8 Ways to Be an Effective Leader for Change

Issue 132 — June 22, 2020

I first learned about the power of organizing to make change when I was about 15 years old. In the small town of Stamford, Texas, where I lived at the time, there were two short order restaurants in town. One was called Son’s City Pig and it had indoor tables with juke boxes where we kids could sit and kibitz, as teenagers do. And as teenagers were inclined to do, we created various fads. One was eating our French Fries with mustard. OK, I admit I started that one.

My grandmother and me just a few years ago!

The owner of Son’s became annoyed that we were consuming so much mustard. He began charging us two cents for each little paper cup of mustard. We decided this was terrible injustice. Most of us just groused about it.

But then a boy named Ralph said, “Let’s go to the Superdog.” That was the other restaurant, and it was drive up only without indoor seating. Ralph proposed that we all go there together — I think there were about a dozen or so at the time — and tell Mr. Jackson who owned the Superdog that if he would build a room onto the structure where we could sit down, play music, and hang out, and if he would promise not charge us that extra two cents for mustard, we would bring all our business to him.

We piled into cars, drove across town to the Superdog, and made our pitch. Sensing a good business opportunity, Mr. Jackson quickly agreed. We made good on our promise. The Superdog thrived and we rectified the perceived injustice.

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The lesson for me was that change is possible when you band together and take action strategically, even if you have little formal power.

Every movement I have been involved with since then has followed those same principles.

Basically, movement has to move. It has to see the moment and seize it. It has to understand that power and energy come from moving into new spaces, mobilizing people around a righteous cause and taking organized action.

Our small teenage movement for free mustard bears no comparison in seriousness to the current movement for racial justice. But the lessons learned are nevertheless applicable.

It makes total sense to me that Black Lives Matter was started by three young women.

In response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer in 2013, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi started the organization that now has over 40 chapters globally, according to their “Herstory.” It’s growing by leaps and bounds as a result of the current demonstrations sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the knee of Minneapolis police.

From left to right: Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi.

Their movement leadership principles include “low ego, high impact,” and “lead with love.”

This is about as far from the hyper-masculine “power over” and as close to the power paradigm shift to “power TO” as you can get.

It makes total sense to me, and as a women’s activist for many years, I am moved to tears that young women, working together, have provided the vessel for massive demonstrations against police violence and over policing in general, and, yes, FOR social equality for African Americans.

It’s happening in an authentic way that is activating people of all races across the country and the world.

The bold yellow painted “Black Lives Matter” on newly minted Black Lives Matter Way in Washington DC communicates why exactly the murder of George Floyd was the flashpoint that ignited the cauldron of anger and grief. There had been so many such travesties that they finally boiled over. And the activism they spawned is a testimony to the founders’ use of movement building principles.

Black Lives Matter Way in D.C. Photo by Yuri Gripas as reported in the Star Tribune.

We’re witnessing Democracy 102 — a new civics, a new politics, a demystified politics, a no-cynicism zone politics. It suddenly feels like a necessary part of life, not an obligation but something that turns couch commentators into activists on the streets and activism into something to do routinely, like brushing your teeth. Something to take pride in doing, like helping someone in need. Inclusive action that every citizen can take part in.

It’s a movement that, while initially attracting some marauding vandal hangers on, is increasingly organically self-policing. That’s another reason I’m not surprised that women founded this movement.

Women’s participation in nonviolent movement success has been demonstrated and studied for years. Erica Chenowith at the Harvard Kennedy School found that nonviolent movements tend to be more successful in making social change and that there is a direct correlation between the success of protest movements and the participation of women.

Axios sums up the data: Protests are more likely to remain nonviolent when women participate, according to a United Nations report.

For those who want to help make sure Black Lives Matter succeeds, I share 8 ways to supercharge your activism’s power and effectiveness with these movement building tips:

  1. Start by clarifying your why. Know where you stand. Spend some time deeply thinking about the values and issues you feel most passionately aligned with. The fastest route to self esteem is to stand up for what you believe. Commit to stand up publicly for that issue or value.
  2. Employ the three elements of all movement building. I call it #SisterCourage and I include Brother Partners in this — I mean, let women be the default for a change! It’s not easy but it is simple and all sustainable movements go through this process: A. Be a sister(or brother). Reach out to connect with other people who share your concerns. Don’t go it alone. You need each other to be effective. B. Have the courage to raise the issues. Speak of them, socialize them, paint them on the street. Like Black Lives Matter, call out injustice by name. C. Put the two together with a strategy and a plan that can push the levers of power forward to greater justice. Without a plan, you have only free-flowing energy. Learn more about this from my Leadership Power Tool 7, Create a movement.
  3. Be realistic about what you will do personally. No one has to do everything but everyone can do something. Pick one or two actions and do them fully. Do them well. You’ll be immobilized if you try to do it all or at once.
  4. Don’t think righteous anger is an outcome. Righteous anger feels good but making substantive change feels better. Keep your vision focused on the desired outcomes.
  5. Have a clear, focused agenda with specific outcomes that you can communicate in simple terms. One of the liabilities of the Women’s March is that it tried to please everyone with an agenda so broad that it pleases no one. As a result, it lacks the poetry to inspire.
  6. Use media strategically. And remember that everyone is the media. Anyone can post on social media or write a letter to the editor. Anyone can speak up to a neighbor or family member about why you support racial equity and justice. You don’t have to appear on NBC or be published by The New York Times to have an impact. If you need guidance, check out the Op Ed Project.
  7. Know when you’ve won. It’s easy to get so immersed in the battle that you fall in love with the emotional high of fighting the good fight. But the purpose of activism is to get results.
  8. Always have a next step, a new agenda item, a legislative initiative or other policy change up your sleeve. A movement has to move. Power and energy come from moving outward into new spaces, never from standing still. Most movements fall short of the world changing goals they start with because they ignore this reality.

Like Black Lives Matter, you now have issue shaping, world changing power.

Use it.

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