I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership development for the social sector, and how best to design programs that create the longest-lasting impact.
The starting question I’ve been asking is: what is it about the kind of leadership required for this kind of work that’s special, different, unique?
One of characteristics of this work is that it is long-term by nature. While it sounds (and is) exciting and motivating to “live a life of purpose,” the secretly difficult part is that when you’re ultimately measuring your success in terms of societal change, it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any real progress. Growing topline revenues is one thing; overcoming systemic bias and exclusion in a national education system is another. One lends itself to quarterly reports; the other measures progress over decades.
This is part of the reason that burnout is so common. It’s not because the work can be grueling, though it can be. It’s because the change one is working towards happens at a communal and a societal level, not just at the level of an institution or a company. To counteract the natural sense of alone-ness that this type of work can create, those engaged in social change need to create and embed themselves in strong and supportive cohorts of other change-makers, others who are walking this path with them.
Jonathan Haidt, in Chapter 10 of his book The Righteous Mind, beautifully captures the texture of how groups can transform the experience of individuals. In describing army veterans’ experience in battle, he quotes William McNeil, an army veteran and historian. “McNeill studied accounts of men in battle and found that men risk their lives not so much for their country or their ideals as for their comrades-in-arms.” McNeill continues:
Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle . . . has been the high point of their lives. . . . Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance. . . . I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy. . . . I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.
This observation speaks to a paradox of social change work: we get into it because of a sense of higher purpose, but we need something beyond this high-minded objective to sustain us beyond the first few months or few years. To pull that off – to succeed at recommitting ourselves time and again to our higher purpose – we need to be part of a collective. The right kind of collective (cohort, comrades in arms…the language is less important) helps our ego-driven selves dissolve into the acts of service that further the objectives of the group as a whole.
It strikes me that the notion of the heroic entrepreneurial leader isn’t helping us here. This isn’t a framing that pushes us to create the kinds of infrastructure that help larger numbers of people develop and sustain their commitment to a life of service. Amazing generals don’t materialize fully formed, they emerge from a collective that has a strong sense of norms, identity, and values as well as a well-honed approach to tackle the problems at hand. In fact, while it’s certainly lonely at the top nearly everywhere, I’d argue that it’s lonelier still at the top of a social purpose organization that has a multi-decades time horizon to make change.
This is not a path one can or should walk alone.
What this means is that one of the biggest and highest-leverage way to invest in this ecosystem may be to facilitate the creation of the sort of deep and lasting bonds needed to sustain a lifetime of commitment to the work of making a difference.