Generating ideas, connections, and action

Key Learnings from Open Conversations on Leadership, Networks and Race


Over the last couple of weeks we have been hosting a series of meetings – both face-to-face and online – to engage leadership programs, funders and researchers with the Leadership for a New Era work, a collaborative research initiative focused on promoting a leadership model that is more inclusive, networked and collective. As we collectively discussed ideas and questions around Leadership and Race and Leadership and Networks with over 50 participants, a couple of trends and areas of interest came up. Here are some of the more interesting ideas we discussed:

  • The systems framework is a critical component of the conversation
    • As one participant stated, “what is really needed is an approach to leadership development where people in different areas of practice can cross sectors and develop a more transformative agenda that has a social justice perspective that can get beyond just our areas of practice.”
    • In reality, if we really want to promote a more just and equitable society, we need to shift the focus away from our sector or field and look at how we can collaborate across multiple sectors to boost the momentum and sustainability needed for true change.
  • Focus on the larger context – the systems – but don’t lose sight of the individual
    • When we deal with issues of leadership and race in particular, we need to examine the individual consciousness as part of the exploration, and even consider how the individual has experienced racism or discrimination. 
  • Re-examine the vocabulary
    • One of the most interesting points raised by a participant was the fact that “the term ‘leadership development’ just screams individualization.” Given that one of our primary goals is to promote a more inclusive leadership model, we may need to consider terminology that more accurately reflects the desired outcome.
  • Build in more time for reflection
    • A popular concern expressed by the group was the fact that in the nonprofit sector, we don’t allow enough time for reflection. This inhibits our ability to really tackle complex issues as they emerge and have honest and open conversations with others about those issues.
  • For networks, adopt a broader view of participation
    • One of the participants stated that “one of the problems with most network approaches is that they strive to measure participation activity without realizing there is a natural power curve of involvement.” He explained that there are different segments of that curve and multiple levels are needed to support them – communication, connection and collaboration levels.
    • This is particularly important for networks that seek to catalyze collaborative action as they determine two of the most important factors of network development: recruitment strategy and goals.
  • To make leadership more effective, look beyond the use of new media/technology
    • The rise of social technologies certainly increases the potential of networks to reach even greater goals, far more efficiently than before. However, it is important not to get too caught up on the tools that we forget about the purpose. For instance, it is so easy to create a social network today, that it may be a logical next step for leadership programs that are trying to connect their alumni. However, some organizations fail to recognize that those individuals may already belong to other similar networks and may not see the value of joining yet another network. Programs should then identify what those networks are and establish links that connect people across the networks.
    • Another related example that was raised by one of the participants is Obama’s Organizing for America campaign. As the participant pointed out, even though the campaign really excelled in engaging massive amounts of people in a short period of time, it didn’t really build in opportunities for people to exercise collective leadership within the scope of the campaign. 
      • “The campaign does an excellent job of bringing people together but it does so almost from a follower standpoint…it is using a more traditional leadership model within a new media but it hasn’t really built a foundation or encourage people to self-organize leadership.”

The discussion was provocative and invigorating, and it brought us closer to a deeper analysis of leadership in relationship to race and networks. Other important questions that came up include:

  • Are there any case studies that explore leadership work within the context of larger sectors or topics, such as healthcare or housing?
  • What are some of the implications that factors such as generational shift and access to technology have on the leadership and networks conversation?
  • What is the intersection of transformative leadership and structural racism?

We thank all of those who enriched this work through their participation and encourage all of you to continue exploring ideas and questions through the Leadership for a New Era website.