At &yetConf, everything was a surprise.
No one knew what the schedule was, who was speaking, what they were speaking about, where we were going, or what was happening during the event, which was punctuated by original music, artwork, and an immersive fourth-wall-breaking choose-your-own adventure storyline.
At one point, buses pulled up and everyone got on. Attendees didn't know where the buses were going until they departed and everyone was handed an envelope containing the following:
On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein sent this letter to President Franklin Roosevelt which he later called "the one great mistake in my life."
That letter, also enclosed in this envelope, kicked off a chain reaction which now directly results in you sitting on this bus at this very moment in history.
In contrast with an era where startup bros throw around the phrase, "change the world", this letter from history very literally did that. It's impossible to imagine what the historical landscape of the last 70 years would have looked like were it not for this letter and all the events that followed it.
So where, exactly, are you heading on this bus?
You're on your way to what is inarguably the first cathedral of technology of the 20th century—the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor, a place where uranium was enriched to create the plutonium for the most powerful single weapon ever used on people.
In addition to reflection upon the profound ethical and moral questions which will be staring you in the face like four-story wall of graphite, there's a lot to take in in the next couple hours. If you have even a sliver of science, history, sociology, organizational theory, or design geek in you, there's an angle at the B-Reactor ripe for investigation and contemplation.
The Manhattan Project was one of the most ambitious human undertakings of the 20th Century. From the time Richland was selected as a Manhattan Project site, it was a mere two years until the B Reactor was operational—just five years from the date of Einstein's letter.
As you visit the B Reactor, keep in mind the theme of &yetConf. There is probably no better place to contemplate the gravity of the technologies we create (and the technologies we allow to be created) than in this "cathedral" of scientific achievement.
It's easy to see that such a place would be impactful—especially knowing its place in history and the mournful and anxious reverberations which we still feel even today. But how quickly we each dismiss the gravity of our own capacity to impact the sphere of influence of our own lives!
The iconic Albert Einstein called this letter his greatest mistake. None of us are Albert Einstein, nor are we in the midst of a World War. But the atomic makeup of the ethics of explosive ruptures of history is the same as our own day-to-day decisions.
There are judgments to be made, for certain, but the most important question is: will we remember? And what will we do about what we remember?
What will the future be?
We stepped off the bus and walked into that aged cathedral beneath its spire pointing to the sky.
We walked past analog switches and hand-lettered signs that still bore the ghosted pencil marks from their original craftspeople, reminding us this is all an achievement from a fully analog world—a testament to the inescapable truth: humans built this using the very best of their collaborative ingenuity and creative talents.
A few steps into the building there it was: a four-story block of graphite.
The altar upon which hundreds of thousands of lives were sacrificed. The fruit of one of the most ambitious collaborative achievements in history.
A four-story gravestone.
Robert Oppenheimer, one of the atomic bomb's top scientists later said:
When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb. I do not think anybody opposed making it; there were some debates about what to do with it after it was made.
I cannot very well imagine if we had known in late 1949 what we got to know by early 1951 that the tone of our report would have been the same.
I think a lot about this in terms of our individual responsibility for the world that we are creating, the tools we are using to create it, the culture we contribute to on a daily basis.
What are the societal choices we participate in today that we will look back on with horror? (And is there anything we can even do about that?)
Oppenheimer was a scientist with the power and privilege to know what he was working on, and even he didn’t question the choice to build that technology. But the majority of people who worked on the bomb didn’t even have that luxury. In a way, the surprise &yetConf attendees felt to be heading to the B-Reactor was a ghostly echo the surprise of those who worked on it.
It's jarring to think that the vast majority of people who helped create the most powerful weapons ever used on people had no idea what their work was being used for.
No really. Read that above. That's from the local paper in my hometown. "News Spreads Slowly, Surprises Everyone Here... Richland was about the last place in the country to hear the news of the atomic bomb."
The people who built it were the last to hear! Think about that.
The B-Reactor speaks the haunting truth: significant world-changing moments can be a total surprise to the people who ultimately make them happen.
But to further hide history’s hinges consider that not only is it hard to see the implications of technological advances, it's hard to analyze what might emerge from them. Doing so requires comprehending intensely technical concepts while simultaneously exercising our imaginations in the context of deep sociological understanding, and then making moral/ethical judgments about those implications—all disciplines that rarely intersect in our heavily specialized society.
Thank god for artists, right?
Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath saw how hard this very kind of thinking was and created Scout, which looks at the implications of present developments through the lens of science fiction highly informed by experts who understand the nuance of the technologies being considered.
But this question—What are the societal choices we participate in today that we will look back on with horror?—goes well beyond science and technology.
We know that throughout history, the one constant is change. And things are always in the process of changing in directions. Change itself may be amoral, but the results of changes can be disastrously destructive or powerfully positive. We certainly know this looking back on history: there are beneficial changes and harmful changes that have occurred. But of course the world's state and direction is far from binary, let alone uniform.
There are those who believe the world is getting ever worse and others who believe the world is getting better. Like most things, the truth is found in paradox: the world is getting worse and better. I don't need to point to examples of the ways the world might be getting worse, but if you doubt the world is getting better, it's easy to fix that by looking at some trends:
Yet we are all too aware of how hard it has been to conquer much stickier problems, many of which show up in the so-called "culture wars" that dominate our societal discourse. A good portion of those wars—including the present political climate—comes from the tension of positively progressing society vs. the status quo in racism, sexism, religious extremism, authoritarianism, and every color of xenophobia.
Last year I read Cuban sci-fi author Yoss's Super Extra Grande. Yes, I picked it up because it visually stood out in the “staff recommendations” shelf at Adventures Underground: the title made me smile and the cover was so pretty. Call me shallow.
In the backstory of Super Extra Grande, an Ecuadorian priest discovered the theory of faster-than-light travel, allowing for interstellar travel in a galaxy where there are six other known intelligent alien species and the galactic lingua franca is Spanglish. In the first flight demonstrating the priest's theories are correct, a satellite leaps in seconds from Earth orbit to Mars and rolls out a banner that says, “Suck on this, dumb-ass gringos!"
Yoss later on makes a side comment about how humans may have conquered interstellar space travel but they burst onto the galactic scene under-evolved, with racism fully intact.
It made me pause to think about one of our most profound and enduring flaws as a species: the idea that some are better and more worthy of respect than others.
In my mind, there is a direct connection between racism/sexism/xenophobia and our never-ending drive to raise the ceiling of our capabilities without considering the on-the-ground implications. They both sprout from this same enduring flaw.
Of course, I'm far from the first person to believe this. I was mulling about this recently and recalled this excerpt I love from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech denouncing the Vietnam war, wherein he connects so many of these concepts:
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights are more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
Hell yes, right?
We have indeed seen true revolutions of values numerous times in Western history; Martin Luther King, Jr. helped create one himself. And yet we've hardly scratched the surface of the compassionate, empathetic vision he's talking about here.
A couple of years ago, I came across a site that floored me titled Proposals for the Feminine Economy. Today its creator, Jenn Armbrust, is one of my absolute heroes. Her site has a powerful illustration demonstrating two alternative visions for economic society through the lens of masculine and feminine traits.
This vision rivets me. First, I'm absolutely a feminist. But on a personal level, I tend to resonate far more with the feminine traits and values Jenn describes here.
I've had a considerable struggle with the contrast between how things are typically done and the type of organizations and communities I am comfortable being part of. As a result, it feels like I have always had to create from scratch types of places that I felt someone like myself could contribute—be that communities or businesses. And the ones I'm willing to participate in and the ones I want to create all look like what Jenn's contrast looks like. That's &yet, it's the various events I've organized, and it's my hope for the community we're building.
Zooming out though, it's my hope for much more than just the communities and organizations I can create, participate in, and influence. Ambitiously, I'd love to do everything I could to make sure more communities operate in this way. I've even gone so far as to insist that this is how all communities should be.
I'm an empathetic person, but I'm also an ambitious person.
And there's the rub.
One of the hardest things in living out empathetic values is accepting where the limit of my control ends.
I think often about our place in all of time—not just the legacy of our children's children, but over the span of thousands of years. Science fiction is great for that.
The piece of fiction that most got me thinking this way was the ever-forward-looking Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov, which spans hundreds of years. (Though it feels ironic to call it forward looking because it's also one of the most overtly sexist pieces of 20th Century fiction I've read.)
The Foundation series introduces a ton of concepts that show up in more popular science fiction: Star Wars' Empire and the planet of Coruscant feel practically copied and pasted from Asimov's world, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy directly references and satirizes the primary plot device of Foundation, Foundation's Encyclopedia Galactica.
