On Leadership

DSA San Francisco has experienced a massive shift in its approach to leadership since our June convention. Prior to June, the chapter had a total of nine elected leaders: seven Steering Committee members and two grievance officers. With the passage of chapter priority campaigns and a resolution to reform our chapter’s International Solidarity work under chapter-elected leaders, the chapter now has a total of twenty-one leaders elected by open chapter ballot, not to mention the twenty-one committee and working-group co-chairs who were selected by active committee members and ratified by chapter vote.

It represents a new orientation around “leadership” and what it means for the organization. I wanted to write a bit on the topic, both what leadership should mean in a collective organization like DSA, and the work we need to do to achieve those goals. 

1. Leadership is a technology

Operating under the dictatorship of capital, it’s easy to look at the hierarchical system that capitalist firms employ and say “if we had our way, things would be different.” And indeed, this is true. If we had our way as socialists, a great deal of things would be different — the unpropertied masses would be the ones in charge of how society is organized for the common benefit, and the dismantling of these massive evil machines would certainly be a part of that transformation.

But the truth of the matter remains that organizations of all types depend on effective and strategic leaders who are able to move people to action. Rather than decrying all technologies of the capitalist management system as irredeemable, a socialist organization should try to understand why capitalist firms operate the way they do, and how leadership in a socialist organization must be developed differently.

It should be obvious that the success of a capitalist firm relies on effective “leadership”  — that is, management of workers in the interest of the capitalists who own that company. This is evident in union campaigns or other direct confrontations with worker power where a single action or misstep from a bad boss can help workers win an otherwise doomed union drive. It’s also true for basic questions of operation, where a firm’s strategic direction can impact its ability to compete effectively with other firms or capitalist enterprises.

But that doesn’t mean that a successful socialist struggle will be one that can simply eschew the idea of individual actors and leaders making a difference in a struggle! As anyone who has participated in an organizing campaign can tell you, strong leadership is often the critical factor in determining whether a campaign succeeds or fails. From the 2021 report of “Stomp Out Slumlords,” a tenant organizing campaign by MDC DSA:

“Democracy depends on leadership: collective action doesn’t happen if no one takes the initiative to bring people together, propose options, and build consensus. Leadership isn’t zero-sum, and one person’s leadership doesn’t have to come at someone else’s expense since good leaders should create more leaders.”

The character, form, and origins of this leadership must be reckoned with, but we do the movement no good by ignoring the basic responsibility of analyzing and improving our own organizing work. Many of the concrete skills of leadership can be best understood as a technology, a technology which can be applied by a socialist movement in order to become more effective.

Effective leaders of all types need to be able to:

  • Develop a clear analysis of the terrain and conditions in which they operate
  • Adapt their communication style and tactics to be effective at moving people into action
  • Take end-to-end responsibility over their work, either by doing work themselves, or finding another leader to be able to develop and get that work done

These are concrete skills that can be trained through practice. For capitalists this is done through executive coaching, business school, rotational internships, and other training on “soft skills.” As socialists, we need to develop our own methods of practice that will help us build the technology of leadership. Through the process of developing campaigns, seeing what does and doesn’t work about them, and analyzing our own personal role in their success and failure, we can apply these skills to our work as socialists.

2. Leadership is not management

Though many basic technologies and personal skills of leadership may be shared between capitalist management and organizing leadership, we cannot simply gather money and hire the right professional staff to make decisions about our work. This is because socialist leadership and managerial power come from fundamentally different sources:

Capitalist management:

  • Managerial power is invested from above (shareholders, higher management, the capitalist class overall)
  • Managerial power is relatively static w.r.t. who holds its positions (the “corporate ladder”)
  • Managerial power rests in driving workers, who create value for the company, to take actions which are in their long-term disadvantage (see Capital, Vol 1 and many other writings on the subject of “capitalism”)

Leadership within a socialist organization or campaign:

  • Leadership is invested from below (organic leadership through informal relationships, formalized through elections and appointments in larger organizations, working to fulfill the objectives set out by the organization through open debate)
  • Leadership is relatively transient (members step into power for terms or for parts of campaigns and hold their power only so long as it benefits the membership, in DSA usually for only one term)
  • Leadership rests in driving other people to take actions which are in their ultimate benefit (this is core to any organizing campaign, hard asks and pushing people to step outside their comfort zone)

The democratic structures of a socialist organization exist to provide clear direction for where the group should go, with group decision making acting as a scaffolding for all members to use as they work to organize the membership. Elections of leaders serve to ensure a representative body acts on behalf of the collective between group sessions.

