Lead from the Outside - Critical summary review - Stacey Abrams

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Lead from the Outside - critical summary review

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Management & Leadership and Biographies & Memoirs

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 1250214807

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.

Critical summary review

In May 2018, long-time Georgia House Representative Stacey Abrams became the first black woman to receive the gubernatorial nomination of a major party in American history. In an election marked by rampant accusations of voter suppression, she eventually lost to Republican candidate Brian Kemp, despite receiving more votes than any Democrat in Georgia history, outperforming even Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. Her candidacy “created a path to win a congressional seat and flip 16 legislative seats.” Moreover, many contribute Joe Biden’s Georgia victory in the 2020 presidential elections to Abrams’ 2018 efforts. So, in many ways, her loss was actually a triumph.

Originally published under the title “Minority Leader,” Abrams wrote “Lead from the Outside” in an attempt “to deconstruct the successes and failures [she] had and distill them into potential guidelines for others.” She envisioned it to be “the outsider’s version of ‘The Art of War,’” and wrote it to inspire and empower those who, like her, currently exist “beyond the traditional structure of white male power,” be they women, people of color or members of the LGBTQ+ community. “Leadership requires the ability to engage and to create empathy for communities with disparate needs and ideas,” Abrams writes, “and that’s why as outsiders, we can make the best and most effective leaders.” Get ready to hear a few similar lessons!

Dare to want more

When Abrams started writing “Lead from the Outside,” her literary agent warned her that if she wanted other people to hear and heed her advice, she would have to tell her own story. “An intensely private person,” Abrams initially balked at the notion, but eventually realized it “made too much sense.” Leaders don’t just talk the talk: they inspire change and encourage others by example as well. It was then that her “handbook for outsiders” evolved into something even better: a life story with lessons to be learned.

One of the first lessons Abrams learned in her quest to succeed as an outsider was to stretch herself, to dare to want more, to try even when the chances for success seem objectively poor. In fact, it was failure that taught her this. Soon after graduating with highest honors from Spelman College, and at the urging of her dean, Abrams applied for a Rhodes scholarship, “the pinnacle of academic success.” Considering the fact that nobody from her school had ever won it – and that no black woman had ever even secured a nomination from Mississippi before – the scholarship seemed “so far out of reach” when her dean mentioned it that Abrams didn’t even want to bother applying. Yet, she somehow summoned the courage and made it all the way to the interview phase.

It didn’t really matter that she ultimately lost. The experience widened her horizons by proving to her that she could achieve more than she ever thought she was worthy of. During the application process, Abrams believed that winning the scholarship would be the defining moment of her life, but, with hindsight, she now knows that the defining moment wasn’t the scholarship itself, but her decision to make the attempt. “It freed me from this worry that had dogged me forever that I wasn’t enough,” she writes. “The reality was, I wasn’t enough for that thing, but I’d gotten further than [many others] and I needed to keep trying to see how far I could go.”

Failures, ambition, spreadsheets and passion

Abrams received the rejection by the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee as deeply painful, but she also learned from it that losing one battle doesn’t mean losing the whole war. That is another critical lesson she wants to share with her readers: that no life story has ever been a story of winning everything and never failing. “This is a story of how to try for things, and revel in the attempt, and leverage what happens afterwards,” she writes. “Had I not tried for the Rhodes, I never would’ve applied to Yale Law, and had I not gone to Yale, I'm not sure the direction my life would've taken. There are things that open up for you when you try for things that seem beyond you.”

Shoot for the moon, they say, because even if you miss it, you might still land among the stars. As overused and unimaginative as that saying might sound today, the advice it communicates is actually pretty sound and can be summed up in the following decree: set your objectives higher than what you might assume is attainable. This is particularly true if you are an outsider, because chances are you are constantly “grappling with low expectations based on gender or race or class.” People in power rarely have such problems. On the contrary, they enter the room where things happen feeling not only that they belong there, but also that one day they are destined to own it. As Abrams writes, for them, ambition “begins with reminiscences of old times and older friendships or newer alliances. The ends have already been decided, with only the means to be discussed.”

Outsiders need to figure out their goals by themselves. Abrams did this during her freshman year of college. Distressed after a painful breakup, she decided to press pause on her personal life and redirect all her energy toward her career. So, she listed her professional goals for the following four decades into a neat spreadsheet, one that she still uses today. In time, however, she realized that what she wanted to become and achieve was far less important than why she wanted it. The “what” outlines the limits of ambition; the “why” bursts them apart through passion. Unlike ambition, passion comes from the inside and isn’t result-oriented. That’s why it propels one further. “The goal,” Abrams concludes, “is to stretch ourselves, to explore our potential, even when we know we won’t be first or the best.”

