social change leaders
It has been a rough several weeks. The horrifying brutality in Orlando was just another instance in what seems like an endless stream of gun violence. And that violence is just one of the challenges facing us, from an increasingly hate-filled presidential campaign, to growing wealth inequality, to racial unrest, to political polarization and gridlock. It seems now more than ever we need real leadership to point us toward the light.
But our nation’s leaders themselves are in turmoil. You only need to look at a recent picture of Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to see how conflicted and immobilized a leader can become.
We are witnessing a time that requires true leadership. This is a time where we need more people to ask themselves, “What is the right thing to do? What is the hard, potentially unpopular, but absolutely necessary thing to do?”
I think we saw a brief moment of leadership last week when Senate Democrats staged a filibuster to urge lawmakers to entertain a vote on gun regulation. Regardless of your politics, and the fact that the eventual votes on gun regulation were lost, I think we can all agree that it took courage and leadership for Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) to stand up for 14 hours demanding that his fellow senators take action. His point, along with the other Senators who stood with him, was that we are experiencing a time when leadership is needed. We no longer have the luxury of simply standing by while events at odds with what we know to be right unfold.
As Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) put it:
“In this body, we don’t have to be heroes. We just have to not be bystanders. We’ve been bystanders in this body, we’ve been bystanders in this nation, as this carnage of gun violence has gone from one tragedy to the next. To cast a vote, that’s not heroic. To stand up and say we can be safer tomorrow, we can protect people’s lives, that’s not heroic. That’s just saying, ‘I will not be a bystander.’ And that’s all we have to do.”
A true leader does not ignore the fear that it will be hard, or that they don’t have enough resources, or that they aren’t the right person. A true leader recognizes those fears and proceeds anyway. A true leader doesn’t do the easy thing, or the thing that will benefit him individually or that will benefit the group that he represents. A true leader digs deep and honestly asks — what is the right thing to do? And a true leader does that thing.
As Martin Luther King said:
The great question facing us today is whether we will remain awake through this world-shaking revolution, and achieve the new mental attitudes which the situations and conditions demand. There would be nothing more tragic during this period of social change than to allow our mental and moral attitudes to sleep while this tremendous social change takes place…We are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
This is a time, perhaps more than usual, for social change leaders especially to step up. Because they are in many respects the moral compass of our country, of our world. They are the ones who are constantly thinking about a better path forward — a path that is more inclusive, democratic, fair and equitable, civil, safe and sustainable. Social change leaders are predisposed to rise up and lead us to a better way (and we are already starting to see that with work to address gun violence).
Social change leaders know better than anyone that times of enormous upheaval can also be times of tremendous opportunity. But only if we choose to act. And, more importantly, only if we are led to act.
At this moment we must not shrink from the darkness. We must not cower in the corner, or think that someone else will do the thing that we all know must be done. We must step up, we must speak out. We must dig deep and ask ourselves, “What can I do (however slight) to shift us from the course of darkness?”
And so we must rise.
Photo Credit: pixabay
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