At Ashoka, we spend a lot of time talking about the fact that everyone can be a “changemaker.” But during the recent Ashoka Future Forum the conversation shifted to how a do-gooder can become a “change leader,” someone who leads a team of like-minded activists, entrepreneurs or socially conscious consumers.
Helping us make the shift from changemakerto change leader were Jan Visick, professional editor and storyteller and an interviewer and consultant for Ashoka; Henry De Sio, vice president for Framework Change at Ashoka, former deputy assistant to Barack Obama and 2008 COO at Obama for America; and Kendis Paris, an Ashoka Fellow and executive director of Truckers Against Trafficking.
1) Help People Step into their Bigness
“Define thyself lest you be defined.” This has become one of Henry De Sio’s mantras, dating back to his work on the 2008 Obama campaign, where he worked with his staff to help them realize the key part they each played in driving the success of the team. With De Sio’s framing, Obama’s junior-level travel bookers, for example, became managers of a multi-million-dollar line in the campaign budget. Had they not been able to redefine themselves as a crucial part of a well-oiled political machine, and “step into their bigness,” they may have allowed their small day-to-day tasks define them.
De Sio’s leadership likely made it extra special for staffers when President-elect Barack Obama told supporters at a rally in Chicago, “This is your victory.”
Kendis Paris has assumed a similar role in change leadership through her work with Truckers Against Trafficking, the nonprofit she founded to inform truck drivers across the United States about the problem of human trafficking. According to estimates from the Department of Justice, it’s an industry that affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of American children each year.
“Creativity starts to flow when you get people to realize they are the solution,” Paris said, noting that when truck drivers understand the core role they have to play in the fight against truck-stop prostitution, they become “everyday heroes” who slam the brakes on the sex trade industry in the U.S.
2) Accept that the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room
In our age of open-sourced information and cross-sector collaboration, leadership itself is constantly being redefined. No longer is it the case that one person leads the charge, making every decision along the way; rather, as De Sio put it, “You need to be able to lead from the front, side, back, and everywhere in between.”
Today, effective leadership means being able to give others the permission to lead. Truly responsive leadership requires letting other perspectives shine forth, crowdsourcing new ideas and being ready to guide conversation and action when necessary. That’s how change happens.
This is not always easy, De Sio points out: “When I’m at my smallest, I don’t allow others to get big, so I’m constantly trying to lift myself up.”
Having the right balance of self-confidence in yourself and empathy for teammates is difficult, but critical.
3) Leadership is like a Game of Football, Trust Your Teammates
Change leaders need to be good quarterbacks—rallying players, making adjustments on the fly, and, of course, throwing winning passes. They also need to be able to coach from the sidelines, defining strategy and responsibilities but allowing the team to properly execute the practiced plays. Lastly, change leaders need to be able to sit up in the sky box like an offensive coordinator, watching and evaluating their team’s perform from afar. Leadership is all about gaining perspective; a bird’s eye view is crucial.
Managers must see the bigger picture and identify instances for leadership among the members of their team. This is how De Sio sees it, at least. But, as he’s observed, too many leaders like to hold onto the ball—they can’t bring themselves to step away from the playing field for fear of their team fumbling.
Change leaders allow others to take the lead, understanding that even the best coaches or quarterbacks can’t win games—much less championships—alone.
Everyone a Change Leader?
Ashoka promotes a world in which everyone can make a difference. Change leaders play a big part in that gameplan. The challenge is getting more people to step into a leadership role.
Now, I’ve never led a political campaign and I’m not exceptional at football, but I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity be a leader on a number teams—from the front, back, side, and middle. I’ve come to realize that while we often ask ourselves, “Am I doing enough?” we should instead ask, “Am I trying to do too much?”
If we are serious about making a difference the world, we must allow others to not only recognize their contributions to a cause, but also give them permission to take the initiative.
Give your team the nudge.