Material Leadership

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 6 min read

It is very easy to get wrapped up in our own beliefs and lose perspective. We all do it from time to time.

Because we’re so close to our thoughts (psst, “the calls” are coming from inside the house) we naturally become accustomed to our ideologies until they no longer feel like a particularly structured or rigid pattern of thinking but instead just how the world is. Without constant interrogation of our own ideas and beliefs either from external challenges to our worldview or intense — and often uncomfortable — critical self reflection, our beliefs grow roots and become harder to move.

brown tree trunk on brown soil

This is precisely the challenge around so much “advice” out there. It’s just one person’s stupid opinion.

This is not to say that all advice is bad or that there aren’t useful mental models and generally accepted best practices. No, what I’m simply saying is that the advice and ideas we traffic in and share, are delivered from the seat of the ideator, and this often fails to consider the material realities of those who are receiving the advice.

This is why great leadership must operate under an important pretext:

  1. It must consider the actual, real material conditions of the situation
  2. It must center the person being led, not the person who is leading

Material Conditions

To illustrate the point, I’m going to take a detour away from leadership for a moment.

I came across one of those “rules for life / cheat code” type posts on Linkedin. One piece of advice said “Sleep at the same time everyday. Align your body with the rising & setting of the sun.”

It’s probably well-intentioned advice but I have ADHD and delayed sleep phase syndrome. I’m 42 and have tried for most of my adult life to alter my body clock to wake with the rising of the sun…but I hate it and it never works, just like I can’t help having a clear and active mind late at night. Similarly, the advice would fall on deaf ears to a bartender who works until 2am. People’s material conditions change whether advice is sound or self-centered.

Another example…

I, like many, recently left Twitter. Personally, my opinion is that everyone should leave Twitter immediately given the rise of violent, far-right, antisemitic, anti-LGBTQ+ and racist rhetoric.

But consider this…

It is REALLY easy for me to say people should up and leave like I did. I’m a self-employed, white, able-bodied, relatively healthy, cisgender man in a stable, hetero-normative marriage, with money in my savings account, and clients on retainer. It should come as no surprise that not everyone has all or any of those privileges or fortunate circumstances.

In my short time on Mastodon, I’ve come across all manner of people with completely different circumstances from my own. I recently came across the account of a black, disabled woman who is self-proclaimed “broke AF.” On Twitter, she has a large following and has found both community and an influx of opportunities to make money. While she has been trying to learn more about Mastodon, much of the “advice” she’s gotten from mostly white, gainfully employed men fails to take her situation into consideration and is instead dismissive, choosing to sit up on the high horse and insist she leave behind her community and business engine in favor of this new social experiment.

Her material conditions are different from those giving the advice. That part really matters.

Rent, healthcare, and food are real life issues, not abstract ideas.

It’s so easy

Herein lies part of the issue in both leadership, and really just being a decent human being. It’s so easy to see things from our own perspective, through our own eyes, with our own goals and values.

But is that all there is? Could it really be that easy?

woman sitting on swing under green tree facing body of water at daytime

Sure, it’s easy for a neurotypical person to tell a neurodivergent person to make eye contact during the interview.

It’s a whole other sort of thing to think about how neither interviews nor eye contact may be the best gauge for competence, or how highly effective people who suffer from anxiety disorders may react poorly in high stress situations.

Sure, it’s easy for a white male consultant to tell a black woman to raise her prices.

It’s a whole other sort of thing to recognize how systemic biases and internalized racism can make it harder for people of color, especially women to get paid what they were charging before you came along.

Sure, it’s easy for the boss to tell you to show up on time, put in the extra effort and stay late, or be more available during off hours.

It’s a whole other sort of thing to think how the person you’re placing expectations on may be supporting their family, suffocating under the weight of student debt, or dealing with a health issue that makes it painful when rushing to work or leaves them too exhausted after work to be more available.

Leading for Real Life

As leaders but, perhaps more importantly as decent human beings, it is our responsibility to center others, especially those we seek to lead. We need to understand the whole person and lead or advise, not from an idealized scenario but, from the real life circumstances of each member of our team.

Yes, we should have goals, we should have high hopes for those on our teams, we should have structures of accountability. But, none of that matters if it is not grounded in reality.

For all the Harvard Business Review articles, Inc.com blog posts, or Silicon Valley hustle bro podcasts, we would do well to remember how many of those ideas come from such a limited set of perspectives or what ideas are even allowed to be published. Even when we do encounter something subversive or different, there’s still a bigger opportunity: to meet each person exactly where they are.

None of us is an expert on someone else’s life. Often times, we’re not even experts on our own lives.

So, the next time you’re presented with a leadership moment or feel the pull to give some advice…pause.

Be curious. Ask a question. Listen. Really seek to understand.

Perhaps that’s a better approach for all of us. To be reflective enough to avoid becoming ideologues and instead ground ourselves in the material conditions of those we interact with.

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