But one of the most fascinating elements of Foundation is the concept of psychohistory, which "combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people." (From the Wikipedia entry)
Obviously, we are individually powerless to shape what happens over the course of thousands of years, but just the same: we collectively are not powerless. We are powerless, but we are powerful. The truth is found in paradox.
I was talking to a friend recently and we got on the topic of narcissism of the present. People of many eras in Western history feel that their time is the most important in history, and that the people who came before us were painfully ignorant, if not downright amoral. No people are guilty of such a view more so than ourselves and our contemporaries. And we are definitely living in an era of a pivotal shift. But what about the future? If we believe ourselves to be dramatically better.
The 20th and 21st Centuries are consuming the majority of the world's resources and—if society doesn't collapse first, which is a pretty big if—we are creating the foundation upon which so much of the future will be built.
I remember there being some conventional wisdom in the late 90s that something was going to come along and replace HTML and the web in general. (Bill Gates even said this in his “futurist” book from the 1990s, The Road Ahead).
But a few years later, I read someone else argued that we are almost certainly going to see some iteration of HTML around for thousands of years if society lasted that long—that what's being built in our lifetime with the Internet is the most significant collaborative endeavor undertaken by our species.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, I was absolutely certain society would collapse from Peak Oil (or similar) in the near future, certainly by 2010. I would read The Oil Drum pretty regularly and often spent time investigating what various long term scenarios might look like following a collapse.
When I walked by the park across our street, I imagined it being plowed for crops and small-scale agriculture covering every last inch of the front yards of suburban houses on our street. I even read Cormac McCarthy's The Road—by far the most soul-crushingly depressing novel I've ever touched. (It's a remarkable work that I totally don't recommend at all unless you want to feel hopelessly sad.)
But then they started fracking (yay?) and thanks to including shale oil the US became the holder of the world's largest oil reserves, ensuring a higher likelihood of global stability. Of course if you read that article all the way to the end, you'll find this particularly comforting paragraph:
On a global basis, Rystad estimates that the world has about 2,092 billion barrels of reserves, or about 70 years’ worth of oil at today’s production rate of 30 billion barrels per year.
And, of course, fixating on energy supply is completely ignoring any effects of global warming, which Australian Scientist Frank Fenner and others posit will lead to the extinction of humanity:
“We’ll undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island,” he said. More people means fewer resources, and Fenner predicts “there will be a lot more wars over food.”
Polynesian people settled there, in what was then a pristine tropical island, around the middle of the first millennium AD. The population grew slowly at first and then exploded. As the population grew the forests were wiped out and all the tree animals became extinct, both with devastating consequences. After about 1600 the civilization began to collapse, and had virtually disappeared by the mid-19th century. Evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond said the parallels between what happened on Easter Island and what is occurring today on the planet as a whole are “chillingly obvious.”
And those set aside catastrophic collapse from biological epidemics, nuclear war, or some other weird thing being invented that we can't even see.
I still have a high degree of confidence that modern society will collapse in some way in my lifetime, and I can certainly see a lot more options than just peak oil or global warming as to how society collapses. But I am also less confident overall than I used to be that it will truly and fully collapse. It seems more likely it will collapse for some and not others.
The dystopia is already here—it's just unevenly distributed.
Cory Doctorow's latest book, Walkaway, describes a future world where the rich are richer, the poor are poorer, and everyone living in society is subject to the power of what Doctorow calls the zottarich—essentially the 0.01% who own most of the world, and expresses their ultimate aim. (For additional context in this excerpt, walkaways are those who reject society and private property and live communally based on a gift economy.)
The zottas are trying to secede from humanity. They don’t see their destiny as tied to ours. They think that they can politically, economically, and epidemiologically isolate themselves, take to high ground above the rising seas, breed their offspring by Harrier jets. “I’d been walkaway for nearly a year before I understood this. That’s what walkaway is—not walking out on ‘society,’ but acknowledging that in zottaworld, we’re problems to be solved, not citizens.
That’s why you never hear politicians talking about ‘citizens,’ it’s all ‘taxpayers,’ as though the salient fact of your relationship to the state is how much you pay. Like the state was a business and citizenship was a loyalty program that rewarded you for your custom with roads and health care. Zottas cooked the process so they get all the money and own the political process, pay as much or as little tax as they want. Sure, they pay most of the tax, because they’ve built a set of rules that gives them most of the money. Talking about ‘taxpayers’ means that the state’s debt is to rich dudes, and anything it gives to kids or old people or sick people or disabled people is charity we should be grateful for, since none of those people are paying tax that justifies their rewards from Government Inc.
