Leadership is hard. Convincing othersand often yourselfthat you possess the answers and are capable of world-affecting change requires confidence, insight, and sheer bravado. Lead from the Outside is the handbook for outsiders, written with the awareness of the experiences and challenges that hinder anyone who exists beyond the structure of traditional white male powerwomen, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and millennials ready to make a difference.
In Lead from the Outside, Stacey Abrams argues that knowing your own passion is the key to success, regardless of the scale or target. From launching a company, to starting a day care center for homeless teen moms, to running a successful political campaign, finding what you want to fight for is as critical as knowing how to turn thought into action. Stacey uses her experience and hard-won insights to break down how ambition, fear, money, and failure function in leadership, while offering personal stories that illuminate practical strategies.
Stacey includes exercises to help you hone your skills and realize your aspirations. She discusses candidly what she has learned over the course of her impressive career: that differences in race, gender, and class are surmountable. With direction and dedication, being in the minority actually provides unique and vital strength, which we can employ to rise to the top and make real change.
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DARE TO WANT MORE
I sit in the living room, a cozy space, warm in the early summer. I am perched on the edge of the sofa next to Valerie, the home's owner, a lovely black woman in her late forties. Across from us, seated close together on a wide settee meant for one, are her two children, a son and a daughter.
Politicians rarely visit their streets, which are nestled in a poorer community in south Georgia. Valerie beams with pride that both her children are headed to college in the fall. David, seventeen, plans to study criminology. Maya, eighteen, her belly round with her first child, intends to become a middle school teacher. Both newly graduated from high school, Maya will give birth in mere weeks and begin college months later, an unwed teen mother. Her intended school is more than three hours north of her home, so her mother will raise her newborn baby while she starts her freshman year.
Valerie speaks matter-of-factly about the coming challenge: raising a new child just as hers leave the nest. Still, she is determined that both her children pursue degrees she never received. Maya, the mother-to-be, wonders aloud how she'll do so far away from home and her baby. Yet in the next breath, she explains how college will be best for her and her child. Their future success rests upon her.
I've come to their home as part of my campaign for governor, so I ask Valerie what she expects of someone like me. What can I do to help make lives like hers better? In her soft voice, she replies she just wants better options for financial aid for her children. They will succeed, she says, if they can afford to stay in school.
As I look around the modest home, passed down through generations, I understand both the pride and the desperation tangled in her response. She got them through and has given them the tools to carve out better lives for themselves. We chat more about the worries she's lived with all those years, our discussion turning to the crime and poverty in their community.
Then I ask Valerie what she wants. At first, all I get in response is a quizzical look that suggests I need to reconsider my bid for higher office. I repeat, "What do you want? For you? What secret dream do you have for yourself?" Her confused expression turns to one of surprise. "I don't know," she tells me. "I've been a cashier at the Piggly Wiggly for twenty years."
"You must want something," I probe, "something you'd like to do for you."
"A day care," she admits quietly. "I'd like to start a day care for unwed mothers, like my daughter. So more girls can finish school and pursue their dreams." But that ambition is beyond her — her body language, her tone of voice, her averted gaze speak louder than her words. I press her, but she demurs with a smile. "Let's just see what happens if you win the governor's job."
Valerie's house in south Georgia is not too different from the squat redbrick house where I grew up on South Street in Gulfport, Mississippi. An oak tree grew in our front yard, shadowing the front sidewalk, forbidding grass to grow beneath its shade. Pink azaleas bloomed each spring from bushes that flanked the front door. Our rented house, and the others set close by, teemed with children — all black, all working-class. We played in our postage-stamp yards, make-believing the fantastical. Superhero exploits. Cops and robbers. As we got older, we'd talk about moving to New Orleans or living in one of the mansions along the beachfront that lay less than five miles away, across the railroad tracks that ran in between our neighborhood and the wealthier environs. We dreamed of more, while our parents' lives centered around survival and making it from paycheck to paycheck. Instinctively, we understood that more had to be possible, even if we didn't know what to do to get there. These imaginings — these desires — are the root of ambition.
As adults, like Valerie, we tend to edit our desires until they fit our construction of who we're supposed to become. In such a world, I wouldn't dare dream of running for higher office, for mayor or governor or president. At least for now, Valerie sees herself retiring in twenty more years from the Piggly Wiggly as a cashier, rather than as a small business owner who helps a community raise its children. From our brief meeting, I could see she had the fire, albeit at a low burn, of a minority leader. She had ambition. She had a vision. But she didn't have the faith. And understandably so.
Whether we come from working-class neighborhoods or grow up comfortably middleclass, minorities rarely come of age explicitly thinking about what we want and how to get it. People already in power almost never have to think about whether they belong in the room, much less if they would be listened to once inside. These men — and they are usually men and typically white — do not have to grapple with low expectations based on gender or race or class. Ambition for them begins with reminiscences of old times and older friendships or newer alliances. The ends have already been decided, with only the means to be discussed.
