The Other Columbus: Getting past textbook leadership to real change

Our columnist shares his thoughts on leadership, stewardship, change and more, adapted from a recent speech delivered at a Leadership Columbus event

Scott Woods
Columnist Scott Woods (second from left) with artists who participated in Holler, which featured 31 days of Black art programming in March of 2017. Holler, and the leadership required to execute it, changed Columbus.

Below is a speech I gave last week (edited for length and general consumption) at an event for Leadership Columbus. I was a fill-in for Mayor Andrew Ginther, who traditionally gives a speech. If you’re a regular reader of this column, you’re probably catching mad Freaky Friday vibes right now.

I thought that enough of what I had to say to that group of Columbus business leaders, managers and directors applied equally to anyone else seeking to lead people (or do so better), so sharing it more broadly seemed productive.

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Good afternoon. Thank you, Leadership Columbus, for inviting me to come speak to you today. It is my hope that you will find our exchange fruitful and worth your time.

There are two elephants stomping about the ballroom this afternoon, and I will address each of them, but only one of them belongs to me. The other one is yours. I’ll start with my elephant, as he is the smaller of the two. 

Some of you may know that this address is traditionally given by the mayor of our city. It is my understanding that Mayor Ginther could not be here today, and that is how I received an invitation to be here. My tone makes that sound more Machiavellian than it is. It’s truly just a coincidence.

As a lifelong resident of Columbus, I have had the opportunity to do a great many things, wearing an assortment of hats, often at once. One of those hats is as a writer, both as a published poet, essayist and journalist. I have written regularly at the national level, but most notably for our purposes today, I write a weekly op-ed column for Columbus Alive. My column, entitled “The Other Columbus,” is frequently critical of the city for one reason or another. Regular targets include the civic administrators of our city, frothing-at-the-mouth racists, whether DEI is the acronym we should be using, and $30 Fresh Alba White Truffle croissants. So you can imagine why today might be awkward for me.

The good news is that I don’t shy away from the things that I write, especially if they’ve been published. I take having amplified access to the public square very seriously, and the craft of writing even more so. I’m not a clickbait writer or a provocateur. In the words of master storyteller Harlan Ellison, "If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think, they'll hate you." I do not strive to make people hate me because of my writing or my thoughts or my beliefs, but I also do not seek their love, or, as we might call it these days, clout. I write what I believe and know, and I do not set out to do harm, save as a function of effecting change. If I deem you in the way of progress, I may do you harm in the press from time to time. It’s an almost fair exchange of work. If you get paid tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to sit in the driver’s seat of progress in government and institutions and organizations with missions that suggest you care about people, I get to receive dozens of dollars to write an open letter telling you whether or not you’ve missed the mark. An almost fair exchange, but not quite.

The other elephant in the room is yours: While some of you are here to become leaders, statistically speaking, some portion of you subscribe to the mandate of that great 20th century philosopher, Marshawn Lynch, in that you’re just here so you won’t get fined. Some of you are here for your next gig, or the networking opportunities. I am here to talk to those of you who genuinely thirst to lead, or wish to acquire such thirst. 

My entire life I have eschewed the title of leader. I don’t apply it to myself. I am from the school that if you have to tell folks you’re a leader, you’re doing it wrong. I do the work I am compelled or called to do, and then check the results for quality control. But the goal for me is never “more followers.” The goal is “change.” And not just any change, but change for the better.

But better for who? Better for me? No. I’m a writer. I gave up on personal fulfillment a long time ago. A good leader eats last, and so I endeavor to check those results, not against what makes me happy, but someone else. Someone whose needs I know. Not someone I know, but someone whose needs I know. Someone whose opinion I respect. Someone who fights good fights in the face of nihilism and corruption and moral decay. If those people are eating — the hungry, the elders, the frontline soldiers of morality and justice — then I have done my job that day. But if only I have eaten well off of that steam, if I have upgraded my situation on the backs of people in my face who have need, I have failed my calling and I have failed as a leader.

Maybe you believe that your career is the only tool you have to express your leadership, that in every other quarter of your life you ain’t the boss, the one in charge, the change agent. Maybe all of the efforts and outcomes of your leadership flow back to your institution and occasionally trickle through the filter of red tape and optic concerns to where needs may actually be met. Maybe that is the lot in your life that brought you here: to engage new ideas, to wrestle with the challenge and question of leadership. Maybe that is what you believe. As a fiercely independent anti-establishmentarian with blues for blood and a chocolate filling made of Afro-pessimism, I want to challenge that idea. If you operate in a way in which your leadership can punch out at the end of the day, I want to talk to you in the metaphorical parking lot right now.

