Leadership is a complex endeavor. With myriad definitions and various forms of practice, it’s a concept that conjures over 5.5 billion references on Google. Many of the books written on the topic help the individual identify what kind of leader she is, offer input into how she can overcome leadership obstacles, or advise on the necessary strategies she can employ in order to generate organizational health and steadily increase her bottom lines. As of today, a brief overview of the New York Times Bestsellers list for books on leadership reveals a set of resources designed for leaders who are struggling with the following two questions:
- What does it mean to lead?
- What does it take to shape better leaders?
Enter the Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: A Harvard Business School Centennial Colloquim, in which editors Nohria Nitin and Rakesh Khurana have woven together a series of articles written by thought leaders who span the spectrums of business and academic practice. The purpose of the book? To answer the second aforementioned question. Within it’s opening pages, Nohria and Khurana surface the theme that runs throughout the entire text: “Do we really understand what it takes to make better leaders?” (3) In the five-sectioned book that follows, the authors give voice to the wonderings that leaders have with regard to the impact of, the theory behind, the variability of, the practice of, and the development of leaders. With humility, the authors explore the many dualities that leaders must navigate within a globalizing world. They are especially concerned with how leaders both lead and raise up leaders within contexts where rapid, discontinuous change adjusts the playing field, sometimes on a daily basis.
Chapter nineteen explores a concept of leadership that I am especially concerned about: leading change. In this chapter, the author, Marshall Ganz, writes about the power of social movements to change the systems that oppress communities of underprivileged peoples. Informed by his experience within the United Farm Workers uprising where he participated within the leadership nucleus of the movement, Ganz offers commentary into the world-changing impact of social movements and highlights the unique forms of leadership required in order to catalyze and maintain change.
Repeatedly throughout his chapter, Ganz differentiates the leadership of social movements from that of other sectors. He writes:
Because social movements are dynamic, participatory, and organized primarily to celebrate collective identity and assert public voice, their structure of participation, decision making and accountability are more like those of other civic associations that celebrate collective identity (churches, for example) or assert public voice (advocacy groups) than of those that produce goods or services. (528)
In so saying, Ganz demonstrates his belief that social movements are built, not on economic or political coercion, but on moral suasion (528) and maintained by its “members rather than its employees.” (529) Thus, the absence of positional authority combined with the complexities of diverse world views, distinct social locations, and varying emotions make for a unique challenge for social change leaders. While grass-roots movements have played a central role in most political, social, religious, and economic uprisings throughout time, many seeds of social change have never taken root due to the fact that they are “voluntary, decentralized, and self-governing; they are volatile, dynamic, and interactive….” (561) The conclusion? Social change is hard to accomplish because it is difficult to lead.
As I read, I couldn’t help but reflect on the challenges that my team has faced over this past decade in harnessing progressive Christianity’s energy and emotion about injustice and channeling it toward constructive change. Momentum initially generated by their dissatisfaction with nationalism expressed in the forms of militarism, exclusion, incarceration, and capitalism is quickly negated by the five action barriers Ganz identifies as inertia, apathy, fear, isolation, and self-doubt. (535)
The pattern is predictable: yet another political or denominational decision rolls out that is advantageous for the few and that comes at the expense of those already marginalized. This is followed by a social media uprising (we call this “flash-pan activism”) and an onslaught of anguished emails to our organization, demanding that we help them respond appropriately. Like clockwork, within three days and a progressive sounding social media post or two, their anguish is vented and all things enter seamlessly into the new reality that, three days previous had caused the outrage.
The five barriers to action that Ganz suggests are real and they seem to be lulling us to sleep. In turn, our impacted relatives are giving up hope that we are viable allies while the watching world grows more and more indifferent to the God whom we claim loves so holistically. Ganz spoke directly into my frustration by offering insight into the kind of leadership necessary to shift barriers to catalysts and, ultimately, to activate dominant culture Christians into the restorative revolution.
- Our collective inertia (habitual routines) requires movement leaders who generate a sense of urgency and accountability.
- Our collective apathy (habitual indifference) requires movement leaders who demonstrate and invite thoughtful, righteous indignation (not rage) at injustice.
- Our collective fear requires movement leaders who, rather than seeking to alleviate it, invite us to move through it fueled by a hope for the change we seek.
- Our isolation requires movement leaders who generate a culture of interconnectedness where we discover and then embrace the facts that we need and are needed by one another.
- Our collective self-doubt requires movement leaders who identify, invite, train, mobilize, and provide accountability to leaders and then celebrate the small victories. (536-37).
Returning now to the original question that Nohria and Khurana ask and seek to answer: How do we develop these kinds of leaders? More powerful than his instructive reflections throughout the chapter is the example he offers of his own experience with Caesar Chavez. While leadership development programs can and must be generated in order to enhance the skill sets of social change leaders, the best example that he offers and that, I argue, must be recaptured, is that of the apprenticeship. Rather than thinking, theorizing, or even workshopping individuals into the action of social change leadership, we must, instead, choose to live them into the movement.