By Lisa Owens
(Originally published in Free My People, 1991)
What is a leader? Ask most people that question and they’ll probably tell you “she’s a good leader because she’s president of this club” or “he’ll make a good leader because he’s always using big words and talking a lot.”
True, in “American” society, the heralded traits of leadership usually apply to those who are the most visible and vocal. This idea is often followed by another that says a leader should — by definition — be out front, you know, “lead” people.
But I would like to present a revolutionary concept of leadership. Leadership should not be based upon the length of your words, or how much you talk. Is a woman who, for economic reasons, didn’t complete school and now devotes her life to educating her children, any less a leader than a corporate executive who lives in the suburbs and contributes nothing? Of course not. The mother is a leader because she is contributing to the development of the community, whereas the executive does nothing and helps no one. I base this on a more inclusive concept of leadership which is determined by the result of your actions for the community, as well as your level of accountability to it. In other words, it is more important to do the work for the community than to have a title.
The purpose of a leader is not to “be in front,” be the boss, or have individual power, but to organize and make other people aware of their own leadership ability. Instead of telling people what to do, a leader encourages others to make their own decisions. Instead of standing above and lecturing, a leader pushes others to the front so that they can better develop their talents and improve upon their weaknesses. This concept is in keeping with indigenous African values of a circle. No hierarchies, no bosses, with the highest authority being the collective decisions of the group, and not the opinion of one person. There is definitely more wisdom in the whole than there could ever be in an individual. That wisdom of the whole is leadership.