Let’s talk about leadership in the real, in concrete terms. I’m sure it’s come up before at Leadership Columbus, but let’s unpack it one more time for my benefit, so we’re on the same page even if we disagree about what to put on the parchment.

What has my leadership looked like? How has leadership materialized in my reality? I’ve sat on boards and volunteered for things and generally made stewardship a value in my life. To me, you don’t have leadership without stewardship, without service, a willingness to do every job under you on the chart at any moment. But in recent years I was called to do something very specific, and it has been my work ever since: I set out to remove certain questions.

In 2016 I was asked to deliver a speech about Black art in Columbus at an extracurricular program for young Black men learning to become leaders. Rather than give them some kind of timeline of who painted what where and sprinkle a little Aminah Robinson on it, I decided to go another way. I gave a State of the Black Art Union address. I talked about how Black art in Columbus was treated or ignored. I talked about how our painters and musicians and poets had largely been ignored by the arts industrial complex of Columbus. I talked about how we weren’t afforded certain opportunities, how a handful of artists were tokenized by the cultural system, not to sell them, but the city itself. I talked about how that pitch was make-believe, how the billboards and annual reports with Black artists on the cover weren’t remotely indicative of the reality of those artists, and a hundred more like them. And on and on. You get the idea. 

One thing I said in that speech stuck with me months after. I mentioned how there was enough professional-grade Black talent in this city that you could put on a show featuring a different one every day for a month or two with no repeats and still have a pile of incontestable talent to spare. At the time it was a line for effect. It was true, but I had never put it quite that way, which is probably why it stuck. The observation burrowed into my spirit until, in the fall of that year, I decided I would prove the theorem. I had said the thing was real, but no one had ever seen it, and that was the problem back then: No one could see us. If you didn’t go to the East Side poetry readings or the right club or backroom pop-up art show, you wouldn’t know Black artists were here at all. The arts industrial complex had their representative handful, and that was who got the gigs.

If you asked the people who ran arts organizations back then, they’d tell you that they simply didn’t know who was out there. They sent ambassadors into the community to report back, but that was the extent of their outreach. I know this is what they did because they asked to take meetings with me about it. The speech had gotten around, and so my calendar began to change. My emails got more interesting.

I decided to prove the theorem by creating an event series called “Holler: 31 Days of Columbus Black Art.” The concept was dirt-simple: I would book 31 Black artists across various disciplines each day for a month. I would pay them. I would handle the marketing. I would book the venues. I would print the programs. I and a handful of volunteers would do everything to make each event shine on its own merits for 31 days straight. No days off, every weekend and night. In 2017, for the entire month of March, there would be no escaping the Black creative spirit. No matter what day it was, you could look up and see someone doing something: a dance troupe, an art exhibit, a poetry reading, a band playing, multimedia presentations, dramatic readings… it was the works and the kitchen sink.

I set it up across 11 venues in the city, from independent, Black-owned venues to the Columbus Museum of Art. It would feel like stepping into the actual Harlem Renaissance, but with homegrown, original talent aimed at helping define Columbus itself, on its own terms, and not against the measure of someplace else.

In creating Holler I set out to answer several questions:

Did Columbus have an identifiable culture, and if so, what did it look like through the Black lens?

Could Black folks from every background work together without playing into the crabs-in-a-barrel myth?

Could we build a table instead of trying to sit at the tables of others, which was to say, could we build an independent vehicle that both exposed and sustained, while still succeeding financially, culturally and professionally? Could the Black community of Columbus actually nation build?

Holler answered all of those questions. And let me be clear: When I say “answered those questions,” I mean “made them go away.” I had to build something that not only answered those questions, but made them things we should stop questioning about ourselves, things no one had to bring up again. I was building a cultural curriculum; creating a bigger and better launching pad for future discussion and vision; not so much a better mousetrap as a better starting gate. Questions like these aren’t mind exercises or Socratic musings; they’re problems. Their answers aren’t academic; they’re calls to action and work. How do we solve for X, with the understanding that X isn’t temporal. X is physical. X is a need in the now. X is an actual life.