Of course, this just sounds like a slightly-farther-down-the-road version of aspects of our present reality.
What we need is a hero, right?
Think about Batman for a minute. (I know you probably were already thinking about Batman, but just pretend for a moment that you weren't.)
Most of us probably envision the Batman of the past few reboots, who is primarily focused on fighting nihilist psychopaths and super-terrorists. But go back to the original 1966 Batman TV show. (And if you haven't watched this, you really must do it for it's truly some of the greatest TV ever made.)
As difficult as it may be, set aside all the BAMs and THWOKs, the tights, the super-earnest Robin, and a drugged Batman doing some groovy dancing in the series premiere.
Consider the moments that Chief O'Hara and his top lieutenants are gathered in Commissioner Gordon's office, all of them deadly serious. Some crime has occurred or some criminal is reported as loose from jail and Gordon gives Chief O'Hara a grave look and says something like, "There's only one man who we can turn to in our darkest hour." They both know they need to reach for the red batphone. ☎️
Modern day Batman reboots focus on a man who works as a vigilante outside and sometimes even against the law in order to stop terrorists. But 1966 Batman is polite, courteous, and always playing a role as a servant of the police and a follower of the order of the law. Batman even notices a temporary "No Parking" sign and is about to re-park the Batmobile until an officer comes over and moves the sign.
Batman episodes tend to follow an almost perfect formulaic approach, which makes it easy to identify the overall themes. After a few episodes, you'll notice there are two basic plot forms in the series: in one, a super-criminal is trying to capture/kill/unmask Batman. But in terms of crime that isn't driven by revenge against Batman, the super-criminals are not terrorizing the public, they're attempting to steal large amounts of money or extremely expensive items or else kidnapping extremely wealthy or powerful people. In one episode, for example, Joker's gang intends to steal the Fabulous Jewel Collection from—where else?—The Hall of Fabulous Jewels, of course.
So Batman 1966 is about a billionaire who is protecting extremely expensive items (well, and himself) when the whole of the police force's resources aren't enough.
To that end, 1966 Batman is actually a pretty good view of our present disparity where the world feels mostly like a dystopia to some and utopia for others. And regardless of whether or how society collapses or if it just keeps right on moving forward, we can expect this same kind of tendency toward disparity to exist.
My colleague Fritzy put it thusly in this amazing and hilariously disturbing talk: "I see two and only two versions of our future: in one version, things get weird. In the other version, almost everyone dies." In both versions, you've still got 1966 Batman: the most powerful people in society are going to be protecting their own. (And really, isn't that the case we all tend toward? They're just powerful enough that we notice.)
But what’s worth further considering is not just the nature of disparity, but the nature of relying on superheroes to save us. It’s completely disempowering fascist-minded thinking.
In their work, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, a French philosopher and psychiatrist duo made the argument that Western society is caught in a trap that looks like the ancient story of Oedipus Rex. As a refresher, the ancient tale looks like this: unbeknownst to him, Oedipus kills his father (the king) and marries his own mother, and when the truth of what he's done is made clear to him, he gouges out his eyes.
"Do not become enamored of power" is the chief point of Anti-Oedipus. In his preface, Michel Foucault says:
"The major enemy, the strategic adversary is fascism... And not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini — which was able to mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively — but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us."
Anti-Oedipus takes this ancient story and describes the lesson: we look at the people with power and we aim to knock them off and install ourselves in their place—or someone who is powerful and will put our wills and desires into action. But in the end, we become just as blind as those who we aimed to replace.
Even if the superheroes aren’t billionaires fighting to preserve things that rich people value, they are inevitably going to end up fighting for their people. It’s just our nature. One person—no matter how well-intended—is always going to be limited in their ability to representatively fight for the betterment of all of us. (Blind as a bat, indeed!)
Tina Turner was right: we don’t need another hero.
And we don’t need to stay fixated on overthrowing the one on top so that we can put in their place someone who’s ultimately going to be just as blind as the last one.
Our tendency to repeat the tragedy of Oedipus in fixation on the destructive cycle of power undermines what leadership really is about. The solution isn't a change of person in position. It's the entire definition of leadership that must be changed.
I love Leland Maschmeyer's insight:
To maintain power, those who amass it need an audience. Audiences are people who observe without participating.
[The person] who amasses power creates [their] audience as an opponent whom [they] must convince of both [their] power and [the audience’s] powerlessness.
