A Community Organizing Virtuoso

Years ago I was a program manager at a nonprofit organization and decided to apply to be the executive director of the same agency. The board of directors asked staff to review resumes and interview finalists for the job (including me).

The staff I supervised at the time objected to the fact that I included on my resume the accomplishments of the program I managed. Their response was that they had been the ones that did the work and I was taking credit for their efforts.

In a way, they had a point. But they also didn’t understand leadership. As coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi never scored a touchdown and never kicked a field goal. And yet he is credited with the success of that football team throughout most of the 1960’s.

In the end, I decided to take the staff objections as a compliment. That’s because I value the kind of leadership that facilitates the feeling of ownership by employees for their accomplishments. It’s the kind that Marshall Ganz described this way:

Another important distinction is that between leadership and domination. Effective leaders facilitate the interdependence or collaboration that can create more “power to” — based on the interests of all parties. Domination is the exercise of “power over” –a relationship that meets interests of the “power wielder” at the expense of everyone else.

Over the course of Obama’s presidency, we’ve often heard that he doesn’t do enough to tout his own record and when someone else does, activists jump in and take credit for pushing him to do something. Most recently that happened with his executive orders on immigration. Activists who had interrupted his speeches and called him the “Deporter-in-Cheif” took credit. The same thing happened when DADT was finally overturned a few years ago.

While Obama’s supporters often complain about that, I’m not sure the President would mind. As a former community organizer, he is well-versed in the “dance” between activists and politicians. And I believe that his goal as President has always been to lead in the same way he did back in those early days in Chicago. Here’s how James Kloppenberg described him in Reading Obama.

How did Obama, lacking any experience as an organizer, learn the ropes so fast? In Galuzzo’s words, “nobody teaches a jazz musician jazz. This man is gifted.”

Kruglik explains Obama’s genius by describing two approaches community organizers often use. Trying to mobilize a group of fifty people, a novice will elicit responses from a handful, then immediately transform their stray comments into his or her own statement of priorities and strategies. The group responds, not surprisingly, by rejecting the organizer’s recommendations. By contrast, a master takes the time to listen to many comments, rephrases questions, and waits until the individuals in the group begin to see for themselves what they have in common. A skilled organizer then patiently allows the animating principles and the plan of action to emerge from the group itself. That strategy obviously takes more time. It also takes more intelligence, both analytical and emotional. Groups can tell when they are being manipulated, and they know when they are being heard. According to Kruglik, Obama showed an exceptional willingness to listen to what people were saying. He did not rush from their concerns to his. He did not shift the focus from one issue to another until they were ready. He did not close off discussions about strategy, which were left open for reconsideration pending results. Obama managed to coax from groups a sense of what they shared, an awareness that proved sturdy because it was their doing, not his. From those shared concerns he was able to inspire a commitment to action. In the time it takes most trainees to learn the basics, Obama showed a virtuosos’s ability to improvise. As Galuzzo put it, he was gifted.

And here is how Barack Obama described it himself back in 1988.

In return, organizing teaches as nothing else does the beauty and strength of everyday people. Through the songs of the church and the talk on the stoops, through the hundreds of individual stories of coming up from the South and finding any job that would pay, of raising families on threadbare budgets, of losing some children to drugs and watching others earn degrees and land jobs their parents could never aspire to — it is through these stories and songs of dashed hopes and powers of endurance, of ugliness and strife, subtlety and laughter, that organizers can shape a sense of community not only for others, but for themselves.

(If you’ve ever wondered whether Obama had/has potential as a gifted writer…there’s your answer!)

There is both a quantitative and qualitative difference between organizing fifty people on the South Side of Chicago and leading the entire country. That is why Michelle Obama described her husband’s foray into politics like this:

Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.

And so I suspect that when citizens take credit for the changes they’ve worked to make happen, the community activist in him counts that as a success. Pundits who are attuned to the polarization in our politics have a point about whether or not that is a reasonable approach to take these days. But when our founders talked about “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” it’s exactly what they had in mind.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.