When you don’t have to wonder or worry about whether or not a thing can be done, you can build upon it. You can put it in your pocket when you go into meetings and some organization or institution tells you there’s only one way to do things, and you stop them and say, “That’s not true. One guy did all of this back in 2017 and changed the city.”

And that was true. Holler did change the city. That’s a bold statement, but it only seems bold because it comes from a place that we aren’t generally taught to appreciate. 

Columbus Black art didn’t need white accountability or approval to exist. We were making that art anyway. It was all of the hustle and struggle that kept us from being able to connect with one another and with the city at large. If the city had decided not to change in the face of our offerings, we had planted the seeds for our independence regardless. We had set up a way to begin defining success on our own terms. We were giving the city a choice: partake or participate. We were inviting the city to participate. Participation is a joining, a covenant, a partnership. Partake means you take what we give you. 

The city responded to Holler by playing ball with Black art, and began to change how it did business. It changed in the direction of equity. (Didn’t achieve it, not even close; just shifted in its chair a little at the table.) And when 2020 hit and the season of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor descended over every aspect of our society, Columbus pulled out its Rolodex and got busy with the job of looking like it cared about things.

And Black artists were on the front lines. We always are. We came out and painted your murals, made your strongholds pretty. We sat down and had all of the conversations for the thousandth time. We drank all your coffee and let you spill tea all over yourselves. We kept speaking through our dances and our paintings and our poems and our protest songs. We shot the films and called up our ancestors in ceramics and pottery. We quilted justice. We put the charge of justice on our clothes. We did all of that in the spirit of love because that’s the kind of people we are.

And so, yes, we changed the city, and that sounds like a bold statement. But it’s only bold because we’re not used to seeing people stand up in their love for each other. We are used to ego and capitalism and hustle, but operating so publicly from a place of invitation, from love, is something we still have to get accustomed to. It’s sad that you have to teach that to people, but that’s what leadership is sometimes.

How did it change the city? Now you can find Black artists doing all manner of things where they weren’t before. We started getting more grants. The city started creating awards and opportunities in which to place Black creators. We started getting board positions we weren’t asked about before. We started being awarded residencies. The checks we got started to get bigger. Not change-your-life big, but four- and five-digit numbers instead of three. Institutions admitted (kind of/more or less/sort of) that they had been marginalizing an entire culture, and proceeded to tap that talent more and more, and for a widening range of opportunities. Not enough to shut me up, but it was a start.

I did what I set out to do. I opened more doors and took a few of them off their hinges. I removed the questions that held people back. I challenged the city to better itself, and it did. I’m going to keep saying it, but Columbus still has a lot of things it needs to do (way more to do than it has accomplished), but there is no denying that there has been real, concrete, noticeable change in just the last five years. All that was needed was people giving everything they had to answering certain questions in a way that was unique, undeniable and unapologetic. And despite working that entire month with a pinched nerve that I kept a secret, my only regret is that I didn’t do it 10 years earlier.

I have taken those lessons into almost everything I do these days. It’s not just a quality control issue. It’s a desire to see vision applied in a unique and intentionally impactful fashion, a value system made manifest.

What is leadership? 

By definition it means “the capacity to lead.”

What does it then mean to have “capacity”?

It means to possess the competency or fitness to accomplish a thing, the ability, the faculty.

What is leadership?

By definition it means “the office or position of a leader.”

What does it then mean to have the office or position?

It means to take on the responsibility of leading others toward a common goal or along the lines of a specific agenda.

What is leadership?

By definition it means “the act or an instance of leading.”

What does it then mean to act?

It means to put in work, to move, to engage, to propose and identify and be the change you wish to see.

Competency, ability, responsibility, work, being. That’s basic level leadership. It’s literally ripped-from-the-textbook leadership. But that’s not what I’m looking for out of you. I can get that leadership anywhere. As a citizen of this city who knows how things work on both sides of the table, I’m looking for a deeper leadership, a keep-it-real leadership. 

Real leadership is about change: managing change, nurturing change, creating change, and when necessary, embodying change. We must always remember that sitting in a higher box on the org chart is not leadership. And because we conflate seniority with leadership, most people in your position end up managing instead of leading. 

I am less concerned with leaders than I am with good leaders. Leadership is not inherently good. There are thousands of examples of leaders who are good at leading people into horrific situations. Charismatic leaders. Qualified leaders. Well-meaning leaders. Powerful leaders. All leading people to their doom.

