Generating ideas, connections, and action

Exploring Non-Traditional Leadership with Jah'Shams Abdul-Mu'min

This Creating Space XII will focus around non-traditional leadership. Some of you have already started asking: what does that even mean? Personally, I assumed it was the antithesis of “traditional leader”, but what that actually means or more accurately, what that role looks like on a daily basis was still unclear to me.


Our CSXII partner, Lisa Leverette from Community Connections in Detroit, immediately invited Jah’Shams Abdul-Mu'min into this conversation. Jah’Shams brings years of experience in the leadership development field researching non-traditional leadership. Although he is based in South Central Los Angeles and works at the Los Angeles Trade Tech Community College, he has traveled the world researching cultures and their leadership models. I was fortunate enough to be able to talk more with Jah’Shams about his findings and to be able to share these with you. His answers to our burning questions are below.


Discovering Non-Traditional Leaders


When I was a youth growing up LA, I had the notion that I was all alone. I believed my path to college was my own doing. Because of the trauma and hardships that I experienced, I thought I had climbed out of my despair by myself. When I left my community to attend UC Berkeley, I was humbled by the problems with race, the privilege of others and their elitism, and the disparity that was so wanton.


I developed a great appreciation for the community that supported me and emerged from that experience with a new awareness of racial concerns. I began a conscious healing process that allowed me to see that there were people in the community that looked after me, but before I had not thought about it. People made an investment in my success, no matter how small or what at the time seemed insignificant made my journey easier. I vowed to integrate the stories of my elders and those unlikely sages into my life’s work. Our interconnectedness is a beautiful, undeniable part of my reality.


When I returned from college, my mom told me about her friend who had passed, and she mentioned that I also knew her and that she lived right across from my middle school. The kids called her “Old Momma Washington”, though that was not her real name. Every morning as we approached the corner where she lived near the school, she would be leaning against her fence surveying the neighborhood. “Old Momma Washington” would stand there reminding us kids to pay attention in class and do the right thing. I had not known but every time I acted out, when I got home, my mom already knew exactly what I had done. My mom told me that she and “Old Momma Washington” were long-time friends from Mississippi; she also said that “Old Momma Washington” used to call her and tell on me. In that moment, I realized that had “Old Momma Washington” not taken a leadership role in our community, I would not have gone on to do the things I can now do without support and advice.


After a conference in San Diego, where people were arguing about which group would be the next power brokers in LA, I explained to everyone that I had not come to be a part of the madness but to develop relationships that could move to action and improve the conditions for everyone. At the end of the conference, the main speaker and I were walking towards the train station and he shared with me a little about his experience as a W.K. Kellogg National Leadership Fellow and encouraged me to apply. At the time, I had great disdain for “leaders” because I felt that many leaders betray us or die on their way to betraying us. I did apply and as I was thinking about what my leadership focus would be, I remembered an experience I had as a sixth grader. My class visited the library and the librarian said go to the truth section. I went to the fiction section and she said, “No, nonfiction is the truth section.” That stuck with me; I needed to find the “non-traditional leaders.” I received the fellowship and traveled around the world to discover how people heal from trauma and become leaders. Pain and trauma seem to hold people back. I wanted to understand our capacity to heal and what makes us so strong despite the overwhelming challenges we face in doing this work. When we are in pain, we sometimes spend more time focused on the pain and not realizing we’re getting stronger each day. It is not healing versus pain; it is healing through our pain. Our capacity to heal is innate and a gift that we have to nurture.


In graduate school, I explored the concept of leadership at an academic level. There was no such thing as non-traditional leaders, so I did research. People like “Old Momma Washington” turned out to have all of the core competencies of traditional leaders. She was a non-traditional leader in the community where I lived. I did surveys and interviews with community folk to get their understanding of what leadership was and was not. Most people did not have a name for what they thought was true leadership. What developed was this concept of “Non-Traditional Leadership.” What I discovered was that a non-traditional leader is a person who steps into the leadership vacuum and does what they are supposed to do, support and nurture people. I remember “Old Momma Washington” would tell the young girl who got pregnant: “Baby everything is going to be alright. Your baby is going to be fine.” She was not her mother or directly related, she was just always supportive and nurturing. “Old Momma Washington” is the kind of person who stepped into the vacuum without an election or becoming the traditional autocratic or hierarchical leader. She occupies the space based on her willingness to be in relationship and serve others. People respond to this commitment of service because they recognize the goodness and are attracted to the “Non-Traditional Leader.” The “Non-Traditional Leader” is the servant most likely not to have college degrees. However, they are educated and extremely intelligent individuals. Ordinary resonated with the concept and expressed values, traits and characteristics such as conscientiousness, intuitive, family and community orientation, empathy, and resourceful.

