I have a theory of leadership. For the past three years, supported by a leadership grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, I’ve been exploring leadership that catalyzes transformational change — that is, change that makes society more just and more equitable, addressing the wellbeing of all. I was charged with answering the question, What kind of leadership inspires optimism, enterprise, and action in the efforts to transform societies to achieve a better future for communities?
Working with an international team of advisors and experts who are themselves practitioners, scholars, and funders, we collaborated to study past and present leaders, and we spoke with communities and organizations around the world leading frontline work that addresses poverty and opportunity, oppression and rights, bias and justice. We had discussions about the nature and character of leadership, structural obstacles to progress that leaders often have to navigate, factors that help them achieve successes, and the evolving circumstances they have to face.
The result of our exploration is Transformational Change Leadership | Stories of Building a Just Future. Based on the work of these leaders, we have set out a blueprint for leadership that is based in collective and community-led decision making. This is not social change by individual heroes, or by formula, and there are no saviors. This is leadership as a lifelong, quotidian process that is transformational, holistic, and systemic, with an appreciation for the complexities and nuances of actual lived experience.
Why this matters now
I started the process of building the TCL framework three years ago. At the time, in the midst of growing criticisms (some of course warranted) of the aid and development sector and rights constructs, it felt pressing to capture the lessons learned from leaders in rights and international development who had laid the groundwork over the past half century and more, to recall their legacies before they left us, and to document their work.
This project was initially inspired by advisors Ashoke Chatterjee, Nancy MacPherson, and Ashvin Dayal receiving the news of the assassination of Perween Rahman. During my work on the project, Berta Caceres too was murdered, and others we have featured are known to be at risk for their lives. Too many leaders are at risk for merely doing their work. On the other hand, too many effective leaders doing community-based work or leading from their own communities (the cynical read: non-western, often women) are overlooked by funders and the media. And too many leaders who laid the foundation over the past half century are at risk of being forgotten by people rising into the social sector through efforts aimed at social impact that elevates the stories of single heroes, western-led interventions, techno-utopian ideas, and apolitical framing.
All of this is still true. But releasing the project at this point in our time seems even more pressing.
It is an understatement that we are living in extraordinary times. For a few decades after World War II, the world was transformed by cross-cutting attempts to increase levels of international cooperation, democratic values, access to opportunity, and acceptance of social and cultural diversity. Humanity is still far from realizing ideals such as full social equality or equal opportunity, due, among other factors, to embedded power imbalances that have never been adequately addressed. But in the post-war era, we invested in institutions and efforts that aimed at equality for more people, even if imperfectly, and the resulting progress made was incomplete, but not trivial.
Several recent events, however, signal that something has cracked. Authoritarian demagogues have won democratic elections. Dissatisfied citizens have turned to nativism as a panacea for their frustrations and resentments. Racists have become less camera-shy, apparently no longer feeling any need to hide their beliefs.
Taken collectively, these trends point to the unfortunate reality that even as the work of building a just future gains traction, it faces severe opposition. And our institutions have not yet caught up to our current reality. Communities trying to catalyze transformational change in this environment in fact often work in the face of structural obstacles that our institutions reinforce.
A collective, systemic approach to leadership
As I wrote in my Creative Statement on the TCL site, at the best or calmest of times, the work we do in the social sector is already remarkable. But in an era of immense change, we need to rethink how to overcome conflict, inequality, and poverty. Extraordinary times call for strong leadership.
There is nervous hand-wringing in the media these days — much of it warranted — about lackluster leadership that is failing in the face of our crumbling global norms and institutions. The good news, though, is there are many examples of just the kind of strong leadership these times require. The TCL team presents them with the hope that this project helps people and communities harness the inspiration they provide.
We have included stories about leaders whose work spans various social issues — such as climate justice, refugee rights, and economic opportunity, among others — and different methods of effecting change, such as movement building or social enterprise. Most arise out of their own communities, or are deeply immersed. In our initial launch, we have included stories about Leymah Gbowee, Center for Science and Environment, Mary Robinson, Ahmed Kathrada, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Martha Farrell, Shibuye Community Health Workers, WIEGO, WRAPA, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Sewa Bank, CEPO, Banco Palmas, The Melissa Network, Aga Khan Development Network, Perween Rahman, Berta Caceres, Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, Zahra’ Langhi, Barefoot College, Wapikoni Mobile, Konbit Soley Leve, The Honey Bee Network, Wangari Maathai, La Via Campesina, Karama, Act Up, and Septima Clark. We have also profiled a set of emerging leaders. We intend to add more stories in the future.
In conversations with some of these community leaders and in researching other stories, we gained insights into their models and methods, which in turn informed the way we constructed our leadership framework. We affirmed the following set of principles:
The process is demonstrated through a set of characteristics: Vision, Empathy, Perseverance, Community, Risk, Collaboration, Mobilization. It is illustrated through the stories of leaders who exemplify it.
3. The work is messy, complex, and deeply human (and therefore joyful, even in the face of dire conflict).
4. Leaders are always in the position of having to evolve in the face of changing circumstances.
Building our future through stories
Storytelling and cultural expression, too often used solely for external communications and raising awareness, can be vehicles for voice, agency, representation, and participation. In this form, narrative is a strategic driver of change.
What has been most exciting about building the TCL framework is being able to use stories to explore how transformational change comes about. My own work as a practitioner in the fields of rights and development has taken different forms, from nonprofit management to social innovation to creative advocacy, working directly with affected communities and with agencies and funders. One consistent through-line has been using narrative and culture in strategic ways for positive change, particularly as expressed by affected communities. Applying this lens, the TCL team explored how transformational change leaders themselves navigate the complex process of change through targeted narratives alongside collective action.
The process these leaders use to shift power from moneyed interests and unsupportive state actors back to the community is entirely dependent on context — and on seeing human beings in all their facets, not as data points. They adapt to and innovate for their circumstances. Their process is entirely future-facing, while still comprehending history and legacy. But it is also, in the end, about appreciating the present realities of the communities from which they come or embrace, and confronting global challenges through deep understanding and love for community as an embodied philosophy of living — and that this philosophy is both strategic and effective.
Building the project has helped me think about my own process and what I will look for in others with whom I work and support. More importantly, I hope that this project can serve as inspiration and a source of learning to a new set of emerging global leaders. This is why we have initially launched the project as a web-based resource (translatable into English, French, Spanish, and Arabic).
If you work in the social sectors — as an organizer, at an organization, as a donor, are a student or academic, or are a member of an affected community — I invite you to use the site as a resource in understanding your own community’s leadership and your own processes to achieve transformational change. Please explore the different ways you can use the site to suit your own, or your team’s learning. And please use our discussion guide for reflection on your process.
Finally, we want this project to live and evolve. We want to hear about other leaders who catalyze transformational change and who have created impact at scale with and for communities. Please join our Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, or send us ideas for consideration, and help us grow the resource.