How do we not be that kind of leader? For those of you who like checklists, this next part will be your jam. Here are four things to start with. I could run this list all day, but we have time for four:

1. Be honest with yourself about yourself.

The first question you should ask before any undertaking is, how do I define the success of this undertaking? The answer must be honest. If it is to make money, then that’s your answer. If it’s to look good, then that’s your answer. If it’s to save lives, then that’s your answer. I don’t need your answer to be pure, but I do need it to be honest. If we cannot agree on success, we will not agree on the path to it, and one of our answers is going to reveal itself in that work to both our detriments. Better to know that going in so we can decide if this work even needs to happen.

2. Lead like there is no tomorrow.

Leave it all on the stage. Work as if this is your only chance to get it right, until you feel the work in your bones. It’s probably not your only chance to get it right, but try not to leave yourself that back door.

3. Care.

If your work involves people, you should care for them in a very real, very meaningful way. Work that does not truly care about its people is going to hurt them at the end of the day. It isn’t going to stick. If you don’t yet care about the people the work is intended to serve, then don’t sign up for it. How do we learn to care? By how well we listen. Not meet once and take notes and incorporate the talking points. I mean to listen with all of your being, to get to a caring that becomes personal. Listening is the first step to care. 

4. Be in the work.

I know what your mission is, what your brand new DEI statement says, what your resume wants me to believe, but what is your practice? Are you, as a leader, in the work? Or are you just an example? A role model? An avatar for what your organization means? If you are not in the work, then you are in the way. 

If real, impactful, useful change is not on your agenda, you might be a leader, but you are not a good leader. You might be the kind of leader that Jay-Z fashioned himself after when confronted about doing more for his people, stating that his presence was charity. You are not the kind of leader the world needs right now. 

America is not getting better. It has never been what it claims to be or achieved what it aspires to. And Columbus is no different. Columbus is America. It is a liminal space that seems divorced from the overwhelming trials and despair that we see across this nation, until you scratch the surface a little. Until you look at the articles behind the restaurant reviews and new bar openings. When Leadership Columbus was founded in 1974, America was still struggling with how to realize the Civil Rights Act passed just 10 years before. The year before, in 1973, students were bringing cases against the Columbus Board of Education because the schools were still effectively segregated. You’re only able to get back and forth from one side of town to the other in under 10 minutes because your freeways were built under racist conditions. In the 1960s, I-70 and 670 decimated Black neighborhoods, splitting them in half or erasing them altogether, cutting them off from the city, destroying retail and residential sectors. 

To bring up Harlan Ellison again, he wrote an essay in 1981 in which he describes Columbus the following way:

“When a manufacturer in this country wants to run a market test on a new product, the city most often selected for the proper demographic sampling, the city considered the most average, is Columbus, Ohio. The residents of Columbus don’t seem to understand how deeply they are being insulted by this ‘honor.’…This is not the deification of taste, it is the standardization of no taste whatsoever.” (Ellison, Future Life #30, June 1981)

This is not ancient history, and it isn’t enough to say you weren’t there so you’re not responsible. The Columbus Dispatch just reported a week ago that racial inequities in the labor market cost this city $10 billion a year. That’s not in 1963. That’s in 2022. Somebody kept that system going for the last 50 years since desegregation. There was a protest two hours ago, one mile from here in front of the Franklin Country Common Pleas Courthouse, over the killing of Casey Goodson Jr., and that happened two years ago.

Leadership understands how history works, and these are the realities that your leadership must contend with right here, right now. This is the context under which your success as leaders should be measured. I don’t care what you make; what did you change? Should we be better dressed for the meeting to begin these discussions? Don’t care; what did you bring into the world to make it better? And for whom? And how do we know it worked?

In conclusion:

You are all armed with knowledge and access and privilege and resources and now, you have a charge. I am charging you. You are armed in this very moment to make change in the world. As I said before, maybe you believe that your career is the only tool you have to express your leadership, that in every other quarter of your life you ain’t the boss, the one in charge, the change agent. But what you must realize by now is that real leadership doesn’t come with a light switch. If you have done the right kind of work, you will carry its values and lessons into the whole of your life. You will find a way to make your career make change. Much of the armor necessary to fight those battles you already possessed when you signed up for this program. What you have acquired since we can only hope you will use in ways that cast light onto the ever-encroaching darkness.                

Thank you.