* * *
Most potential minority leaders feel the same lack of faith Valerie had, at least at some point in their evolution. We may not know how to get the first job, let alone make it to the big chair. We don't know how to take the leap from accepting our fates to actually changing them, and not just a little, but radically. Then there are those who simply do not know what they want. The drive to achieve burns inside, often without a clear target.
We want to "be something," but what that is remains hazy. Often, we cannot articulate our goals because they lie just beyond the reach of who we are supposed to be. Ambition's scale is irrelevant. What holds us back is not scope. It's fear.
And because we don't know what to call our dreams, don't know how to make them happen, or are pretty sure we'll be disappointed, we just stand still. But becoming a minority leader demands that we embrace ambition as our due.
In every sector where I've worked, I am driven by my ambition to encourage others to find their own dreams and exploit their potential. Whether I'm mentoring young people in organizations or speaking with those looking to forge new careers at midlife to explore their potential, the starting block is knowing what you want — and then wanting more. Run for office, take the helm at corporate boards, go back to college, or start a small business. Whatever the path, this book is designed to help locate our ambition and use it to create a path to leadership that does not bow to inner doubts or outside prejudices.
GETTING LOST IN POSSIBILITIES
During law school, one of my tax professors, Anne Alstott, hired me as a research assistant for a book she was coauthoring. As I combed through the reams of documents, I struggled to organize them into coherent and useful information. I tried to categorize by theme, by type, even by the size of the page, legal or standard. Lost in the sheer enormity of the project, I couldn't determine what was real and relevant versus what were merely interesting facts on a page.
When I presented my initial findings to Professor Alstott, she listened thoughtfully, asking the occasional question. At the end, she motioned me over to the whiteboard in her overstuffed office filled with books and monographs, and she told me the secret of how she approached research. Finding the truth requires three simple questions, she explained, and they must be answered in any investigation: (1) What is the problem? (2) Why is it a problem? (3) How do you solve it?
Finding, owning, and living one's ambition can feel a lot like that research project. In a world filled with options, we are paralyzed by choices. Or, worse, in so many cases, when we've been told our options are limited, we need to have the wherewithal to find our way to more. Rather than seeking outside expertise on whether we deserve what we want, we must look inward, not simply at our fears — of losing, of not being sufficient — but at the great difference living our ambitions can make if we succeed.
When we win, we achieve beyond ourselves. We become models for others, known and unknown, who see our victories as proof that they can win too. Even by simply embracing ambition, talking about it, trying and failing, we mentor others to see their potential. And by going beyond our own limits, we change the places we inhabit. We bring a fresh perspective to a company or a cause, a minority lens that expands and shifts how the work gets done. This is not news. Think of the companies scrambling to add women to their executive offices, people of color to their boards of directors. Or the nonprofit that adapts its mission because of the unique understanding it gains from incorporating the experience of those who have been outside.
When I work with young people and others seeking leadership positions, they are primed to jump to the third question, to the how of it, without understanding the what or the why. Some pick a place they want to land or a title they like and then expect teleportation. It may sound corny, but so many of us forget that finding and fulfilling ambition is truly a journey, and one that does not come with a map or GPS, especially for those of us on the outside looking to get in. The effort can be sweaty, teary, and messy as much as it can be rewarding and empowering. I call it the hard work of becoming more.
So what takes us beyond the dream to charting a new reality? What I've come to think of as Alstott's Queries, framed slightly differently, have become a cornerstone of how I frame almost every endeavor. Whether the dream is to run a company, run for office, or run a 5K — or even if your dream has not yet been discovered — the path to realizing ambition is the same:
1. What do I want?
2. Why do I want it?
3. How do I get there?
Before exploring these steps, it's crucial to understand and internalize our very right to even be ambitious. Because, for too many of us, we are stopped in our tracks before we begin because we don't believe we deserve to want more. And it is by wanting more that we begin.
I KNOW YOU ARE, BUT WHAT AM I
Early on, I had two experiences that helped me understand how to convert imaginings into ambition and realize that "too big" isn't a good reason not to try. The first occurred at the end of my junior year of high school. My public high school required all juniors to take the PSAT. Despite not having the tutors like some of my school friends, I'm a pretty good test taker and did well. My scores prompted an invitation to apply for a program I'd never heard of before — nor had any of my teachers. Still, I completed the extensive application for the Telluride Foundation because it promised a summer program away from home, and I thought it would be exciting to go to the north. I applied, and they selected me to attend TASP, which stands for Telluride Association Summer Program, a nerd summer camp for high achievers. I took the second plane ride of my life to Ithaca, New York, where I lived with fifteen of the smartest teenagers I'd ever met. For the first few days, I studiously avoided conversation, baffled by how I had been chosen to join them.
