Basking in the Collective Light of Leadership

by admin  - April 2, 2024

Image is a picture of the night sky. In one part of the sky, a single bright star is amidst a small group of small stars. In another part of the sky, there is a cluster of stars of all sizes glowing together. A single star is shooting across the sky, from the single big star's group down to the cluster of brightness.

Years ago, I was talking to my supervisor about a colleague of ours. This colleague managed a program and had recently introduced another new hire. The new hire was fine and seemed like a lovely person but seemed to lack… something. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I was noticing that the team this manager supervised was inexperienced on the issue they worked on, seeming to lack essential knowledge about the complexities of the work. They seemed to lack passion for the work, and any sense of drive to challenge dysfunctional systems. A lot of their work seemed surface-level.

I mentioned to my supervisor that I wished that team had more spark. She gave me the look I’d gotten from her dozens of times – the you sweet summer child look. “Chris,” she started. “You know that she would never hire someone like you,” going on to add that some folks want to make sure they’re always the brightest star in the room.

I was dumbfounded. In my short time (at that point) mentoring and supervising people, I had always felt like my own star shone brighter by association when I surrounded myself with brilliant thinkers and creative dreamers.

I have since realized that is not often the case.

In my time working in nonprofit anti-violence spaces, I have seen a stark difference between two broad kinds of leaders.

The first kind always needs to be the biggest star in their sky.

  • They often hire people they feel they can control, who will “know their place” and not push back too hard against having their competence invisibilized. While this can be the case when non-survivors hire survivors, it can also be the case when a survivor in a leadership position hires allies, knowing they can always hold “talking over survivors” against their supervisees if they push back.
  • Alternatively, they may hire shining stars who think out of the box in contractor or junior positions, knowing they can benefit from their brilliance without a commitment to elevating their leadership. They may make promises to keep people around – for a better job, for a raise, for a new opportunity – but when the rubber hits the road the support is not there.
  • When people under them start to shine too brightly, they find ways to dampen their light. This may happen through negging, gaslighting, or other workplace harassment and abuse. I once shared with a boss that I felt like I had something more to give to the world than that position allowed, only to have her try to convince me that my biggest gift to the world was helping her get her work into the world. My gifts on their own were inadequate.
  • When people who are unable to grow personally or professionally under them leave they may feel betrayed or even act out possessively. I once gave my notice of resignation from a position with a boss, only to come in the next day to find a four-page hand-scrawled letter that read much more like the ramblings of an emotionally abusive lover feigning shock about a breakup that had been obviously coming for months due to their constant gaslighting of me.
  • They are less likely to collaborate and more likely to want to claim all credit for their program or organization. When they feel like their organization or program is under threat, they may undermine anyone they view as “competition” for resources or power.

The second kind of leader is the kind who feels energized when surrounded by shining stars.

  • They often hire some of the most creative minds in their field, knowing that it may mean they are called in more often and may have to put extra time into ensuring coordination across the program. They aren’t worried about who is the “smartest one in the room,” and instead are excited about being part of the collective wisdom in the room.
  • They are transparent with the folks they hire about what they can and can’t do. They don’t make promises, and they recognize that someone pursuing a position that better meets their needs isn’t a personal failure on their part as a manager but speaks to their role in supporting that person towards bigger and better (and more aligned) things.
  • When people under them start to shine brightly, they bask in the glow and cheer their supervisees and mentees on.
  • They are always involved in creative collaborations because they thrive on seeing the work done well and the broader narratives changing, whether it is their program or organization at the helm or not.

The thing is, being expected to be a second-place star in someone else’s orbit is tiring. You must shine brightly enough, but not too brightly, for them to keep you around. It’s an exhausting balancing act in which your work, your creativity, and your brilliance remain in service to someone else’s glow.

When folks leave these dynamics, they may find their own little place in the sky where they can explore their own shine.

And at some point, they might look for the parts of the sky that have the biggest glow, where the cluster is so bright you can’t even tell whose shine is whose. They may find places where their brilliance won’t be perceived as overshadowing. And they may realize (much to their relief) that one of the loveliest things about being in a cluster of brilliance is that you can expand and contract as you need. After all, in the starriest parts of the sky, it’s okay if you aren’t shining your brightest all the time because there are others to hold the glow for you to see your way through when your own light is dampened.

This is the kind of leader I hope to be. The kind who lives in the part of the sky where everything is aglow and everyone is seen as bright and brilliant. I want to live in the part of the sky where when my own light is shuttered by grief or overwhelm my comrades hold the glow while I rest and reset. I want to live in the part of the sky where my own light can be part of holding the glow for others to rest, heal, and rebuild their own shine when it has been rubbed off, sapped, or stolen by others.

This is how we make a movement. This is how we sustain the impact.

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