Equating leadership with power is flawed in two destructive directions:
Most people feel powerless, so they seek to give power to those who already appear powerful—people who they “agree” with—which ends up with the worst kinds of leaders imaginable.
When leaders are given power, they can come to feel very paternalistic and less like stewards and servants when it comes to the exercise of their power. (“I'm unique because I'm in this position. What I think is the most important. Those poor weak helpless people are depending on me to exercise the power they have given me.”)
But leadership is not position. It is not authority. It is not control. It is not power. Leadership is taking responsibility for something greater than yourself. Leadership is using your natural influence to shape the world beyond the walls of your mind and the reach of your hands—ideally for the better.
But doing that empathetically also means accepting your limits and not overreaching with your power. This is extremely hard when we see things very clearly in terms of how things ought to be.
Every single person has and exercises leadership. We have completely misdefined leadership as uniquely possessed by some people, as if it's a strength or a personal trait. This neglects the fact that every one of us has inherent leadership, the vast majority of which lies untapped.
Your leadership isn’t about you.
You are a leader when your thoughts or your voice or your actions influence outcomes in a way that you could not have achieved on your own under your own resources, physical capability, and mental power. You are a leader when you say, “this can be better” and follow it up with, “want to help me make this better?”
You are a leader when you encourage someone else to lead. You're a leader when you choose empathy over ambition—even when your ambition is good.
We have very little hope as a society to similarly snuff out sexism, racism, and xenophobia without reorienting our thinking in the direction of valuing empathy over ambition. That starts on the individual level. And it's so difficult.
There's an old programming koan that goes: "Some people, when confronted with a problem, think, 'I know, I'll use regular expressions.' Now they have two problems." On occasion, I have repurposed this notion by saying: "Some people, when confronted with the world's problems think, 'I know, I'll solve this and then I'll be rich and famous.' Now we have more problems."
And as it is with our society, so it is with our colleagues and collaborators in companies, organizations, and communities.
What’s remarkable to me is that people driving toward making a positive impact can tend to justify how horrible they can be toward those they work with to achieve those aims. I have witnessed it in myself and I have seen it in others. I spent almost a decade working for one of the most ambitious and high-impact leaders I’ve ever met. Eventually I came to see he was plain and simply abusing his staff in order to get done what he wanted—the ends of his ambitions justified the means. When one person would burn out and walk away, he’d just light up another soul.
There are people who want to get done what they want to get done and they don’t care about other people, how they feel, and anyone who’d stand in their way doesn’t deserve to be respected as a person. We may not all be so shamelessly sociopathic, but each of us are capable of existing somewhere on that spectrum in pursuit of our own goals.
When our ambition outruns our empathy, when our ideas become more important than people, the net of what we create does more harm than help.
People who want to make a difference often want to work with and for ambitious leaders. But when these leaders turn out to be toxic toward people who want to make a difference, I’m not sure we end up ahead.
Effectively, leadership leaning too far in the direction of ambition over empathy ends up coming across like Pharaoh saying, "I already did the work of visioning the pyramids—you've just gotta build 'em now!"
But leaning too far away from ambition can be unhelpful, too.
There are many cases where we do need to assert ourselves, stand up for what is right, and press against the status quo. Leaning too far in the direction of empathy over ambition can end up looking like Eeyore glumly saying, "Thanks for noticing me" and shuffling off achieving anything but lamenting the status quo.
Obviously these are extremes, but I find this tension between ambition and empathy fascinatingly frustrating.
There are things that I desperately want to make a reality and I can see how I strongly believe they should be. But others may not agree with me at all about that. Some of those folks need to be ignored. But some absolutely need to be listened to and their ideas included. And in some cases, I shouldn't even be the one leading—it ought to be someone else entirely. And who cares if I have ideas or visions for how something might be? Those ideas are just from my perspective.
Letting go is hard when you care and when you believe there are ways that things can and should be better.
Are we better than the deer? The deer is complete.
Why do we feel incomplete?
What is our purpose as a species?
To persist our species? We are part of the universe, a system — and it is part of us.
To persist the status quo? Change is constant, inevitable.
To reach some higher state? Again — are we better than the deer?
We all have things we want to do, achieve, see improved about the world. But what do we really know? There are many times the world would be better if we simply chose to be and not to forcibly change it.