Fear and otherness

One of the most common obstacles on the road to success is fear. Everybody experiences it – even white, powerful men in high positions. However, for marginalized groups, fear “can become a permanent companion eating away at confidence, ambition, relationship and dreams.” The reason is simple: minority fears are, by their very nature, intermingled with negative stereotypes which, in turn, can easily undermine achievements and even authenticity. 

Take it from Abrams. When she ran for governor, a great number of her friends told her she was right for the job, but not before mentioning that Georgia wasn’t ready for a black woman. As that phrase turned into a daily mantra, Abrams’ confidence about running for office became shakier and her doubts eventually morphed into “a constant disquiet that had [her] second-guessing a plan [she’d] been painstakingly building for more than a decade.” With her qualifications, had she been a white man, nobody would have ever told her that Georgia wasn’t ready for her. Some things come easier for some people.

Fortunately, by the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, Abrams had already learned that fighting fear is a long-term process.  Serving as minority leader from 2011 to 2017, she realized that the key to altering preexisting stereotypes is playing the long game, while striving to constantly find the balance between fitting in and being authentic. “Defeating fear of otherness means knowing who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish and leveraging that otherness to our benefit,” she writes. “Like most who are underestimated, I have learned to overperform and find soft but key ways to take credit. Because, ultimately, leadership and power require the confidence to effectively wield both.”

Hacking and owning opportunities 

It’s in every self-help book ever written: bold actions are always rewarded for their merits and climbing to the top of the ladder is an inevitable consequence of putting in the hours of effort. Only outsiders know that this is a great myth. “Despite the American fascination with the gutsy move,” writes Abrams, “society is more likely to punish rather than praise those of us whose performances stray from a prescribed plan.” For example, rather than being praised, an athlete using his platform to protest injustice would be deemed “too political” by millions of people. “It’s not his job,” they’d say. 

Well, whose job is it? If outsiders aren’t allowed to push the boundaries, they will forever remain entrapped inside them. But, then again, that is the very objective of traditional hierarchies: to brand everyone who challenges them an intruder and to try to stop them any way they can. For example, one of the reasons why Georgia supposedly wasn’t ready for a black woman governor a few years ago was because there were close to a million unregistered people of color living there. Put simply, “a community the size of South Dakota [...] did not have the legal ability to vote despite being eligible.” 

So, in 2014, Abrams and Lauren Groh-Wargo founded the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan effort to register and civically engage Georgians. Between just March and August of that year, Abrams raised more than $3.5 million to that end and submitted more than 86,000 applications to the state for processing. On Election Day, however, the Republican secretary of state illegally cancelled 35,000 of those registrations until Abrams and Groh-Wargo could prove that no wrongdoing had occurred on their side of the process. Eventually, they prevailed and by the end of 2019, they managed to register more than 200,000 voters, boosting voter turnout in Georgia and granting Democrats a fighting chance.

What this endeavor taught Abrams was that “outsiders can’t win playing by the written rules” and that they have to employ “hacks,” that is to say, “to discover the hidden pathways to win.” Interning, volunteering, finding nonobvious connections to people in power and seeking advice from marginalized individuals or groups who have already hacked their way into the system are just a few of the hacks an outsider must know and try if they want to gain access to higher places. But they shouldn’t stop there. Rather than just getting the opportunities, they must also learn how to own them and how to take credit for their feats. Saying things such as “anyone could have done it” will make other people believe that you are, in fact, not special. And when you are an outsider, you start with a handicap. So don’t ever forget that you must make others believe not only that you are special, but that you are more special than they could have ever imagined.

Final notes

“Lead from the Outside” by Stacey Abrams is a curious blend of autobiography and leadership advice for outsiders. Fortunately, the latter builds upon the former quite nicely, so even the questionnaires and self-assessment tests which end each chapter, though a bit intrusive, don’t dilute the impact of Abrams’ gusty and memorable style.

"Abrams's own grit, coupled with her descriptions of much stumbling and self-doubt, will make ‘Lead from the Outside’ touch you in a way few books by politicians can,” wrote The New York Times Book Review. Indeed, unlike most books by politicians, this one seems honest and authentic.

12min tip

If you are an outsider, try to stretch yourself beyond what you think is attainable. Rather than fighting your fears alone, name them from the outset and learn how to use them to your own benefit. Also, use everything at your disposal to hack the system: that’s the only way outsiders can get a level playing field.

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Who wrote the book?

Stacey Abrams is an American politician, lawyer and voting rights activist. After serving as minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, she became the first African American female major party gubernatorial nominee in t... (Read more)

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