I sat in a glass conference room in the center of an expansive building. The kind you might get lost in. The kind that had a room filled with custom furniture solely dedicated to snacks. I guess the glass and concrete and modern accents were supposed to read "cutting edge" or "innovation" or any number of those other adjectives that tech entrepreneurs pin to their vision boards.” The red leather modern style chair pushed against my back. The chairs were probably $100+ a piece, which struck me as odd since they were so uncomfortable. I could feel the sticker from my thrift store shoes catch the fibers of the carpet. I never remembered to remove those damn price stickers. The corner had rolled up, the sticky side was up and kept clinging to the swirl pattern pile carpet as I nervously slid my right foot back and forth. No one heard my nervous foot slide forward and back on the surface of the carpet because everyone was transfixed on the CEO.
He was a young dude. He had the classic I got lucky with this start up thing energy. Maybe there was some kind of handbook where they taught you to be a Jobs or a Zuckerburg and chapter one was titled: "Wear Ugly Tennis Shoes So No One Thinks You Are a Baller." Why did these white nouveau riche techies were these ugly shoes. If I had it to spend, I always surmised, I'd have the most expensive Jordans I could buy.
Maybe it was just a confluence of privilege that allowed this 24 year old white bro to stand before a conference table full of talented creatives and hold our attention and our livelihood in his hands. I jerked my foot back and the sticker unaffixed from my shoe. "Wait! What did you say," I interrupted, "suddenly catapulted from my anxious and A.D.D fueled zoning out foot situation." He laughed at me and calmly repeated himself. "I don't believe that I should have more power than any of you. I know I am the CEO. I know I am supposed to lead. I know I bought this company... but I can't have more power than you. It leads to corruption." If this were an Ally McBeal scene, my jaw would have slowly dropped open and the sound effect would be one of those sloooooow draaaawn out sounds that depict shock and awe. There would have been a narrator's voice over that explained how astonished I was and then I'd quickly close my mouth and try to play it cool. It was the first time in my entire life that a [white] man (really any man) had openly admitted that he knew that power, particularly hierarchal power, could corrupt. Because I had no chill then, as I have no chill now, I replied, "Okay, we will see." I had no doubt he attended one of those entrepreneur retreats where he was implored to evaluate equitable and non-hierarchal methods of leadership. There was probably a lot of green juice and feelings involved in that retreat.
The meeting was dismissed. I leaned over and pulled the price sticker from the carpet. Dirty with the corners curling up, it faintly read "Plato's Closet $12.00" with the SKU. I put the crumbled sticker in the right pocket of my blazer. I bought those shoes during a shopping spree. Every couple of months I'd splurge on $75 at my local consignment store. With three kids and not much income between medical debt and being working poor, I was damn proud of my ability to knit together rather cute outfits.
After that staff meeting I watched as Ugly Tennis Shoes Startup Bro tried and failed to implement these woke methods of leadership. It was clear that he had no frame for leadership outside of the traditional ways our society interprets power- which is through systems of violence. Leadership and power aren't separate. If you lead something you have power, even if you refuse to acknowledge it. In this instance the CEO and co-founder had money power (capital power) over all of us. The point of my recounting the memory of Ugly Tennis Shoes Startup Bro is that it isn't what we believe about power and leadership, but how we use power endowed to us through leadership. He believed a lot of things about what leadership should look like. He stated his beliefs every time we had to open a staff meeting. He expressed his beliefs when he did his Tedx Talk and when we had networking events. Despite his best efforts to convey his beliefs through language he always failed was implementation. He had no actual framework or script for how to manage his power once his needs came into direct conflict with the needs of his employees.
He failed because his goals, needs, and beliefs didn't align with the wellbeing of every person he forced to sit in that glass box adorned with those uncomfortable chairs.
He refused to acknowledge that power was more than position, it was his ability to affect others.
His needs were attuned to his investors and his bottom line. He wanted to pay his off debt, buy more cheap ugly tennis shoes, and be seen as an empathetic and engaged leader. His needs always won.
As I saw it, If he truly wanted to avoid corruption of power and engage in transformative leadership he would have started from the most vulnerable staff member and took care of them before himself. If power is our ability to affect the lives of others and he wanted to avoid corruption how could he not see that a winning strategy was sowing independence for his staff? After all, they had the most to lose and it was the exchange, and eventual exploitation, of their labor that was providing him the power in the first place. He could have paid of their debt, so they could work freely and with out fear and anxiety. He could have covered their medical costs. He would have made sure they had working transportation. He could have created, with them, a structure for collaborative decision making. He could have given them a stake in the shareholdings of the company. He would have taken care of their most immediate needs in order to break the connection of dependency. Analysis isn't always praxis, though.
One day he called me into his office. He'd come to value my refusal to filter myself. He called it "refreshing and unique" and my 10th grade English teacher called it "having a problem with authority." He wanted to have a frank conversation about how I felt the team was responding to him. His ever growing need for evaluation and reflection was exhausting to me and wasn't in my job description. I sat in office feeling disgruntled that I had become his unpaid life coach. I wondered aloud, "Yo. How much are these shoes you be wearing all the time? Uuuugh. They are a mess!" He laughed and retorted, "believe it or not they are $200. I love them." I blinked stunned by the cost and confused of the purpose of the shoe. They weren't therapeutic, he explained, they were just meant to help him seem down to earth. There it was the divide between what he said he believed and what his actions conveyed. The hour long free self-help session ended. I got up to leave and he thanked me for my dedication to his leadership vision. He reiterated, "I am so committed to collaboration, Jasmine, I can't have more power than you. Thanks for doing this work with me." I replied, "sure," and pushed open the glass door to leave his office. Before I could make my way down the hall, I stopped in my tracks. My right hand in my blazer pulled out that crumpled sticker. The sticker still faintly read "Plato's Closet $12.00" with the SKU and I felt my face flush hot and tear up.