A Call for Relational Leadership in Baltimore

May 1, 2015    Blog

The unrest in Baltimore is a case study of conflict and inspires many passionate perspectives. As professionals in the field of conflict transformation for over 21 years, we want to understand what others in the field are saying about the riots. In an email earlier this week, a local educator stated their distress about the “lack of credible, local voices to serve as advocates for unrelenting constructive protest.”

We want to look harder at the idea that what we need is advocacy for “unrelenting constructive protest.” As an alternative, a relational approach calls for a different kind of advocacy – advocacy for unrelenting dialogue to figure this out and for specific policy changes.

Too often it is not clear what the protest demands are. “We want justice” seems too vague. “Stop police use of force” would be better but really it would be best if it was framed in a clear request for something positive where there is invitation for dialogue and not just “we are unhappy, you (gov’t, people with power, etc.) fix it.” How about – for instance – “expand Teen Court” or “fund paid unarmed civilian peacekeepers.”

However in order to make specific requests, protests need leadership. Consider Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t know everything about his leadership style, but we do know that he kept activists grounded in nonviolence. Without a leader like Martin Luther King, Jr. there are just too many voices and too many agendas. It is time for new leadership with a new approach – relational leadership.

It is leadership guided by a relentless pursuit of quality interaction with others, even bitter enemies, and leadership that insists on action to create lasting change, not momentary improvement, but lasting change built on an unshakeable foundation. It is leadership applied on a micro and macro level – in every small personal interaction in the course of a day and in every major decision affecting the interaction between entities and groups of all types and sizes, from small mom-and-pop businesses to the most powerful nation states.

Chaos has an energy that needs expression. The expression can be too prone to escalation into violence without another outlet that is constructive. We need relational leaders who can engage in quality dialogue and transform their communities, and we need them now.