Why we need more and better groups to support social sector leaders

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership development for the social sector, and how best to design programs that create the longest-lasting impact.

The starting question I’ve been asking is: what is it about the kind of leadership required for this kind of work that’s special, different, unique?

One of characteristics of this work is that it is long-term by nature. While it sounds (and is) exciting and motivating to “live a life of purpose,” the secretly difficult part is that when you’re ultimately measuring your success in terms of societal change, it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any real progress. Growing topline revenues is one thing; overcoming systemic bias and exclusion in a national education system is another.  One lends itself to quarterly reports; the other measures progress over decades. 

This is part of the reason that burnout is so common. It’s not because the work can be grueling, though it can be. It’s because the change one is working towards happens at a communal and a societal level, not just at the level of an institution or a company. To counteract the natural sense of alone-ness that this type of work can create, those engaged in social change need to create and embed themselves in strong and supportive cohorts of other change-makers, others who are walking this path with them.

Jonathan Haidt, in Chapter 10 of his book The Righteous Mind, beautifully captures the texture of how groups can transform the experience of individuals. In describing army veterans’ experience in battle, he quotes William McNeil, an army veteran and historian.  “McNeill studied accounts of men in battle and found that men risk their lives not so much for their country or their ideals as for their comrades-in-arms.” McNeill continues:

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle . . . has been the high point of their lives. . . . Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance. . . . I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy. . . . I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.

This observation speaks to a paradox of social change work: we get into it because of a sense of higher purpose, but we need something beyond this high-minded objective to sustain us beyond the first few months or few years. To pull that off – to succeed at recommitting ourselves time and again to our higher purpose – we need to be part of a collective. The right kind of collective (cohort, comrades in arms…the language is less important) helps our ego-driven selves dissolve into the acts of service that further the objectives of the group as a whole.

It strikes me that the notion of the heroic entrepreneurial leader isn’t helping us here. This isn’t a framing that pushes us to create the kinds of infrastructure that help larger numbers of people develop and sustain their commitment to a life of service. Amazing generals don’t materialize fully formed, they emerge from a collective that has a strong sense of norms, identity, and values as well as a well-honed approach to tackle the problems at hand.   In fact, while it’s certainly lonely at the top nearly everywhere, I’d argue that it’s lonelier still at the top of a social purpose organization that has a multi-decades time horizon to make change.

This is not a path one can or should walk alone.

What this means is that one of the biggest and highest-leverage way to invest in this ecosystem may be to facilitate the creation of the sort of deep and lasting bonds needed to sustain a lifetime of commitment to the work of making a difference.

Ensemble

I come from a family of soloists. So I suppose it’s natural how ingrained it feels for me to put effort into mastering my own craft – once it was the piano, but since then it’s been things like excel modeling, writing powerpoints, analysis…and then on to higher level skills like building effective relationships, strategy, storytelling, fundraising, you name it.

There comes a point, though, when the work we do, in a fundamental way, cannot be done by us alone, when the only way to make the change we seek is with others. Lots of them.

For anyone who cares deeply, like I do, about mastery, this moment requires a whole lot of letting go.

Letting go of the idea that when the chips are down it’s my job to jump in and save the day. Letting go of the simplistic connection between the task and the result. And, perhaps most counterintuitively, letting go of the idea that there’s a most qualified someone to do each something. There might be, but since we are playing a long-term game, the question to ask isn’t “who can do this best today?” but rather “who on the team should take this on so that our ensemble can get the best results in the long run based on everything that lies before us?”

Yes, every cellist needs to play in tune, to be able to read the music and nail the arpeggios. But an orchestra is not just a collection of soloists. And there’s a reason the conductor, who plays no instrument at all, stands at the front of the room.

Good Society in India

I’m in India this week, and today I had the pleasure, and challenge, of facilitating a selection of “Good Society” readings with the Acumen India Fellows.

The opportunity to take a step back and be reminded of the words and deeds of the great thinkers and activists throughout history is a rare one, and I thought I’d share some of my favorite excerpts from these readings.

While these excerpts lose some of their richness when taken out of context, I hope they serve to remind you, as they do me, of the great thinkers we have in our corner as we work to build a future of greater rights and dignity for all.

