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Leadership as Creating Change

By Nell Edgington

Leadership is a nebulous, mysterious, misunderstood element of an organization’s success.  But if we can re-frame successful leadership as a way to create social change, then perhaps there is something to be gained for social entrepreneurs.

What really is leadership?  What can it do and how does it function effectively to help a company or organization achieve its goals?  Many people are familiar with Jim Collins’ landmark book on the most successful American companies Good to Great. He discovered that “Great” companies all had a leader with “Level 5 leadership” during their pivotal transition from being a good company to becoming a great one.  He defines a Level 5 leader as “an individual who blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will.”   The Level 5 leader is the final rung on a ladder  of increasingly advanced leadership styles:


The Level 5 leader is a humble one that has “ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.”  This leader moves beyond simply managing people and projects, and even beyond getting people behind a common vision, to ensuring that the group, organization, or company becomes exceptional.

But I think people are probably less familiar with Ronald Heifetz’s study of leadership, Leadership Without Easy Answers, several years before.  Heifetz provides a framework  for understanding what leadership is and how it can be practiced effectively to create social change.  And I think his model, because it is about social change, could be very useful to social entrepreneurs.

He defines leadership as “mobilizing people to tackle tough problems.”   Leadership, for him, is about getting a group of people (a community, or society) to make the adaptations necessary in order to survive and thrive.  Indeed, Heifetz argues that the “most valuable task of leadership may be advancing goals and designing strategy that promote adaptive work.”   “Tackling tough problems—problems that often require an evolution of values—is the end of leadership; getting that work done is its essence.”

He makes a distinction between two types of situations and their appropriate leadership responses.  A technical situation is when the problem facing a group is recognizable and can be solved with a response that has worked in the past.  In this case the leadership response should be authoritative; if the problem is recognizable, the leader simply demands that the group employ the solution that has worked before.  For example, a city manager will ask city departments to cut their budgets by 10% when there is a budget shortfall.

However, in an adaptive situation, progress on the problem requires changes in the group’s values, attitudes, or habits.  Therefore, the leadership response cannot be authoritative–a leader cannot simply tell people to change.  Rather in the adaptive situation the leader must help the social system “learn its way forward.”  The leader helps guide this new learning, and thus helps guide the group towards change. For example, a mayor facing rising city crime rates cannot simply demand that crime go down.  Rather, a skilled mayor would analyze the problem and help the entire community (homeowners, business owners, police, schools) work together to create a new solution to the problem, which would, no doubt, involve changes in behaviors, attitudes and habits.

I think there is much to be learned here for social entrepreneurs.  Aren’t the most successful social entrepreneurs  ultimately adaptive leaders?  Social entrepreneurs are trying to help a system “learn its way forward.”  They identify some sort of disequilibrium and then work tirelessly to help people within a community change their values, attitudes, habits, behaviors in order to solve the disequilibrium.  As David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, says:

An important social change frequently begins with a single entrepreneurial author: one obsessive individual who sees a problem and envisions a new solution, who takes the initiative to act on that vision, who gathers resources and builds organizations to protect and market that vision, who provides the energy and sustained focus to overcome the inevitable resistance and who – decade after decade – keeps improving, strengthening, and broadening that vision until what was once a marginal idea has become a new norm.

So a true social entrepreneur is really just a very successful adaptive leader.  Perhaps Heifetz’s model of leadership could be instructive to the many burgeoning social entrepreneurs throughout the world.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009 Social Entrepreneurship

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1 Comment to Leadership as Creating Change

[…] Leadership as Creating Change | Social Velocity Nell Edgington compares Jim Collins' Good to Great leadership style to Ronald Heifetz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers style and suggests that social entrepreneurs might not want to follow the Jim Collins approach. (tags: philanthropy) Tweet This Post  […]

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