Leadership Library Review – Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change

September 2019

Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change by Stacey Abrams (Picador, 2019)

What are the big take-aways?

With candor, insight and flair, Stacey Abrams – the first woman and first person of color to make the general election ballot for governor of Georgia – offers a clever mash-up of memoir and leadership handbook in Lead from the Outside.  Drawing on her dazzling career as an attorney, novelist, entrepreneur, nonprofit guru, as well as her political experience as minority leader of the Georgia House Democrats before narrowly losing her bid for governor in 2018 in a vote-counting controversy, Abrams uses her own life story in service as a mentoring guide for all kinds of leaders to gain traction in systems historically rigged to keep them out. Her primary audiences for this book are women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and millennials.  Abrams says on pp. 200-201 that the whole point of Lead from the Outside is to:

…ask each of us to think about why we want what we want and to give ourselves permission to figure out how we can continue to grow personally and professionally. I want you to be uncomfortable with the exercises, to dig into your plans, and to question your assumptions about what could be yours.  My mission is to help you imagine or reimagine your future…For all of us, even me, we have to consistently remember that the game is stacked, but if we unlock the cheat codes, we can play to win.

At the same time, she makes clear that the purpose of winning leadership power is to serve everyone with integrity, including those in whose favor the game is stacked.

Why do I like it?

I like the book’s advice on ethical ways to hack into powerful positions, and its consistent focus on authenticity and belonging.  For example, Abrams chronicles how she leaned into her natural gifts and strengths during her rise to power in the Georgia House in order to counter stereotypes about her as a woman of color, even as she realized that this caused people in her African American community to question her “blackness.” She was also keenly aware that her ability to transcend expectations of demonstrably indignant behavior created a bind for her within the double-standards applying to white men, whose similar calm demeanors were seen as “composed and introspective,” whereas she was critiqued as being “cold and aloof” (pp. 43).  Abrams confides on pages 43-44:

More than once, I have found myself wondering if I have overcorrected, moving from one stereotype to another: from Shanaynay to Uncle Tom.  When these doubts arise, my instinct is to quash them and bask in the righteousness of my decisions.  I refused to be a stereotype, to be reduced to the memes of my community.  But to defeat those labels and emerge authentic, we cannot simply ignore the fear of being treated as a single representation. We must examine our actions to ensure that our reactions are genuine and not a fear-driven response.  Fear of being seen as too colored, as too female, as too much of what we are.  The analysis must be internal, exhaustive, and honest.  And in the end, if you think you were right to behave as you did, then own it and move on.

In my opinion, Abrams is at her best in Lead from the Outside when she is in this mode of curating her own life lessons and then converting them into empathetic advice, career-mapping ideas and coaching tools. The whole book is an engaging course in how to effectuate change from outside of traditional power structures, but the most potent chapters – in addition to the inspiring preface – are the ones titled “Fear and Otherness,” “Hacking and Owning Opportunity,” “Money Matters” and “Prepare to Win and Embrace the Fail.”

In what situations would this be useful?

Lead from the Outside offers pragmatic strategies that any motivated person of an under-represented group can employ in order to spot, seize or create leadership opportunities without compromising their values or authenticity.  If you feel caught in the double-binds within double standards in your career and could use some moral support and fresh exercises to help you plan your next steps, this book could be very useful.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

In alignment with Abrams’s philosophy of leadership, I too believe that sharing authentic narratives is crucial to how women, people of color (perhaps African-Americans in particular, at least in the U.S.) and leaders from other traditionally excluded populations can leverage their life stories in order to amplify their voices and influence.  For a handbook specifically designed to develop authentic leadership, see Bill George et al.’sTrue North Fieldbook (reviewed here in the Leadership Library).

For an exploration of courage in leadership, with a focus on the African-American experience, I recommend the On Being” interview of Congressman John Lewis by Krista Tippett, “Love in Action,” combined with an illuminating piece by Maria Popova in her wonderful Brain Pickings blog, entitled “A Burst of Light: Audre Lorde on Turning Fear into Fire.”   (Stacey Abrams opens her book with one of my all-time favorite quotations about leadership, which is by Audre Lorde: “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”)

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