 

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (link)

“Preamble. Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

“Article 6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”

 

Letter From Birmingham City Jail (1963) by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (link)

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

“I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

 

The Republic, (390 BC) Plato (link)

“He who is to be a really good and noble guardian of the State will require to unite in himself philosophy and sprit and swiftness and strength.”

 

The Social Contract (1762), Jean Jacques Rousseau (link)

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.

“The problem [in creating the Social Contract] is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before… [To do so] Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

 

Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen (link)

“The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do – the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve. But this relation is neither exclusive (since there are significant influences on our lives other than wealth) nor uniform (since the impact of wealth on our lives varies with other influences.”

“Expanding the freedoms that we have reason to value not only makes our lives richer and more unfettered, but also allows us to be fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions and interacting with – and influencing – the world in which we live.”

 

The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics (1988), Chinua Achebe (link)

“Leadership is a sacred trust, like the priesthood in civilized, humane religions. No one gets into it lightly or unadvisedly, because it demands qualities of mind and discipline of body and will far beyond the need of the ordinary citizen. Anybody who offers himself or herself or is offered to society for leadership must be aware of the unusually high demands of the role and should, if any doubt whatsoever, firmly refuse the prompting.”

 

The hard parts

The parts that are uncomfortable

The bits that no one else really wants to do

The things that make you feel exposed

And stretched

And outside of your comfort zone

The things that make it clear that what you thought it was going to take to get this done wasn’t right at all.  The funding isn’t there. The strategy hasn’t been sorted out. The roles and responsibilities aren’t clear enough. The team is too small and it doesn’t have all the right skills.  We’re just not where we need to be, and fixing things is going to be a heck of a lot harder than we expected.

All this really messy stuff?

That’s why we need you.

It’s because it’s hard that the work hasn’t been done….yet.

Why isn’t this working?

…asks the helpful critic.

Why has this project lost its mojo?

Why aren’t we wowing our customers?

Why do we keep missing our deadlines?

Why hasn’t the tough decision been taken?

Why aren’t we getting to the heart of the issue?

Good to raise the question. Much better, though, to realize that every single one of these questions offers an opportunity for leadership with a big and small “L.”

Leadership is not about authority or seniority or permission. It is about stepping up, taking the risk that others won’t, taking a point of view, putting yourself on the line.  It’s about saying the things you wish someone else (your boss, your colleague, the young new member of your team) would say.  It’s about grabbing the agenda, or ending the meeting early, or even walking with a new sense of purpose.  It’s about changing something in your own behavior in a way that shifts the structures and the attitudes of everyone around you.

We know you’re smart enough to ask the tough questions. What we need more of is the courage to lead.

“Leadership”

A few weeks ago I was speaking to a friend and advisor and he asked me, “what’s your definition of leadership?”

I thought about it, and then thought about it a little more, and a little more… until I realized that I didn’t have a definition. Not a good one, a real one, something that was more than words and that really means something to me.

So I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and I came up with, “giving those around you the desire and the belief that they can accomplish great things.”

His definition, he told me the other day, was simpler still: “winning over the hearts and minds of those you’re leading. ”

Hearts and minds. Minds and hearts. Both.

Yeah, that’s right.

The end of the line

One day in the not-so-distant future, you’ll get there.  The end of the line.  The top of your organization.  The top of your field.  Nowhere else to go, because you’ll have arrived.

Most likely, that day won’t be within striking distance of the end of your career.  Far from it.  So there you will be, at the top of your game and the top of the ladder you spent all that time and energy climbing.

And then you’ll have no choice but to make a shift.  They’ll be no sense any more (was there ever?) in the obvious milestones of advancement: title, promotion, compensation.  In all the important ways, those things will be behind you.  At which point your yardstick will cease to be how high you can climb and become, instead, the actual impact you are having on the world, the change you are creating for others.

Imagine not waiting until that future date to let go of striving for the obvious markers of success and progress.  Imagine how letting go now, not five or 10 or 15 years from now, would free up all the energy you’re putting into the climb.  Imagine your confidence and sense of relief in recognizing that someday soon you will get there, which is why there’s no need to (and not much result in) continuing to push the rope.  Imagine your ability to focus on the stuff that really matters: the really important, hard-for-the-right-reasons elements of making a difference.

Isn’t this, in the end, what it means to live a life of service?

Isn’t this why anyone who gets to the “top” discovers that it’s really just a starting line?