This article examines a few things we all can do to enhance our leadership skills.
By Max Wilbert
A friend of mine defines leadership as taking responsibility not just for yourself, but for a larger group or community. As she explains it, a leader tries to ensure things go well.
In general, activists are not very concerned with leadership. We tend to have an understandable mistrust of leaders. This is no surprise, as most leaders in the dominant culture abuse their power for profit and exploitation. But there is another type of leadership that is wise and moral and just. Leadership is extremely important, and we should learn basic principles from those who study leadership most seriously—often businesses and military. We can learn principles from these organizations, even if we disagree with their entire foundation.
This article shares 18 tips for leadership.
1. Learn From Others
Study those who came before, as well as present leaders you admire. Learn from their mistakes, as well as their successes – their weaknesses, as well as their strengths. Be a student of the past.
2. Build Skills
Writing, research, direct action, strategic thinking, fundraising, organizing, relationship building, outdoor skills, first aid, tactical skills—all these things can be learned. Study hard and apply your knowledge.
3. Work on Self-Confidence, Not Arrogance
You will never step up without self-believe. If you believe you are destined to never be a leader, you will not work to apply yourself and study. Step up with confidence, but not arrogance. Recognize your own weaknesses, as well as strengths, and build a team to shore up your weaknesses.
4. Take on Work
Leaders should not sit back and wait for others to do the work. Lead from the front, and be an example for others.
5. Share your Ideas
Even if you don’t know how to solve a given issue, use your intelligence to bring the group together, facilitate discussion, gathering insight, and so on. Learn to ask the right questions and share your thoughts when you have them. Speak up.
6. Listen to Others
Leaders need to listen to other people. Listen more than you speak. Learn from everyone.
Build trust with your community and team, and delegate. One person has a limited capacity. Therefore, we have to build skills in other people to expand our capacity. This requires trust, and investing in people’s education and learning. People are the most valuable asset we have. Invest in people, even if it takes time for them to learn and adapt.
8. Respect Others
Leaders who abuse power are not and should not be respected. As a leader, you must earn respect, and one way to do so is by respecting others. People should be given respect as a default, unless they do something to lose your respect. Even then, you should be forgiving of those alongside you in the struggle.
9. There Are Many Types of Leaders
Some are loud, some are quiet. Some lead by planning and writing, others by action and speech. Some lead in private, others in public. Some lead while others rest. This is a strength. Cultivate all types of leaders.
10. Lead from the Front
People will not trust or follow a leader who is not willing to take the same risks as them, and get their hands dirty. Set an example for others with your action. Like the lead goose in a flying-V, the leader should do the most work, not the least (and when the time comes, the leader should cycle to the back, allow another to take the lead, and take a rest).
11. Moral Courage
Be prepared to do what is right. Understand consequences, and be prepared to accept them, if it is the right thing to do. When you act cowardly, reflect on why, and what you could do better next time. Commit to excellence and growth.
12. Physical Courage
Leaders should be prepared to take action in the physical world. Practice, prepare, and train in controlled situations to be ready for uncontrolled situations that will arise. Visualize yourself intervening in various scenarios. When opportunities arise, challenge your physical courage.
13. Foster Teamwork
A team is a fragile, unstable creation. Leaders must constantly work to stabilize the team, encourage people, and foster a shared strategic vision. Aligning people as individuals and the group as a whole pays major dividends.
14. Physical Fitness & Energy
As a leader you have a duty to be as physically and mentally fit as possible so that your decision making is as good as possible in stressful and challenging situations. Also, training yourself hard physically ensures you are familiar with the feeling of exhaustion and burnout, and know when you do need a break. Physical health and mental health are closely inter-related. The healthy person can think, act, and fight harder and most effectively.
15. Be Aggressive & Bold
Success in any endeavor entails risk taking. You can never control all factors. Seek to control and understand a situation as much as possible before acting—do not act rashly. But action is almost always better than inaction.
16. Be Decisive
Often, the wrong decision made quickly is better than the correct decision made too late. Rushing can be a path to failure, however, as well. Remember the saying: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” Be methodical. Move as slowly as you have to in order to get the job done, and no slower. Move as quickly as you can, safely and intelligently.
17. Show Determination
Failures are inevitable. Prepare for them. Plan for them. Expect them. Then keep going. You will face setbacks, betrayals, losses and more. Organizing is not an easy path. Take care of your mind, spirit, and heart, so you can be in the fight for the long time.
18. Be Strong of Character
Self-discipline is the foundational skill. Be gentle with yourself, but allow yourself no excuses.
Max Wilbert is a writer, organizer, and wilderness guide. A third-generation dissident, he came of age in a family of anti-war and undoing racism activists in post-WTO Seattle. He is the author of two books, most recently Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It (Monkfish, 2021 – co-authored with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith). He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years.