Ideas & Insights Leadership as the Space Between- Lessons from the Movemen...

Leadership as the Space Between- Lessons from the Movement for Black Lives and Beyond


Jun 14th 2020

Photo by Paulo Silva on Unsplash

The Movement for Black Lives is often met with the questions: “Who is their leader? and What do they want?” These inquiries reflect a view of leadership that is best incomplete. When many of us think about leadership in the conventional sense, invariably we envision some person who mobilizes a group towards action. Scholars in the still emerging academic field of leadership studies have debated for decades whether leadership is indeed about the person or, more accurately, a process. The consequence of operating from these two schools of thought is that an ideological orientation towards leadership is created whereby the illusion of a fixed polarity results. Any other perspective is at best obscured. If it is not about the “Great Man” or “Great Deeds,” most people will not consider it to be what most would call leadership. It is also in this respect that #BlackLives Matter defies yet another convention.

Leadership as the “space between” is an alternative narrative that is being voiced by respected leadership scholars and practiced increasingly by social advocates, most notably #BLM. Such a view makes the shift from rigid individualism to broader collectivism in its orientation. Most of us are now actually experienced and practiced in this form of leadership. Anyone who adhered to the stay-at-home orders during the pandemic exercised a brand of leadership as the space between. Certainly we followed the directives of some formal authority, but the real work of flattening the curve required each home to operate from a leadership perspective that was in between the formal announcements and household enactments.

As a more formal and conscious practice, leadership as the space between has echoes that whisper of Eastern philosophies, African cosmology, classical mysticism, and indigenous wisdom. While such a leadership seems more hidden, its relative potency is open for consideration through this central inquiry:

What if leadership is the transformative tension of person and process, located as the space between binaries or perceived polarities, that creates the conditions for collective action.

This thinking is not completely new. Scholars such as Margaret Wheatley in her groundbreaking book, Leadership and the New Sciences, writes of leadership as a potential. Her contribution posits that leadership is in and around us all the time, ready to be evoked into consciousness and action at any moment. Similarly, Georgia Sorenson and Gil Hickman bring together 20 years of research in their work titled Invisible Leadership. In this treatise, they argue that leadership is more a function of the activity of countless agents who are often unseen but without whom pivotal moments in history would not come into being. In this respect, leadership is not so much the action of the one who is recognized for it, but the intersection and weaving of the many until the transformative work for a cause or a movement are made manifest.

Evidence of this kind of leadership was radically put into prior to the Black Lives Matter Movement one decade earlier during the Occupy Wall Street Movement. When Occupy began as a “leaderless” process spawned encampments nationally and internationally on issues of economic equity, it defied conventional categorization as a mass actions. While Occupy is often dubbed a “failure” as a movement, those who make such pronouncements often focus on the eventual dismantling of the encampments and absence of specific charismatic voices that continued to speak to what the movement represented. On closer examination the language of the movement began to occupy the mind rather than city parks. We can still hear Occupy in the attention to inequities that focus the wealth of the 1%. We heat Occupy in the talk of alternative economic models such as the Green New Deal. We see Occupy in the coalition of a new generation of young multiracial activists. We seeOccupy it the growing protests for climate justice. And we see Occupy in global force under the banner of #BLM that is calling for an end to anti-Black racism across the planet. We can see these derivatives from the ideals of Occupy. In particular the rise of political voices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez , the appeal of presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and the backlash against the 1% has impacted the political landscape. Just ask President Mitt Romney.

Photo by Thomas de LUZE on Unsplash

Among the most powerful examples of how the leadership operates as the space between can be found in the Movement for Black Lives. We see it in how #BlackLivesMatter moved from a Twitter hashtag to be become a mobilization in the streets and in the political discourse on race across the world. While recognition must be given to Alicia GarzaPatrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, as the founders of what has become an international movement, they have built an organization where leadership is largely self-organized and self-governed, absent the heroic and often charismatic leader at the helm.

At the macro and collective levels, when we think about leadership as in between, we more fully honor the nameless and countless people who bring their passions to a cause through quietly influencing the behavior of family and friends or more boldly by taking to the streets. At the micro level and individual levels, our own behavior can be this kind of leadership. Leadership as in between creates space for the conversation where the potential of action resides in the personal reflection and interpersonal interaction.

Let’s bring this thinking more to heart.

Consider something that you care about deeply and for which help is needed to bring it into being. What we bring to such moments are thoughts, beliefs, and an idealized vision of a potential future. In order for this potential future to be translated into leadership, the needs and aspirations of another person must be enjoined. The space between the two people, me and you, holds an infinite range of potential decisions, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and actions. Whether the moment that gets expressed is in an instant or in the course of a lifetime, there is a space between that may not be visible but comes to be seen when the leadership is expressed. One day, that perennial dinner conversation shifts and a new action comes into being. A family member shifts their rigid reactionary stance and becomes open to inquiry on a hot political topic. Tweens take to TikTok and make intergenerational conversations on race available for scrutiny. A friend known for indifference on an issue posts an article about the topic on social media. A group of elders rent a bus and take the cause for a senior center long promised to them directly to the door of the city council. Between the then and the now, there are countless indiscernible elements that cumulatively mark the moment and transform the space between into action — into leadership — into a global movement on racial justice.

Taken more broadly, if we look to social movement history in the United States, we see the space between of leadership more clearly. The rights of women, African-Americans, and the LGBTQ community have their champions. We will hear names like Gloria Steinem, Martin Luther King, and Harvey Milk and often speak of them as leaders. Yet, we do not know the specific names of the countless Suffragettes who also faced arrest and social outrage. We do not know the hundreds of thousands who also dreamed at the March on Washington. We may never know all the gay and trans persons who joined in saying, “Enough” at Stonewall. Yet without a multiplicity of these faces in the crowd who brought themselves to the moment, there is no movement — No 21st Amendment, No Voting Rights Act, No Marriage Equality. When leadership is reduced to one iconic figure, there is negation of all of the necessary conditions that were present in the space between. In order for an image of Steinem, King or Milk to be lifted up, the masses in the millions were not mere followers. They were each leading at their dinner table, in the coffee shop, at the office cooler, and in the streets. They also merit recognition for their leadership.

Absent a leadership that considers the space between, what remains is a partial picture — a symbol without substance and a result without reason.

As it stands now, we continue to insist on the leadership that presents the mythic and heroic figure that stands at the head of the throng and shows the way. Such a picture also presents only a partial truth. The influence of one neighbor to another, the inspiration of one friend through social media to a “friend” that reads their post, the invitation through one click by a network to join a political rally — these are acts of leadership in the space between. When that one courageous piece of introspection leads some marginalized person to find a voice, that is leadership. When there is a shift from apathy to empathy in a privileged person about that marginalized person, that is leadership. Indeed, as it is said, leadership as the space between may first be in mind before lived in kind.

In order to more fully understand leadership in this moment and in the Black Lives Matter Movement in particular, let us look beyond those who we call the leaders to space between. Leadership as the space between calls on us to think more fully for ourselves; to hold more than one thought — one feeling — one perspective in mind at the same time — and to find our true voice that rests in that space between. We are also the leaders in the space between our current thinking and who we may yet become. Let us look beyond the headline that is trending in social media, that one voice that is presenting a way of thinking, that one way of being. Let us also look to the space between. We will have a different encounter with ourselves. We will meet this moment. We will be the leadership that assures that Black Lives Matter.