After coming across it in Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak, I have reflected often on this line from John Middleton Murray:
For a good person to realize that it is better to be whole than to be good is to enter on a straight and narrow path compared to which their previous rectitude was flowery license.
I know I have spent a lot of time engaged in efforts that tried to make the world better in some way and I keep discovering that ultimately if I do want to make the world better, I need to put most of my effort into myself. And sometimes that means letting go of things and recognizing when our ambition may be motivated by our own desire to prove our own worth.
After being involved in starting a number of communities locally, I realized that I had a vision that contrasted with many of the other leaders that were emerging and I needed to step aside. At one point, I let go of self-identifying as a "community leader" in our local area. I've stayed involved in different ways, but extremely rarely in a central role. I've realized I have a tendency toward intense and idealistic vision and immense ambition and that my fixation on those things can ultimately become even counterproductive to my aims and the values I am trying to live out.
For me, accepting and embracing my limitations and constraints is a critical part of being a leader. It's why my definition of the way I think about leadership is tiny leadership. The "tiny" bit is intentionally choosing not to try to become The One True Leader (aka Batman), but to continue to make room for the leadership of others.
This concept comes directly from one of the founding philosophers of the Node.js community, Substack, who was one of many who helped articulate the "tiny modules" approach to software development for Node. I saw him say in the Node channel on IRC: "tiny modules build on other tiny modules to build tiny powerful high-level abstractions." Immediately I knew that was the way to describe what this kind of leadership looks like.
But I realized the other day that this kind of leadership could be best described as community-minded leadership.
By "community-minded leadership" I'm referring to both a type of leadership and an orientation of that leadership. Most leadership tends to be goal-oriented—pursuit of our ambitions—and, as I mentioned, far too often power-oriented.
Our power is about ourselves. Our goals are about outcomes.
Leadership is about people.
Leadership must take people into account at all points. Anything worthwhile that any of us is going to do will require and influence far more than ourselves.
I definitely believe you're a leader if you're doing something. A solo artist might not be viewed as a leader, but there's a difference between the art we create solely for ourselves and the art we make in order to engage in a conversation, to influence, to learn, to share, to experience.
Leadership is always about relationships with others—and ultimately that means community. Community-minded leadership means keeping in focus the fact that there is an implicit relationship between leadership and the community of people influenced.
But keeping our communities in mind as we lead means thinking in a different way than simply setting off into the wilderness alone and never turning back to talk to the people who follow. There are those who choose to lead in that way. (There are places where that's wholly necessary and appropriate.) Leading that way has its own challenges, but community-minded leadership means walking a very fine line.
Take the contrast of two of my favorite quotes on leadership.
Here's Dee Hock:
Leader presumes follower. Follower presumes choice.
And contrast that with one of my other favorite quotes from David Foster Wallace:
Real leaders are people who help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.
There is a constant tension in leading that is between these two ideals: people have a choice (and therefore should have a voice), but if we're truly leading, we're likely inviting people outside their comfort zone. They may not like that and it may not actually be appropriate! Most of us have comfort zones for very good reasons and it takes an extremely nuanced, high-trust relationship to be able to invite someone safely out to play on the margins of their comfort.
The path is living in the tension between empathy and ambition.
This is where things get really challenging—and where attempting to do it gets really lonely. Many people just pick one side or the other: ambition without empathy or empathy without ambition. Straddling both means leading in a completely different way than what most of our cultural examples of leadership look like.
One of the most significant things I've learned is just how much people in traditional established positions of power react to community-minded leadership—and I've also learned why.
I spent almost two years trying to bring a public market to a specific location in my hometown. It was very literally a pit and I became its Leslie Knope. (The board I’m on is still working on it in another location, which we’re very excited about.)
The three-acre site had once been the location of Richland's community center, which was torn down and relocated in order to make way for a mixed use development which eventually lost its funding and failed after they started to dig the hole for the site's underground parking garage. And thus it has stayed a pit for 15 years now.
But every time I looked at it, it seemed like the perfect location for something really special. Not only was it the gateway to downtown Richland, it was directly across from the Richland Players community theater and a cute little downtown area called The Parkway with restaurants and shops. It was also directly adjacent to one of the nicest parks in our area along the Columbia River.
I had won the city's public RFP for private development of the city-owned property and was working with a developer to try to create the most impactful project for that location. After a few false starts, we decided to go after the idea of building a public-private development that would include a public market.
We hired one of the best public market consultants we could find, the brilliant and kind Aaron Zaretsky, director of Pike Place Market in Seattle for a decade before starting a consultancy where he's helped develop dozens of new public markets around the world.
