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A Site of Beautiful Resistance

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Shortly after Trump’s election, I’m in a mass meeting. Several hundred people have gathered to establish a new organization meant to channel outrage into sustainable direct action, mutual aid, and radical municipalist politics. People are talking – expressing not only their fears about ICE and healthcare, but also their hope that our work can create something better. Several of them say it’s important to acknowledge “the people who’ve been doing this good and important work all along” (that is, established activists and nonprofit staffers ).

No one asks why, if their work is so good, it didn’t keep Donald Trump out of office. No one asks what, exactly, that work is meant to accomplish – or, if its goals are worth supporting, how it envisions achieving them.

If you start nailing boards together without a plan, will that get you a house?

When you build a house, there’s a very specific goal: the physical structure needs to match the architect’s blueprint. The design’s details, in turn, depend on the concrete conditions, both current (e.g. available land and budget) and future (e.g. the number of people meant to live there). Then, the construction process itself is structured by clearly-defined intermediate goals and benchmarks. You first lay a foundation, then erect a frame, then install plumbing and wiring, and so on.

That’s strategy. You don’t begin with the notion that you want some vague, indeterminate kind of house. You have a concrete ultimate goal in the blueprint, with definite intermediate goals along the way. Now, unexpected disruptions might make you change your plan; what if you lose half your budget, say, or find an archeological site? But, that doesn’t mean you throw the blueprint away. It means you revise it in response to changing conditions, because without the plan you can’t carry out the work. Strategizing means figuring out not only where you want to go, but how, precisely, you intend to get there.

The US far left loves to debate tactics ( Is it OK to punch Nazis ? Is the Black Bloc counter-productive ? Is mutual aid just charity ?). But how does it approach strategy?

Tactics follows strategy.

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From the February 2009 Issue
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Executive Summary

Reprint: R0902J

Although most managers can recognize an off-kilter leader (consider the highly supportive boss who cuts people too much slack), it’s quite difficult to see overkill in yourself. Unfortunately, that’s where leadership development tools such as 360-degree surveys fail to deliver, say Kaplan and Kaiser. Dividing qualities into “strengths” and “weaknesses” and rating them on a five-point scale will not account for strengths overplayed. The authors suggest several strategies, based on their years of consulting experience and research, for figuring out which attributes you’ve employed to excess and adjusting your behavior accordingly.

Strengths taken too far have two consequences: First, they become weaknesses. For instance, quick-wittedness can turn into impatience with others. Second, you’re at risk of becoming extremely lopsided—that is, diminishing your capacity on the opposite pole. A leader who is very good at building consensus, for example, may take too long to move into action.

To strike a balance between two key leadership dualities—forceful versus enabling, and strategic versus operational—you need to see your actions and motivations clearly. That’s no easy task since most leadership development tools don’t spell out that you’re overdoing your strengths. But there are other ways to bring that information to light. You can start with a review of the highest ratings on your most recent 360 report. Ask yourself: Is this too much of a good thing? Another technique is to make a list of the traits you most want to have as a leader. Are you going to extremes with any of them? To check for lopsidedness, you can prompt feedback from other people with a list of qualities you’ve composed or one you’ve gleaned from other sources. Once you know which attributes you’re overdoing, you can recalibrate.

Taken too far, your strengths can become weaknesses.

Consider two leadership strengths: forcefulness (driving your team hard) and consensus-building (getting everyone’s agreement on decisions). Overdo forcefulness, and your team’s productivity may improve but its morale will weaken, eventually undercutting productivity. Overdo consensus-building, and morale may rise but productivity might ultimately suffer (for instance, decisions take too long), eventually eroding morale.

How to strike a balance? First, seek evidence that you’re overusing particular strengths. Extremely high ratings on a 360-degree feedback report may offer clues. Then, redirect your strengths. For example, one executive who was seen by his colleagues as overly aggressive applied his inherent determination to himself—to stop coming on so strong.

The Idea in Practice

Kaplan and Kaiser offer these suggestions for rebalancing your strengths:

Acknowledge Your Overused Strengths

It’s hard to spot strengths you’re overdoing. The following practices can help:

Redirect Your Strengths

Try to balance the strengths you’re overdoing by doing a bit more of their opposite. Example:

A manager’s strong preference for consensus building made for overly long meetings that tried her team’s patience. Beyond a certain point, they wanted her to step in and decide. When she stopped shooting for agreement among the entire team and began settling for eight out of ten instead, her meetings became much more productive. The people who didn’t agree accepted the majority’s opinion and appreciated that their views had been considered. The entire team was glad that meetings no longer took so much time from their day.

The conventional wisdom in leadership development circles is that you should discover and capitalize on your strengths, assuming that they are aligned with some organizational need. No matter how hard you work on certain weaknesses, the logic goes, chances are you’ll make only marginal progress. Don’t waste too much time overcoming flaws; better to focus on what you do best and surround yourself with people who have complementary strengths.

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Joanna Angle chronicles the early history of Moncks Corner. Moncks Corner was an important trading post, and more than a dozen Revolutionary War battles took place in and around this area. One of Moncks Corner’s key historical figures was Revolutionary War general Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox.”

The first stop in this segment on Moncks Corner is The Rice Hope Plantation, which overlooks the Cooper River. Today, it serves as a bed-and-breakfast inn.

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Funding for this project was provided by the S. C. General Assembly through the K-12 Technology Initiative.

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