Will Emergent Leadership Save Our Country and Our Planet?

Written by Barry Waldman

Rose Kushner was not born to be a leader. Certainly no one thrust leadership upon her. Instead, she grasped the mantle of leadership from the ashes of victimhood and distributed her hard-won knowledge to others facing a similar predicament.

Born in 1929 to European immigrants, Kushner was denied an opportunity to attend college as a young woman, instead marrying and raising two children. She matriculated as an adult, graduating summa cum laude from the University of Maryland.

Kushner’s path to leadership began with a breast cancer diagnosis in 1974, back when a radical mastectomy was the standard response to the disease.

At a time when women’s health decisions were still largely being made by men, Kushner pushed back. She educated herself about the science of breast cancer treatment and demanded a partial mastectomy – visiting 19 surgeons before finding one who would perform the procedure. While recuperating, she wrote a primer for women with breast cancer, building a movement that the medical community was unable to ignore.

The Many Forms of Leadership

“An emergent leader in the breast cancer fight as a vigorous and relentless advocate, (Kushner) was thrust into the spotlight with her book Why Me? What Every Woman Should Know About Breast Cancer to Save Her Life (1975). As the founder and director of the Breast Cancer Advisory Center, she became a trusted leader in the movement to ultimately change how clinicians, and specifically surgeons, approach treating the disease.,” wrote Dr. Nancy Muller, director of the Lowcountry Graduate Center and an expert on leadership in health care.

Her description of Kushner’s leadership is contained in the book, The Handbook of Research on Innate Leadership Characteristics and Examinations of Successful First-Time Leaders (2021).

When the cancer finally claimed Kushner’s life in 1990, Bruce Chabner, the director of the National Cancer Institute, called her “probably the single most important person in leading to change in breast surgery.”

Dr. Muller and the book’s other authors argue that leadership – particularly emergent leadership – comes in a variety of forms and styles, serves a plethora of purposes, and can be exerted by nearly anyone, irrespective of their credentials. What they have in common, often, are a set of attributes, including the courage to question authority, to build coalitions, professionalism and adaptability, resourcefulness with a diversity of strategies, dedication and passion.

The Lowcountry Graduate Center is helping forge the next generation of leaders to guide the region’s economic growth.

Emergent leadership is first-time leadership that grows organically, rather than being bestowed upon an individual by title or position. Rose Kushner was an avatar of this position, usurping power rather than wielding it, fighting power rather than perpetuating it, disseminating power to other marginalized women rather than hoarding it to aggrandize herself or protect the powerful.

No Universal Law of Leadership

The book explores a variety of leadership theories studied by academics and discovers that there is no universal law of leadership. “The fuel to launch first-time leaders emanates from the passion burning in their hearts to find a cure, end suffering, restore dignity to the marginalized, bring social justice and save others who follow from the same, ill fates. It is here that missions and organizations are born,” Muller wrote.

Although Muller focuses on the healthcare industry and specifically on the leadership of patient advocates, many of her findings are applicable everywhere; indeed, they may be most urgent and relevant now as humans slowly awake to the potentially existential challenge of climate change.

Emergent Leadership and Climate Change

While nations dither, or even deflect the need for urgent action, those outside of power are exerting their leadership to fill the void. Greta Thunberg, the indignant Swedish teen known for hectoring world leaders into greater and more resolute commitments, is one salient example. A mere child, she established her leadership before there were followers.

Entrepreneurs, established companies and grassroots efforts are emerging worldwide to slow climate change where those in power lack the will. Driven by the demands of its commercial customers, the global shipping company Maersk, which calls on the Port of Charleston, has promised net carbon neutrality by 2050 even as it ships more goods.

In a city that experienced 158 flood days in the last two years – quadruple the norm just 30 years ago — Charleston understands all too well the urgency of climate change and its potentially catastrophic impact on economic development in the area, not to mention on human life. The leadership mantle has been taken up both by leaders inside the power structure and those outside it, says Alan Hancock, Communications Director of the Coastal Conservation League.

A Host of Leaders in the Lowcountry

While the City of Charleston has produced a comprehensive climate change plan and state lawmakers have put $50 million towards encouraging solar energy production, hundreds of private actors are taking leadership roles on a variety of scales.

For example, solar power providers have successfully lobbied state lawmakers to offer incentives and streamline utility provisions for individuals to sell back their excess power from residential solar arrays. Google, a significant user of water and electricity at its Hanahan data farm, has pushed local utilities to retire coal plants and increase renewable energy. Charleston Moves and its partners have lobbied incessantly for non-auto transportation alternatives, resulting in bike lanes on bridges and improved public transit options. Numerous individuals, companies and organizations have exerted leadership to move the community towards a lower-carbon future.

“It takes all sorts of advocacy to get things done on climate change,” said Hancock.