So it’s been a couple of years since I went back to University to take this course.  It was called Indigenous Art, Activism & Resistance and it was pretty far outside my comfort zone, although it was worth it in the long run.  Small word of advice for those of you who feel alienated from young people or the popular culture: Go out and meet them on their terms.  Odds are, you’ll find that even the weirdos are still pretty relatable (if you give them the chance), and the ones who are assholes are actually pretty similar to the assholes you already know in your own life.  Not only will you get exposed to new perspectives, but you’ll reduce the chances of turning into some crotchety old fart who’s always whining about his lawn.

This is the main reason I’m not too freaked out by the man-bun.

Anyway, one of the students in this class was a full-on native activist.  She’d been to protests with Idle No More, and at one time she’d even had a gun pointed at her by a police officer when a protest got shut down hard.[1]  She was full-on committed to the cause.  At the time she was seriously considering going south to join the No DAPL protests.

Good kid.  I was glad to meet her.

Well, about mid way through the class, there was this one time when she was talking about a meeting where a whole bunch of youth activists were addressed by a group of older activists and chiefs.  There was one point where one of the speakers declared ‘You kids are the leaders of tomorrow!’

A nice sentiment, but it seriously fell flat with her.  “I don’t know anything about being a leader!” she said in frustration.  “And they’re not telling us how to become one!” [quotes are paraphrased obviously]

I’m genuinely sorry that I didn’t have anything to say at the time.  She’s good people and she had a serious question that I should have had an answer for.[2]  How do you become a leader?  More specifically, how do you become a leader outside of an established structure like the military (where you can literally get a job description for leader)?

So you might have noticed, I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to Bland’s conception of “Leadership!”  Specifically, the 80s action movie style of leadership where being in charge is largely about establishing dominance through chest pounding and grunts.  On the plus side, it does make for a handy running joke, given that we’re going to see a lot more of this style of command before the novel’s over.  But it does kind of suggest the question: Can I do better?

So I took some time to think about the subject…and I’m still working on it because it’s a complex subject.  But I think that writing about the process will make for a good running series.  Plus one of my goals with this blog is to present a positive counter-point to Bland’s pervasive negatives, so let’s have at it!


So here’s what I got for the basic level:

On the lowest, simplest level…leadership is friendly advice.

You ever been to a situation where you were new, and you didn’t know what was going on?  Where you’re looking around at a bunch of strangers doing stuff and you’re wondering, not just if you’re supposed to join in…but how?  Then somebody comes up and asks “Is this your first time?” then tells you what you need to know and how to fit in with the rest of the group?

Yeah, that’s leadership.  Mobilize groups of people towards a common goal while helping them perform to the best of their ability?  On the ground level that translates into one person noticing someone else who’s having trouble, and helping them out.

I had this realization several months after the class ended and I lost contact with the students in it.  I’m still kind of kicking myself over this because I think it would have gone a long way towards opening her eyes to how these things work.  She was the kind of person who was always chiming in with advice or opinions or examples.  I think it would have reassuring for her to realize she was already a leader, at least on a basic, intuitive level.

One of the problems with being a bit higher on the food chain is that command and control becomes more complicated.  After a while, it can reach a point where you can’t see the trees because of all the forest.  But yeah, friendly advise from one peer to another.  That’s leadership.  It’s actually how we pick out the troops that we think would do well on PLQ: Do they help out the new guys?  Do we see them taking the new guys aside and explaining what it is they’re doing wrong?  Or do they just sit back and chuckle as they watch them flounder?

There’s a particular trend I’ve seen pop up now and then in the army that treats training like a frat house initiation: Where the person looking to join essentially has to debase themselves by failing repeatedly until they are deemed worthy of being part of the in-group.  The new guy needs batteries for his radio but doesn’t know where the Pronto truck is?  Too bad.  Let him search.  He ends up being late for his sentry shift and an other new guy is mad for being stuck out there?  Blame the first new guy.  Maybe we can get them to fight.

There were a few characters like this back when I first joined up.  Strangely enough, now that I know what I’m doing I don’t really have any fond memories of them.

Not only is this attitude unhealthy and unfair, but it tends to drive away everyone but the sycophants and the bullies.  The ones who want to succeed only so that they can one day do the same to others.  You want the new guys to one day be your equal, if not actually better than you.  You don’t get that by training someone to be a ‘yes man.’

Instead, what you want to see the experienced people reaching out to the new guys and bringing them up to speed.  Ideally this should be a kind and welcoming process (the experienced troops aren’t that much higher than the new guys anyway, and any harsher correction should be handled by the formal leadership), but sometimes it might not.  There’s a job that needs to be done, and a standard that needs to be achieved.  If the new guy isn’t taking it seriously, they need to get sorted out.  Although in the case of the experienced troop they should be aiming for motivation rather than correction.  Make the new guy want to do better[3].

The key point here is that offering advice is the first step beyond your basic job knowledge.  Any tool can learn their place, but the mindset where you look around you and see who hasn’t figured it out, then bring them up to speed?  That’s leadership.

Who is falling short and how do I make them better?

It’s the realization that the job is bigger than you are, and that some people aren’t going to meet the standard.  A lot of people will sit back and watch those people fail, taking comfort in the fact that they can do better.  The leaders are the ones who realize that the job’s more important that ego or in-group membership.  They’re the ones who see the newbie floundering and reach out to bring them in.

‘First time, huh? Check this out…’

So goes the mantra of ground-level leadership.

***I haven’t been able to find the artist who originally created today’s Featured Image, but it’s been around for a while (frequently modified as per uniform) and pops up pretty regularly when online discussions turn to issues of leadership.***


[1] I don’t know the circumstances in which she had that gun drawn on her, or if there may have been some other extenuating circumstances driving the police which she was not aware of.  But she herself was unarmed and had a gun pointed at her, and that was an experience that seriously rattled her.

[2] Just to be clear, she didn’t direct this question at me.  It was a general comment made to a group of which I was a member.  Part of the reason I’m relating this story is that she deserves credit for getting me to think about it, plus I’m willing to be there’s others like her out there.

[3] As I have written before, shame is a powerful motivator, so long as it’s used carefully.  Very few things will motivate good people like the sight of others working harder than they are.

One thought on “Leadership? (Ground Level)

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