Leadership Learnings: Jahan Khalighi

Welcome to the next installment of Leadership Learnings, where we ask a diverse group of individuals what qualities are important in a leader. As always, you’re invited to weigh in.

Jahan Khalighi is a poet, educator, youth mentor, and community arts organizer. I met him while volunteering with Chapter 510, an Oakland-based youth writing center. Here are the qualities he believes can create a transformative leader.

Reciprocity

In the field of design, biomimicry is a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to inspire human innovation. In the leadership arena, we can turn towards nature to find a multitude of qualities, innate capacities, and expressions that exemplify what it means to be a transformative leader. Reciprocity is one such component of natural systems which is important to center in an embodied leadership model.

Reciprocity is rooted in the value of relationship and in the willingness to expand one’s notion of self to include a wider scope of connection. Lila Watson, an Indigenous Australian artivist said, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This notion of shared destiny and interconnection is the basis from which a transformative leader acts.

Imagine a grove of redwood trees whose roots connect through an underground mycelial network. When one tree is lacking in nutrients or experiencing disease, the mycelial network carries nutrients from one tree to another through an elaborate root system which helps to keep the grove healthy. In this way, the grove is perpetually working together to communicate needs, transfer support, and share resources.

There are many ways to design reciprocity into one’s leadership practice. One way is to integrate increasing opportunities for shared leadership. In nature, we see that being the leader in a V-formation of migrating birds can be strenuous and exhausting, which is why birds in formation have learned to constantly shift who is flying at the front of the flock. This form of shared or rotating leadership helps to avoid burn out and allows the work to be long lasting and regenerative.

In the non-profit literacy organization where I am a program manager, we are constantly rotating leadership. When it comes to events, I step into the role of leader to facilitate and delegate. When it comes to elementary school programs, my colleague steps forward and does the same. Each member of the team actively builds expertise, agency, and fluency in leadership. In turn, we learn to trust in each other’s instincts, unique lived experiences, and creative perspectives.

Jahan leading students at Chapter 510

It is said that the leader in a pack of wolves is the one who has the lowest resting heart rate while simultaneously being the best at inciting play amidst the pack. This combination of embodying a sense of calm steady awareness, with a radical capacity for instigating play, are both qualities that nurture a sense of relatedness in the workplace. Leadership shouldn’t be a strict, rigid, fixated, top-down experience. A skillful leader stewards a space where all voices in the room are heard, where creativity is integrated into every aspect of the work, and where process is as important as product.

My father’s side of the family is from Iran, a culture that prides itself on the elegant ways in which we entertain the guest. Growing up in North America, I heard stories of how my grandfather, who was an engineer in charge of developing the road system in Iran, would spend at least 70% of every work meeting sipping tea, eating dried nuts, and sharing stories with his clients. It was only in the last portion of the meeting, when the human connection had been made, that they would discuss business and make the deal. For me this speaks to the power of authentic connection and the value of acknowledging the whole person in the work we do. When the relationship is strong, trust is grown, and the actions of the work can flow with less effort.

When we foster authentic relationships in our work, based in mutual respect, humility, and deep care we are more resilient as a team to move through the challenges and pitfalls that inevitably arise within the work environment. To base your leadership practice in a principle of reciprocity is to center collaboration over competition, democratic process over individual success, and shared power rather than power over.

Communication

The word person is the combination of two root words, per and son, which in Latin translates to “a being of sound.” We humans are hard wired for communication and it is one of the central means through which we connect. When communication is clear and skillful, the relationship thrives and when communication breaks down there is need for repair. Communication is one of the primary tools of cultivation that a leader must harness.

Whatever model(s) of communication you draw from, whatever structures of accountability and transparency you put into place, it’s crucial that a leader stewards an environment where people’s voices are heard and acknowledged. A transformative leader embodies a form of communication that fosters trust, transparency, integrity, and compassion. They understand the difference between intention and impact and are willing to take responsibility when reconciliation is needed. If there is a challenging issue within the organization/team, a leader is able to confront with care, listen with empathy, strive to understand, and take action appropriately.

In my non-profit, we begin every work meeting with celebrations and appreciations. This is an opportunity for each staff member, from Executive Directors to Program Managers to Coordinators and Teaching Artists to take a moment in the overwhelming midst of juggling multiple projects to communicate words of appreciation for a fellow staff member and the team around weekly successes. This communication practice creates a work environment where everyone can feel seen, acknowledged, and affirmed.

Capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy all foster a culture of separation, isolation, domination, and oppression. Therefore, it is a revolutionary act to cultivate a culture of appreciation and gratitude in our workplace. When competition and individual success reigns supreme in a work team, it can breed resentment and feel like an unsafe and combative environment. To infuse positive affirmation into a workplace through communication is to set the conditions for a team to thrive.

In addition to strengthening the muscle of your interpersonal communication skills, it’s important for a leader to cultivate their ability to wield language as a tool for amplification. A transformative leader not only has a clear and purposeful vision, but is able to articulate their vision in a compelling manner. Words give birth to worlds and it is the poets and wordsmiths who can teach leaders the power of the spoken word. If it is the role of the artist to make revolution irresistible, then it’s one of the roles of the leader to articulate the work in a way that galvanizes and mobilizes the people. In this way a leader takes ample time and space to hone their vision, to connect to the strategic edge of their work (the place where the strengths and passions of the organization meet the needs of the community), and to weave it all into a poetic language that inspires others to act.

While it is important for a leader to sharpen their skills of articulation, it is as vital for a leader to hone their capacity to listen. David W. Augsburger said “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” A skillful and transformative leader centers love in their practice of leadership and listening is a key ingredient to fostering this level of engagement.

Instead of campaigning from town to town and city to city making speeches, Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army was known to sit in the back of community meetings and listen for hours to testimonies of the people. It was through his unwavering commitment to listening and understanding the sentiments of his constituents, that his revolutionary actions emerged. A skillful leader is able to listen to the needs of the people, to the ideas of their staff, and to act from a place of deliberation. To step back and listen, at least as much as you step forward to speak, is a fruitful practice for a transformative leader.

Listening is not only directed outwards towards others in a horizontal fashion but also inwards in a vertical direction. The communication component of deep listening extends to the self-reflective process of slowing down and tuning in. It’s easy for a leader, especially in the non-profit sector, to be overwhelmed by the scope and pace of the work. Oftentimes we act from haste, stress, and overwhelm, rushing things along with force, without fully deliberating. While it is important for a leader to be action oriented, it’s essential for them to pause, consider all the angles, allow questions to emerge to shape the process, and from there, move into action from a deeper experience of consideration and understanding. This level of self-reflection is a vital aspect of a leader’s communication practice. In a capitalistic, patriarchal society addicted to speed and driven by an insatiable ambition toward exponential growth, slowing down, taking time, valuing quality over quantity, and process over product is a revolutionary act.

What do you think of Jahan’s take on leadership? Leave a comment or nominate someone we need to hear from in this series.