In my work as a facilitator or educator, I will ask, “How many of you are leaders?” Maybe one person will raise their hand. The others will make it clear that person is “Not my leader?” When I ask “How many of you are a “Non-Traditional Leader?” Everyone raises their hand because what they hear is “raise your hand if you’re not a leader.” but by raising their hands, they are acknowledging their leadership.


People often think they are not a leader because they not selected or voted into that position. However, leadership requires someone with the skillsets to be present and supportive of the whole community.


Non-Traditional Leadership & Creating Space


For me, Creating Space it is about the space. Space is where life happens; not in a vacuum, it is in open space. People coming to Creating Space can be in the space with non-traditional leaders from all walks of this life. In a lecture, everyone is looking at the presenter, but it does not serve us; we are not able to see each other and others. Creating Space is a reflection of Ubuntu, an Ancient African philosophy, also an Ancient Mayan philosophy. The Philosophy of “Ubuntu” and “InLak’ech a Lak'en” offers us an understanding of ourselves in relation to each other and with the world. According to Ubuntu and In Lak’ech, we affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others and that there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, and other life forms that we discover our own human qualities. I am what I am because of who we all are. If I don’t rise to my highest level I’m doing you a disservice and if you don’t rise to your highest level you’re doing me a disservice. At Creating Space, people enter into a very open space versus a place for talking heads where people struggle to see their own importance in the process. In open space, everyone is a presenter.


I actually use the framework of open space to facilitate my classrooms. I tell the class “you are also the teacher. I’m just here to check your facts.” At Creating Space, everyone in attendance comes, sits, and talks about what is important in their life, community, and world. People develop relationships not predicated around who is the smartest but rather passion, commitment, values and opportunities that encourage innovation.


In my classrooms at LATTC, I remind participants: “Look at who’s here! We are so diverse. Do you know what happens when diversity flourishes? People’s creativity allows for innovation!” Without innovation, humanity will disappear. As a people, we are curious and our curiosity causes diversity to flourish which fuels innovation.


The Leadership Learning Community ensures that the space is welcoming for everyone.

Creating Space allows people to rise to their highest levels. After the experience, folks keep thinking and transferring the knowledge from their experience to those around them and those that were not there and the learnings continue. There are no big “I’s” or little “You”.


Non-traditional leadership is about feeling. When people come to Creating Space, they experience feelings that are energy in motion. I have never been to a Creating Space where people did not feel welcome.


What is a non-traditional leader?


To illustrate the concept of Non-Traditional Leadership, I often cite Malcolm Gladwell’s now well-known book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000). In his book, Gladwell examines the way in which ideas, trends, or social behaviors spread from being localized and small in scale to becoming contagious and “epidemics” of practice and thought. Exploring the mechanism of how this happens, Gladwell coined the phrase “tipping point” as a description of how seemingly small ideas take on the ability to change the world. He asserts that contrary to conventional wisdom, a few special individuals can set off an epidemic of practice and thought with the potential to change culture.  


Gladwell explains that the mechanics of this profound change involves three specific rules: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. Each rule offers a way of making sense of social epidemics and is directly relevant to our thinking of how ordinary people who live and work below the ‘grassroots of community’ can and do create sustainable change. In the chapter, the Law of the Few, Gladwell talks about the involvement of a group of people with a particular set of social gifts. He refers to three key traits. They are Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. Connectors have a special gift for bringing people together. Mavens are information specialists and like to share it. Salespersons have the innate ability to insert an optimistic outlook onto others and create a bond of trust in a very short space of time.  


Gladwell’s explanation of the Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen is similar to those individuals I refer to as Non-Traditional Leaders. The objective is to spread Healing from Trauma through Community Reconciliation by supporting Non-Traditional Leaders with incredible access into the daily experiences of people living and working in the core culture of a community.


Non-Traditional Leaders are infectious change agents whose leadership credibility emerges from the cultural, economic, spiritual, and social conditions that shape their community. They are men, women, young people, and elders whose unique experiences and skills allow them to work across different cultural boundaries. Non-Traditional Leaders inspire positive change with startling speed because they know what is going on; can bring people together; and can provide specific information, and identify assets in the community.


I would like to thank Jah’Shams for opening the discussion on what it means to be a non-traditional leader. Through his stories, I started thinking of all the non-traditional leaders that shaped my life and community. The many faces that opened doors for me and for those around me and who guided me to where I am today.


I look forward to diving deeper into this with all of you at Creating Space XII and would like to leave you with a poem, which my conversation with Jah’Shams reminded me of.


In Lak’ech

Tú eres mi otro yo. You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti, If I do harm to you,

Me hago daño a mi mismo. I do harm to myself.

Si te amo y respeto, If I love and respect you,

Me amo y respeto yo. I love and respect myself.


“Pensamiento Serpentino” Luis Valdez (1971)



For more on non-traditional leadership see this blog series.