Q&A with Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka
Who is the leader past or present who has most inspired you?
Gandhi. First, because he showed the world (e.g., our civil rights movement) that change comes faster and far more permanently by helping people understand when their behavior contradicts what an empathic response would dictate. This empathic response is the necessary foundation of ethics today (when rules alone are not enough). The empires and institutions based on compulsion and inequality have one after another withered when faced with Gandhi's simple approach of truth speaking quietly to conscience.
I also admire Gandhi for giving this profoundly transformative revolution practical legs. Tirelessly, over decades, he built giant and grass-roots social and political movements that had the enormous internal and deeply democratic strength to transform fear and violence with courage and love institutions that, in turn, influenced entire societies to follow this demanding, disciplined path.
I was deeply stirred while a student by experiencing Gandhi's approach at work at the grass roots both during civil rights work here and in rural India. And then later seeing its power for good in the Amazon and elsewhere through my work for Ashoka. This summer, I watched with admiration as eBay's first president, Jeff Skoll, arranged to have Sir Ben Kingsley's classic film, Gandhi, translated into Arabic and shown with encouragement from the Palestinian leadership on the West Bank and Gaza.
Warren Bennis, the noted leadership scholar and chairman of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard, says, "Everybody agrees that there is less leadership today than there used to be." Do you agree? Why or why not? In which area of life do you see the greatest need for leadership today?
I disagree very strongly.
For decades, whenever the old institutions perished, all across the world, there has been an escalating multiplication of people becoming change makers. Starting small businesses, experimenting with new ways to do things on the farms different from their parents, and founding more and more citizen groups.
The change in the social half of the world's operations is most dramatic. While business became ever more entrepreneurial and competitive from 1700 onward, the social half, fed by tax revenues, had no need to go through this transformation. Every year the sector fell further behind. Hence, the relative squalor gap of the citizen sector of a generation ago dismal productivity, salaries, and esteem.
This all changed around 1980. The gap had become intolerable, and in a historically very short 25-year period the citizen sector went through the same structural revolution that took business 300 years. As it became entrepreneurial, it began quickly to close the productivity gapcutting it in half roughly every 10 to 12 years.
As a result, resources have been flooding into our sector. We've been generating jobs at 2.5 to three times as fast as the rest of society. The U.S. more than doubled the number of IRS-recognized charities in a decade. Brazil grew from somewhere between 500 and 3,600 citizen groups in 1980 to an estimated more than 1 million by the year 2000. There are similar statistics from every continent.
Because this is the fastest-growing, most vibrant sector now, it is where the talent is flowing. The best, most entrepreneurial leaders go where they can have the biggest impact for the good, where they will find the most ethical and engaged colleagues, and where they will be most challenged.
Over half the Ashoka social entrepreneurs have changed national policy within five years of their launch. Roughly 90 percent have seen independent organizations copy their innovations. There is no decline in leadership but you must look for it in new places.
Leaders are rarely, if ever, exceptional in every way. And they need not be. But the great leaders know that their deficiencies can't be ignored. What are yours? And how do you address them?
Entrepreneurs cannot be happy people until they have seen their visions become the new reality across all of society. They learn how to master whatever skills are necessary. I am, for example, modestly an introvert. However, I spent most of my days dealing with people. It helps hugely that my daily interactions are with wonderful, caring, creative entrepreneurs from whom I learn and with whom I connect. My decision to commit to the Ashoka vision turned in part on recognizing how important this balance would be. My escape for long backpack trips in the wilderness also helps. And so, of course, does finding colleagues who are complementsand with whom I and our values-based entrepreneurial community share so much that the fit works.
Great leaders take risks; therefore, they make mistakes. Tell us about one of yours (the bigger, the better!) and how, as any great leader would, you used it as an opportunity to improve.
Ashoka's two core constituencies are leading business and social entrepreneurs. We are also serving a historical transformation that is moving so fast that almost everyone in Ashoka must be creating and entrepreneuring at a very high level if we are to succeed.
As a result, we must be a community of collegial entrepreneurs. And, to attract and hold such extraordinary people, we must be an integrated, decentralized organization that in every way enables and strongly encourages each of us to fly and yet that channels all that energy to serve the organization's goals.
The worst mistake I have made was to compromise on these core principles. For example, toward the end of our first period of very rapid growth (45 percent a year for five years), we hired several wonderful, spirited managers. However, they were not entrepreneurs; and they never could, partly in consequence, intuitively "get" our vision, our core stakeholders, or our culture. They set to work managing, which ended in failure, uncomprehending frustration, and culture division. Good entrepreneurs can manage, but no one but an entrepreneur can entrepreneur, let alone help build and lead the world's community of leading social entrepreneurs and their top business entrepreneur allies.
My experience in not insisting on our core hiring criteria not only led to tears and weakened our very young culture but caused a several-year revenue plateau, which in turn made it quite impossible to meet our rolling five goals.
Led by my colleague, Sushmita Ghosh, and our Strategy Group, we have now installed rigorous staff hiring, promotion, and management systems (modeled on our proven process for selecting the leading social entrepreneurs that Ashoka helps launch, support, and network together. These systems are all focused around four criteria: (1) proven entrepreneurial quality, (2) whether or not the person "gets" and truly, personally believes Ashoka's full vision, (3) applied emotional intelligence, and (4) strong ethical fiber.
This learning is one of the most important steps toward Ashoka's becoming the irreversible institution its mission requires.
A great leader stays the course. At what moments has this been particularly difficult for you? And how did you keep your resolve?
Ashoka is just entering its 25th year. And the founding idea and principle are older, dating back to my undergraduate years.
I have never doubted that we are serving the most powerful and most hopeful historical force of our era. Or that we are positioned to play a truly important role. We are, after all, a community of most of the world's leading social entrepreneurs. As a result, we can see where history is going and where there are jujitsu leverage points. Even better, we are a community of entrepreneurs who are learning how to entrepreneur together how to take the most powerful new universal principles that cut across our individual innovations and, by working together, use them to flip whole fields globally.
How could any entrepreneur, confronted by such amazing opportunities to help transform the world and to do so with such extraordinary colleagues, be tempted to lose focus? Especially since the work involves such breadth that the boredom of routine or specialization does not exist.
Of course, there are frustrations. A broken financial system for the citizen sector, for example. But that is only another huge opportunity to bring urgently needed structural change for the field.
Great leaders empower others to become leaders themselves. Give us an example of how you knew you had succeeded in this important and very satisfying role.
Ashoka's job and, indeed, our field's most important job is to empower people. Our ultimate objective is "everyone a change maker."
To succeed, we must do this consistently at all levels staff, our social entrepreneur "fellows," and every person in society.
Second, Ashoka is a community of and for leading social entrepreneurs. What we are best known for is finding the most important new social change ideas and the entrepreneurs behind them. We help launch them, help them succeed over their decades-long careers, and link them together so that we can be far more than the sum of our sole practitioner parts. Ninety-seven percent continue full time in the pursuit of this vision within five years after Ashoka elects them to fellowship.
Our field's and Ashoka's ultimate objective is an "everyone a change maker" world. Every successful social entrepreneur is a role model that encourages others to care and organize to cause social change.
More important still, consider the impact a successful social entrepreneur has on one local community after another. Their new idea disrupts existing patterns and the sense that things cannot change. Moreover, their idea is designed to be as user friendly as possible precisely to encourage someone in that community to step forward to implement the entrepreneur's innovation in that community i.e., to become a local change maker. The example of these champions in turn encourages their family and friends to follow suit with other ideas later.