Network Leadership Superpowers

Jennifer Pahlka
4 min readJun 13, 2018


Erie Meyer has run back into the burning building, God bless her. After the election, we recruited her to Code for America to lead important and much-needed work leading the Brigades and our Talent Initiative. Having strengthened the Brigade network in all the right ways, and built a truly impressive team, she’s now been pulled into another incredibly important job at the Federal Trade Commission, working to combat the misuse of our data. As sad as I am to say goodbye to her, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t celebrate her return to government, given my views on public service, especially in a job with this much on the line. When we talk about government needing to work for the people and by the people in a digital age, this is one of those jobs government must get right, despite the obvious limitation that come working in an institution we have not yet updated for the modern era. If anyone’s up to the task, it’s Erie and her partner at the FTC Rohit Chopra, one of the new commissioners. Go get em, team!

As we search for a new leader for the Brigade network, I’ve been reflecting on what made Erie such a strong leader for this work. This kind of work, leading a network but supported by a small organization, is increasingly common, but what makes leadership of this kind good is not necessarily obvious. Some of the things Erie did exceptionally well include:

Elevating and celebrating with vigor. Erie is a cheerleader in the absolutely best sense of the word. Anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of her enthusiasm for their work knows the wonderful feeling of being recognized and valued. The Brigade network is like a stunning garden (if gardens are your thing, and they indeed are mine) in which beautiful, shiny, healthy fruits and vegetables are in various stages of growth, and some just need a little more sunlight, water, or fertilizer to become the beautiful organic specimens they were meant to be. The amazing Brigade volunteers and leaders provide most of those ingredients, but a bit more light, in the form of recognition, praise, or attention can sometimes mean the difference, not just to projects, but to ideas, people, and connections. Erie excelled at this, and we all felt and appreciated it, those of us working on the support team in San Francisco, and those in Brigade communities around the country. The team and the National Advisory Council also elevate and celebrate with joy and meaning, so we certainly don’t lose this with Erie’s departure!

Governance. Erie came in a bit after our first National Advisory Council elections and partnered closely with our amazing representatives to help that group establish purpose and norms. She and the leadership facilitated the process of a new election, using a thoughtful, iterative approach that took lessons learned into account. Establishing functional governance has been transformative to the network, but perhaps not even the most critical element of the increased health of Brigades. That honor may fall to a priority that’s best summarized by the training day at the Code for America Summit led by Laurenellen McCann: Accountability is a Form of Care. Actively enforcing the Code of Conduct and thoughtfully and firmly addressing behaviors that alienate members of the community — which has been a lot of hard work by members of the NAC and the staff, particularly Christopher Whitaker — makes all the difference.

The National Advisory Council and Brigade team staff

Walking the talk. Our principles and values don’t mean squat if we as a community don’t live them. There’s more on each one here, but the short version is:

  • Solve real problems.
  • Work with, not for, the people we serve.
  • We build up — from the user to the system, and from the local to the federal.
  • Work lean, iterate quickly.
  • Make it better with data.
  • Impact not ideology.
  • Shape the market, don’t take the market.
  • Non-partisan, but not neutral.
  • Default to open.

As a leader, Erie both demonstrated these principles (with not for, iterate quickly, non-partisan but not neutral especially) in action and elevated great examples of those in the network. She has a great spidey sense for what’s a real problem, not a solution in search of a problem. And she’s great at reframing efforts to focus on the value that’s likely to come out of them. As they say, the outcome of a hackathon is not code, it’s community; and that’s just one example. Framing and re-framing activities to highlight and steward the principles and values is a great and valuable skill.

I know the whole community joins me in thanking Erie for her service to Code for America and the Brigade community and wishing her the best back in federal public service. She leaves behind a world-class team and a strong relationships with our exceptional NAC. I know everyone is eager to welcome her replacement (and the application for the job is here). Whoever it is, we’ll be welcoming an equally unique and passionate individual, who will share some of Erie’s wonderful qualities and bring many of their own.




Jennifer Pahlka

Author of Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better, out May 23. Pre-order! (thank you)