social change leaders
As I mentioned earlier, leadership is on my brain this month. And I was reminded over the weekend that inspiration and leadership go hand in hand. You cannot lead real change unless you are able to inspire those you are leading to do great things.
On Saturday I watched the movie Invictus with my sons. The movie chronicles the 1995 Rugby World Cup championship which South Africa hosted shortly after the end of apartheid and the election of their first black president, Nelson Mandela. Mandela saw, before anyone else, the opportunity the World Cup offered to unite a country divided by decades of segregation.
Mandela also recognized in François Pienaar, the captain of South African rugby team the Springboks, the opportunity to create a real leader. Although at first a reluctant leader, Pienaar finds inspiration from Mandela and uses it to rebuild his disheartened team and eventually go on to win the World Cup.
Although the movie came out several years ago it seems particularly timely now because of Mandela’s recent death. The movie demonstrates what an amazing social change leader Mandela was. He had the uncanny ability to recognize people’s strengths and offer them an opportunity to rise to heights they had never imagined.
It seems to me that what separates great leaders from mediocre leaders is this ability to inspire others to greatness. A true leader asks us to rise above circumstances and do more, be more than we ever thought possible. It is at those times that real change can happen.
Through a seemingly innocuous sporting event, Mandela and Pienaar took the rubble of a horribly segregated and angry country and built unity. It is amazing to watch:
The news lately has been less than inspiring. The census data released yesterday reports that the economy may be worse than we thought, with 15% of Americans in poverty, and the median income decreasing. After an almost 3-year recession that followed two wars and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I sometimes dwell on the fact that my oldest son, who will turn 10 in November, has grown up in an era of nearly constant uncertainty and fear. But instead of wallowing in these dreary days, we must find in ourselves, and particularly in those working toward social change, the will and determination to lead ourselves, our organizations, our communities away from despair.
These times require leaders who face the uncertainty with optimism, innovation and sheer willpower. And I don’t mean government leaders, although that would be nice for a change. I mean the leaders of even the smallest social change organization. In many ways, I believe it is up to the nonprofit sector and the countless organizations and funders that make up that great sector, to face, rather than shrink away from, the many challenges facing our country. It is so easy to become overwhelmed by the big challenges and the littler ones. And the leaders of our nonprofit sector are already so worn down by continuously being forced to do more and more with less and less.
But when the constant barrage of bad news gets me down, and I struggle to understand what my son’s life will be when he is my age, I think of a blog post that Kjerstin Erickson wrote on Martin Luther King day 2010. Kjerstin is the executive director of FORGE, a nonprofit working in African refuge camps. In writing her post, she was overwhelmed by the devastation following the Haiti earthquake and struggled to return to the optimism that a social change leader must have:
For a few days, I admittedly found myself struggling with the question of whether the change I’m seeking is even pragmatically possible. I asked myself what all the struggle is for if it can all come crashing down in an ugly testimony to our global shortsightedness. In the midst of the shame and grief, I even asked myself if I may be happier by not even trying. In this world of optimism and change, those thoughts are sacrilege. And yet, we’ve all found ourselves in moments like these. It’s part of the process of reconciling the world we want with the world we live in.
Because, in reality, if you are a leader working towards fundamental change to a social problem you must be inherently optimistic. The beliefs that a better world is possible and that you can do something to make it happen are, by definition, optimistic ones. But Kjerstin, like so many working for a better world, has moments of deep despair when confronted with a growing and seemingly insurmountable list of problems.
However, for Kjerstin, and other leaders driving social change, it is untenable to remain in the grips of despair. It is up to those leaders like Kjerstin who have envisioned a world without poverty, or homelessness, or uninsured children, or crumbling schools to face the bad news head on, dust themselves off, and find inspiration wherever they can. Kjerstin’s inspiration came from the words of a great leader who came before her, Martin Luther King, Jr:
When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Now more than ever we need leaders who can point the way to brighter times ahead. And those leaders, that inspiration, I believe comes from the army of people leading social change: the inherently optimistic, passionate, driven, determined leaders who have never been content to sit idly by and watch problems go unsolved. They are the visionaries who believe, who have always believed, that there is still hope, that we can make something out of this mess. It is up to them to show us the way.
Photo Credit: kekecpp
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