What Cory Booker is Teaching us about 21st Century Leadership

This week, Mayor Booker is living on a “food stamp” budget to raise awareness of food insecurity.

For those of you that don’t know of him, Cory Booker is an American politician who is currently serving as the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Image representing Cory Booker as depicted in ...first elected in 2006. He caught my attention when Mark Zuckerberg, who had no known ties to Newark, announced in September 2010 that he was donating $100 million of his personal fortune to the Newark school system.

More recently, I noticed his activities on Twitter during the Sandy Storm. He had expressed some frustration that the homeless would not allow themselves to be taken to safe shelter during one tweet and then about 10 or 12 hours later, he was driving around Newark in his SUV personally convincing each one to come to safety. There was something oddly real and moving about this. So …. 21st century. Not just that he was sharing the news, but that he was in action. Doing, not just talking. And then sharing what he was doing real-time, as he was doing it. I noted that night that if someone wanted to see the power of Twitter, all they had to do was to watch the ongoing conversation between this guy and this community of people — discussing everything from Pumpkin Lattes and Krispy Kreme moments, to which street signs were out and what regional areas needed attention. There’s an accessibility and openness to the leadership style. A sense of connectedness within, and without.

And then this week… he has been sharing his own story of beans and rice as he lives on the same budget as someone who lives on food stamps would. He shared that he didn’t have money for coffee (and he’s about as much an addict as I am). It got me thinking about how much leadership today isn’t about the job. ‘Cause no where in the Mayor job description does it say he needs to have empathy. But he is defining the job in is his action. And in doing so, his leadership isn’t about his boss-ness. What he is doing in this act has very little, if anything, to do with his governance charter, his title, his rank. He is, however, framing the issues he thinks matters. By raising awareness, he’s using whatever visibility and role he has to then get people to understand the issue more fully. Certainly I hadn’t thought about food stamps since my youth. If anything, I try not to think about food or insecurity or scarcity because it fundamentally returns me to a place I would rather not be. But in small tweets and little snippets, I have learned that people on food stamps are living on about $30 a week per person. Through his story, he is sharing how it’s hard to study or focus when you’re hungry. He is helping me see the bias we have when we think food stamps are about the poor, when a vast number of US military families are on the food stamp program. Did I want to know that? Not really. But now I do. And it is now in my consciousness. And for many others. His sharing changed me. Not because he told me some abstract idea, but because he shared his story.

It strikes me that this is what 21st century leadership will look like. It will be participatory. It will be genuine. It will be action-oriented. It will be title-independent.

Leaders will do stuff with others, embracing the mess of it all, frame topics that matter, share progress in little snippets, interacting with people (even those we don’t like), embrace the discomfort of real people in real context, show up as we are (as ready as we are at this moment). And remaining faithful that what each of us do may not be the fix for everything, but we work on our little patch in life.

I’m not actually trying to put Cory Booker on a mantel for us to celebrate. Though clearly there is stuff here to celebrate. I’m asking each of us to look for the Cory Booker in ourselves. And I’m asking myself, what will I change to be the kind of leader and person I think is needed for the 21st century? To not wait for permission or sanction but to dive into things that need to be addressed.

I found this video recently of Booker speaking at Stanford at a commencement speech. He argues that a Democracy is a “full-contact sport”. And I’m thinking that we can carry that idea to everything in the SocialEra.

 

 

2 Responses:

  1. rob. December 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm  |  

    I agree that he’s a good man doing good things, but I think this food stamp thing is misguided. The marginal benefit recipient needs more help getting a job, not help getting more food stamps.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. December 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm  |  

      Rob –

      I’m not sure his goal is to get people more foodstamps. Instead, he’s trying to show that people need a help up and (a) it’s not who you think it is, (b) that these programs are not as “rich” as we sometimes discuss as a culture and (c) to have more empathy towards people. Of course, the goal is to use these programs to help people make a meaningful contribution.

      Reply

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