To a person, I could not compete. I wrote poetry for our high school journal. A girl there had published a collection. One was a concert-level violinist, and the others sounded like college professors. In our classroom sessions, I was called upon to answer questions, and I got more answers wrong than I ever had at Avondale High School. The other students referenced books I'd never read and scholars I hadn't heard of. Even casual conversation left me adrift, floundering to understand cultural references far beyond me. When I dared to introduce television into the mix, you'd have thought I cussed.
At the end of the first week, I called home, begging my parents to let me leave. I was out of my depth among these brainiacs, embarrassing myself every day. My parents, cruelly it seemed, refused. They demanded that I stay and learn as much as I could from the experience. My dad told me to get comfortable with not being anywhere near the smartest person in the room. I had to accept that I simply did not have the background or education the others did, and it was up to me to decide if that mattered.
The comment stung, but he was right. I had always been smart, but I needed to test myself against those who were smarter, more talented, and more accomplished. My ability to dream meant hearing about, and entering, worlds far different from my own. Athletes are encouraged to test themselves against better players. Proverbs tells us that iron sharpens iron. So too does ambition sharpen ambition. Dreams hone other dreams.
I stayed for the full summer, never once proving myself superior to anyone. Six weeks could not erase the difference in upbringing and access. But I learned from them, in our classes and beyond. I learned to mimic their sense of self-confidence and certainty. I didn't lie about what I knew, but I began to carry myself differently and speak with more authority.
Not everyone's ambitions will be world domination or Carnegie Hall, but we should be driven beyond what we know and feel safe doing. Ambition means pushing past simply what we are good at. The goal is to stretch ourselves, to explore our potential, even when we know we won't be first or the best. I sometimes advise people to watch what they fear, what makes them most nervous or feel the most self-protective — sometimes fear masks ambition. And unmasking it can unleash your drive.
* * *
Telluride introduced me to a world larger than my own, and then came Spelman College. A historically black college with a student body composed of 99 percent African American women, missionaries founded Spelman to help freed slave women embrace their liberty. Spelman operates as a four-year course on deprogramming black women stereotypes — the welfare queen, the hypersexualized Jezebel, being the lowest rung of the minority hierarchy — replaced by a parade of chief executive officers, public intellectuals, scientists, artists, and actors.
My mother tricked me into attending Spelman. A lifelong Southerner, I'd planned my escape by applying only to schools north of the Mason-Dixon Line. I had no interest in a women's college — a black one at that. Most of my classmates since kindergarten had been white students. Plus, as I hadn't been allowed to date until I was sixteen, the idea of a cloistered college experience held no appeal. But Mom guilted me into applying, reminding me that she hadn't had the opportunity to attend due to her family's poverty. When I was admitted, she convinced me to take advantage of a day off from school to visit. I found myself astonished by the incredible diversity of a black women's college, a stone's throw away from a black men's college, Morehouse College. In the end, my visit persuaded me to add Spelman to the list of colleges I might attend. I put the names into a cup: Spelman, Swarthmore, Sarah Lawrence, and Vassar. Spelman came out three times, and I sent in my acceptance.
At Spelman, I had the second experience that moved me closer to knowing what I wanted for my future. Suddenly, I found myself seeing how much blacks could achieve, beyond the handful of television shows I'd watched. My new classmates were the daughters of politicians and famous lawyers and corporate leaders. One of my closest friends mentioned in passing that she had the U.S. surgeon general's home number. While several of us came from more modest means, our college expected us to dream beyond our narrow understanding of what we could be. I threw myself into college life, hungry to become this new superwoman: the Breaker of Stereotypes, Destroyer of Black Woman Myths. I was now in a context that included people of color, women no less, who had confidence that they could succeed.
I learned at Telluride and Spelman that I was allowed to craft my future. Those experiences had quelled some of my self-doubt; but even then, I pretended to be more fearless than I felt. I tried out for the spring play, despite my personal worries that I wasn't as sylphlike as my castmates. I ran for vice president of the Student Government Association as a sophomore, clearly lacking the years of experience my predecessors and my opponent had. I persevered and won, despite my shortcomings and despite my own inner doubts, which I managed to keep at bay, though just barely.
This is where Alstott's Queries, the what, why, and how, become most critical. Once we accept that we deserve to want more and we understand how giving birth to ambition requires knowing ourselves better, we're ready to actually start figuring out what lights us up and then plotting out our pathways to get it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Minority Leader"
Copyright © 2018 Stacey Abrams.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsPreface
1. Dare to Want More
2. Fear and Otherness
3. Hacking and Owning Opportunity
4. The Myth of Mentors
5. Money Matters
6. Prepare to Win and Embrace the Fail
7. Making What You Have Work
8. Work-Life Jenga
9. Taking Power