Learning Baltimore

Leadership types look at life through the lens of the leader. It is the leader who is said to create change. It is the leader who is said to control the action. It is the leader who is said to be the agent of historical causation.

How flimsy this is as an explanation for how history happens has been evident again in Baltimore – as it was in Ferguson, the site of the first in a recent series of violent protests against the persistence of racial injustice in 21st century America.

Dissecting these outbreaks in the usual ways – by pointing to leaders – is wholly and woefully inadequate. Who has been a leader in Baltimore? The Mayor? The Police Commissioner? The State’s Attorney for Baltimore City? The various legislators who sought to intervene? Sure, they’ve been the ones in positions of authority. But have they been in any obvious way leaders? Have they been in any consistent way able to frame the situation to enlist followers? For that matter, what about the followers – those without any obvious sources of power, authority, and influence? Have they been the ones controlling the action? Has this been a case of power to the people, power to the powerless? Have usual followers morphed into unusual leaders?

In fact they have – but likely only temporarily. Those who control the streets do for a time control the action – others respond to what they do. But their moment in the sun is usually – not always, but usually – brief. More often than not when the protesters have gone home, the situation reverts back to what it was before. Baltimore in the late 1960’s was a hotbed of racial unrest. And, in response, were in fact numberless government programs and private/public partnerships intended to create positive change.

But, in time, over time, it became clear that the changes were inadequate to the task at hand. The task was so enormous because the change that was required was systemic. It was not about a single individual or a single institution. It was not about developing good leaders or about enlisting good followers. It was, it is, about coming to comprehend that broken parts comprise a broken whole – and that enduring change requires that the whole, the system, be fixed.

Loss of jobs. Abandoned homes. High rate of poverty. High rate of single parent families. High rate of high school dropouts. High rate of crime. High rate of infant mortality. Low rate of life expectancy. Predatory banks. Mass incarceration. Limited access to decent housing. All these issues and then some have a disparate and disproportionate impact on certain groups, most obviously in Baltimore African-Americans.

What’s the lesson to be learned – by the leadership industry particularly? There are two. The first is that because these broken parts are integral to the broken whole, they all need repair. It will not suffice to tackle only education, or only health, or only housing. The second is that systemic repair is not amenable to leadership as we conventionally preach and practice it.

It is not that the problems are irremediable, immune to human intervention. Rather it is that in order to fix them we need to develop in our leaders a depth of contextual intelligence and expertise that far exceeds that which we typically think of as leadership development. What we are talking about here is educating for leadership in ways that are much more extensive and demanding than those that are conventionally conceived. What we are talking about here is learning Baltimore – and learning America. This will require not only acquiring skills, but information and insight into how the system has worked, historically, and into how it works now – politically, economically, and socially.


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