There is a tendency in the social entrepreneurship movement to think that everything related to social entrepreneurs and social innovation is new. But much can be gained by occasionally looking to other sources, examples, people and models to inform how change, in a broader context, happens and is eventually made a new norm.
One of these older models that could prove helpful to social entrepreneurs is the concept of Real Change Leaders–agents of change within successful companies–which was introduced by Jon Katzenbach’s 1995 book of the same name. By “real change leaders” he meant mid-level, corporate employees who were working to encourage innovation within the company, which in a marketplace that increasingly demands innovation as a competitive advantage were critical to the company’s success. These Real Change Leaders were not the CEOs or big-name leaders, rather they were the otherwise average, mid-level employees who were moving companies forward in remarkable, yet unrecognized, ways. Through extensive study and interviews, Katzenbach determined that these “real change leaders” share seven characteristics, which interestingly echo how many people describe social entrepreneurs:
- Commitment to a Better Way. They have an inexhaustible and visible commitment to the need for change and an ability to execute successfully on that change. Their change target is exciting, worthwhile and essential to future success.
- Courage to Challenge Existing Power Bases and Norms. They have the personal courage required to sustain their commitment in the face of opposition, failure, uncertainty and personal risk. They do not welcome failure, but they also do not fear it. They demonstrate the ability to rise again and again.
- Personal Initiative to Go Beyond Defined Boundaries. They consistently take the initiative to work with others to solve unexpected problems, break bottlenecks, challenge the status quo, and think outside the box. Setbacks to not discourage them, and they do not wait around for directives to move.
- Motivation of Themselves and Others. They are highly motivated themselves, but more importantly, they have the ability to motivate and inspire others around them. They create excitement, momentum and opportunities for people around them to follow their example and take personal responsibility for change.
- Caring About How People Are Treated and Enabled to Perform. They really care about others and are intent on enabling the performance of others as well as their own. They don’t knowingly manipulate or take advantage of others.
- Desire to Stay Undercover. They attribute part of their effectiveness to keeping a low profile. Grandstanding, strident crusading and self-promotion are viewed as sure ways to undermine their credibility and acceptance as change leaders.
- Sense of Humor About Themselves and Their Situation. Their sense of humor gets them through when others around them start losing heart. It also enables them to help others stay the course in the face of confusion, discouragement and the inevitable failures that change produces.
So these Real Change Leaders that Katzenbach chronicled 15 years ago share interesting parallels with those leading change in the social sector today. Although the ultimate goal of his RCLs was change for the sake of greater profitability, as opposed to social entrepreneurs’ ultimate goal of change for the sake of the greater good, the comparisons are interesting and enlightening. The book and the stories of RCL’s upon which it is based could hold some interesting insights for those who are working towards change in the much broader context of our communities, our institutions, and our world.