Where capitalist management can work only if a certain subject population remains laborers and never become managers or capitalists, as socialists we see leadership as something to develop for every participant of the struggle. As Stomp Out Slumlords’ report says, our view of “leadership” should transcend a zero-sum analysis. Our goal as organizers should be to grow working class  leaders.

3. Leadership means responsibility

For leaders, collective and individual responsibility exist in a dialectical relationship: if leaders are self-serving and eschew the duty they have to represent the collective well-being, the campaign or organization devolves into factionalism, in-fighting, and cliquishness. But if leaders ignore their duty to make well-reasoned decisions and convince others to execute on them, then the campaign or organization will flounder and never get anything done.

Effective leadership means understanding this unity of opposites and navigating it effectively. As a leader you are tasked with a particular role that only you are to be responsible for, but your success is determined by your ability to move the collective forward. This means recognizing your personal responsibility to see the role through by any means required:

  • If there are things you as a leader should be doing but aren’t, it’s your responsibility to start doing them
  • If there are things you as a leader should be doing but can’t, it’s your responsibility to find someone who can
  • If there are problems with other peoples’ actions or engagement, it’s your responsibility to let the collective know what you need and aren’t getting
  • If there are inherent problems with the way the role is set up, it’s your responsibility to let the collective know so that they can evaluate their plans and update them as needed

If a leader fails to do any of the four things above, the risk of the campaign or organization failing is high. And while it is the collective’s job to train all leaders in the skills necessary, it falls upon individual leaders to ask themselves whether they are living up to the responsibilities of leadership.

If this sounds stressful, that’s because it is! But as long as we are to operate in organizational struggle, we cannot simply ignore these duties. That’s why we must build up the collective and personal resilience needed for leadership within DSA.

4. Building leadership

In DSA SF, we have taken several positive steps toward putting collective decision making in the hands of the general membership, passing a bylaws amendment for priority campaigns and democratically deciding what those campaigns would be, as well as holding our most contested chapter elections ever with the International Solidarity Organizing Committee. We should, at the same time, invest in our ability to grow into empowered leaders in order to make sure that these campaigns live up to the vision that the membership has in seeing them through.

Communications, parliamentary procedure, and other leadership skill training should be made available for all elected leaders and any members who wish to participate. As many members as possible should be trained in the concrete skills of leadership and given opportunities to test these skills in practice. In DSA SF, we ensure that a rotating set of members from chapter leadership are given the responsibility of chairing our chapter meetings, and hold parliamentary procedure training to make sure chairs can provide effective facilitation. We also passed a bylaws amendment to better distribute work among the Steering Committee, giving individual members a clear “portfolio” of oversight; three months in, it’s already made the work of serving as a chapter leader far more tractable.

DSA must develop a culture of robust criticism and self-criticism to evaluate our progress, following guidelines like those outlined in Gracie Lyon’s pamphlet “Constructive Criticism.” This also means a culture of nurturing and guidance, guided by the recognition that none of us are static beings and that it is through our collective struggle and personal steadfastness to self-improvement that we can grow and change ourselves and each other. DSA SF Steering Committee members have been getting in the habit of sharing feedback after we attend meetings and education sessions, ensuring that organizers get positive credit for their work and opportunities to improve it further.

Finally, all those who consider themselves leaders or are considered by others to be leaders should be performing the personal introspection required to push our work forward. We should always be asking each other and ourselves: are we living up to the responsibilities invested in us by our positions?

It is this development of continual leadership that will define the success or failure of the socialist movement. If we wish for it to succeed, we must begin, this very moment, to cultivate that leadership — for ourselves, for each other, and for the good of the planet’s future.

Sam H-L is the co-chair of DSA San Francisco.