I started a non-profit board focused on promoting and planning the project and doing the fundraising we'd need, began leading open conversations about what our community's public market should be like, and started to share the direction with City staff and Council—who were all initially supportive.
The advice our consultant gave us was that we needed the City to have "skin in the game" in the project, but that our non-profit could do the majority of the fundraising needed through grants and donations from sources that wouldn't require the City to bear the burden of the cost.
Yet as the attention grew and the loud buzz about the project dominated our community, Council members shrunk back from the idea and eventually refused to talk about the public market.
What I learned firsthand was how threatening it is to Council members to see a large number of people supportive of an idea they can't control. Despite massive public support for the project, despite Council members individually saying they wanted a public market and that location was a good one for it, despite the City Council's desire to see a great project go into "the pit", the Council repeatedly rejected every plan we provided—even when we insisted that the only thing we were asking for them to do was to contribute the property.
The thing is, at some point, a truly community-driven vision starts to look more like an unstoppable swarm of bees. If you don’t eventually feel like it’s terrifyingly uncontrollable and threatening to your power and authority, it’s probably not a community-driven vision.
As a result of this experience I can understand why many people in positions of power would fear anything that looks grassroots: it very well has the potential to uproot them. It’s understandable therefore why people in positions of power hate to be surprised.
Of course, people in those positions have no problem with surprises in general—it's just that power prefers to be on the side of the surprise in the know.
Most certainly President Truman wasn't surprised by the B-Reactor’s intent. The people who designed the bomb weren't surprised. Just the thousands of people working on it. Just the thousands of people killed by it. One unknowing mob of innocent citizens collaboratively designing an instrument for the destruction of another unknowing mob of innocent citizens.
On a dramatically lighter note, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy provides a moment that’s painfully close to the truth of how we know things work. Ford Prefect finds that his house is about to be demolished to build a bypass. Ford has laid himself down in front of the bulldozer when Mr. Prosser, the City employee overseeing the destruction of Ford’s home, arrives.
Mr. Prosser said, “You were quite entitled to make any suggestions or protests at the appropriate time, you know.”
“Appropriate time?” hooted Arthur. “Appropriate time? The first I knew about it was when a workman arrived at my home yesterday. I asked him if he’d come to clean the windows and he said no, he’d come to demolish the house. He didn’t tell me straight away of course. Oh no. First he wiped a couple of windows and charged me a fiver. Then he told me.”
“But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
“Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”
This satirically example is a far too accurate look at the model of traditional power. (It’s certainly the model most of our politicians would prefer!)
The alternative to leading in this way—controlling, fixation on power, building an audience one can control—is giving power away, identifying and cultivating the real power that already exists in every single person, and helping to build a strong mesh of connections between people who themselves.
Jane Jacobs is one of my absolute heroes and I love how she puts it:
Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.
If we create a future envisioned by the few things will indeed become increasingly worse. If we create a future where everyone gets to participate, have a voice, feel their own power to take ownership of the world around them and make a difference, we will create a future that is resilient regardless of whether or when society collapses.
I have come to understand the value of thinking of any leadership activity as a community leadership activity. Tiny leadership encapsulates this ideal by affirming the value of each individual contribution (everyone is a leader) and suggests that what we make by leading together is more powerful and enduring than what we make by leading alone, while also asserting the importance of being willing to follow as well as lead.
The hardest part of community leadership is it requires you to step into your creation, to live in it, and to live with the consequences of the rough edges—but also to live subject to the ideas and interactions with others along the way, constantly discerning which advice to listen to or voices to amplify. There's a lot of assumptions baked into whatever any of us make, which is why it's refreshing, educational, and sometimes painful to have our ideals meet reality head-on by having to live inside them and evolve a living organism—"creating and exploring at the same time", as we like to say.
Any compassionate founder who has built a team has absolutely had this experience first-hand, as has any empathetic organizer of a meetup or conference.
You start something people join in, you care about everyone, and they all have their own unique experience and challenges with it. It can be extremely isolating to live in the tension of being authentically empathetic in the midst of an ambitious thing you're trying to lead others in doing.
In early 2017, Sarah and I set out to build a community. We wanted to build a community that was a safe, encouraging place for people to talk about their challenges and wins and thoughts in this direction, that people would do just that—because of how strong Sarah and I have each felt that need on a personal level. We desperately wanted to create a place where people—leaders—who lived in this tension between ambition and empathy could support and encourage each other.
