MIT did in ’57

Now, we’re going to time capsule your story. Trace your experience within the story by mapping out the literal – the who, what, when, where, and why. As you think about the story, how did it change as you recalled it and how did you change with it? How did you inwardly (and outwardly) re-tell the story, shift chronology, embellish here, maybe diminish there? Your interpretations of the story are tells of your assumptions, beliefs and values.

Leave the story for a day or two and then come back to it. Move from the literal and toggle to reflection. Look at the story again and review your notes, doodles, and bullet points.  Ask yourself, relationally, how you processed the story and emotionally, how you explored others’ insights through inter-actions and reactions. It’s getting harder isn’t it? At this level, you are just beginning to uncover tacit assumptions and what you took for granted. 

Leadership’s Most Underused Muscle: Critical Reflection
Now that you’ve gone through these two stages, leave the story again for awhile. When you come back to it, get ready for the most punishing part of the exercise. In academic parlance it’s called critical reflexivity. In this exercise, you bend back on yourself. Now that’s painful. This is where we profoundly question relationships between ourselves and others. It revolves around three constants: how you see the world, unearthing your assumptions and – here’s the kicker: interrogating your role and responsibility in working with others and the impact you have on others. 

To work at this next level, find the place of others in your story first. Chart out the actions, conversations and insights of others from the story’s beginning, middle and end. If it’s the right story, you will feel uncomfortable. That’s ok, it means you’re on the right track. In fact, a successful outcome would be to re-write the story. Sometimes this comes in the form of a shared cup of coffee, an apology or a group huddle. And the good news is that there’s always time for leaders to re-write their stories.

Critically reflecting is leadership’s most underused muscle today. Think of it this way: leadership development in the form of keynotes, books or tests is like a 5K run; reflexivity is the yoga of leadership development.

PM Justin Trudeau exercising his leadership.


This leadership exercise helps shape and strengthen a conscious philosophy, it grows stamina, patience and humility. But more importantly is adjusts your views of where you sit in the world. It is the head snap we need as we digest the stories of Brazil, Uber and Home Capital.

By critically examining your stories, you gain a better understanding of how you lead and how others receive and perceive you. When we ask, “How do I lead?” we are also asking “How do I live?” Coming up in Part 2, we’ll look at the interplay of leadership development and talent and I’ll have another leadership exercise to help you build your leadership 6 stack for a great summer ahead.

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Photo Credit: Dwight Eschliman, New York Times; Source: http://bit.ly/2rtIllZ

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