At the forefront of my mind as we began talking about building the community was a moment I experienced two years ago. I was in the middle of feeling really alone trying to pull off what was in my head for &yetConf, which it felt like even most of the people from my team didn't "get". (I say feeling really alone, but in reality Jenna Tormanen was every bit there with me in dealing with this isolation—but it sure felt like we were intensely alone together in it.) In the midst of that, I wrote this twitter thread:
Try to do things beyond categorization that are as hard to describe as they are to pull off and there will always be pressure to tame them.
And every moment you'll have to decide whether to do the hard work of defying categorization or just pack it in and be like everyone else.
If you choose to do it differently, you will be—many times—utterly alone and everyone's expectations will make you feel like a fool.
People celebrate creativity and uniqueness when the work is done and the artist buried—rarely before, rarely during.
Do it anyway.
You don't have to be organizing a weird conference or community or even making art in order to experience this tension. It's everywhere we resist the status quo by creating something new—especially if we step off the stage and are willing to humbly live right in the middle of what it is we're making, alongside the people it affects and who we're making it for. And doubly so if we do this with empathy and openness to the people around us, instead of just ignoring the hard conversations.
It doesn't matter who you are and whether you see yourself as a leader, there is likely an area you should be leading in, using your power and influence to affect the world around you through your own unique calling. I very strongly believe that.
As a community-minded leader, we must not let our ambition outrun our empathy, nor should we let our empathy negate our positive ambitions.
Leading anything is really hard—but this is even harder: trying to lead with empathy and respect a lot of different perspectives and not just straight up wield power and authority. Walking that line that embraces ambition and empathy is really lonely. There are fewer things harder, in my mind. It demands immense patience, understanding, and constant commitment to personal growth. But I believe the future depends on shifting toward a model of leadership that walks this fine line of ambition and empathy.
When I think about Fritzy’s two versions of our future, it's a pretty strange and confusing place to be: staring down the barrel of either apocalyptic dystopia or incrementally-evolved-status-quo weirdtopia. And, I mean, what do I do: choose to fear an alternate future that you have no control whether it happens? Spend my entire life prepping and training for a world that I am not very suited for—and which I might not even survive the catastrophic transition into?
The one thing that I know is valuable—regardless of whether society collapses, regardless of what the needs of society are—is better community, better leadership. And thus my life goal is to understand community, experiment, and grow in my ability to lead and to help others to lead and build communities that work well.
Because no matter what the future looks like, we decide.
When I think about the future and our responsibility to it I am reminded of Kahlil Gibran's poem, On Children:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Of course, this speaks to those of us who are parents, but in the frame of this discussion, the people of the future are also our "children", so to speak. Parents who dominate their children or who force their ambitions upon them end up with kids who rebel fiercely against that control, and our society is little different. We know best and we impose our will and presumably wise foresight (or lack thereof) on future generations.
If we are the bows from which our children as living arrows are sent forth, what can we do to aim at the best angle as we send them forth? How do we guide that future with this kind of humility? One which doesn't just assume we know what is ideal for them, and the best way to achieve that ideal.
In his brief (and incredibly hard to find) book, The Triumph of the Commons: 55 Theses on the Future, Leland Maschmeyer says:
Inevitably, those who amass power will battle with those who give strength to others. It is because those who give strength cultivate surprise from others—which is something that those who amass power cannot allow.
Eventually, those who give strength will overcome those who amass power. The presence of power requires the presence of the powerless. Therefore, power is a finite pursuit. Genuine strength, however, does not require the presence of weakness. In fact, strength in one begets strength in another, just as the knowledge in you begets the knowledge in me. Giving strength is an infinite pursuit in which power cannot keep pace.
Those who amass power are focused primarily on their own ambition. Those who give strength are people who live in the balance between ambition and empathy; they know that the more people invited to participate as their whole selves, the greater the overall impact.
Ultimately, the way to live in the tension of ambition and empathy is found deep in mastery of ourselves. (Hence why Dee Hock says leaders should spend 50% of their time managing and improving themselves.) Asking: how can I best use myself and my life—my natural leadership and my gifts, my influence, my encouragement—but doing so while also accepting my own limitations, and while also acknowledging that each person I see needs to play their role in the story, too?
Would creating a society where this kind of leadership was the default be enough to stave off our endless drive toward self destruction?
We might just surprise ourselves.