It has officially gotten to the point where I am afraid to turn on CNN or open a newspaper. Even my Facebook feed is haunting. Philando Castile. Orlando. Dallas. Nice. Aleppo. More heartbreaking events add to this list every day and I have been moved by these tragedies. Yet, like many, I have felt overwhelmed and powerless in effecting meaningful change – change that could even begin to move the needle on such significant social issues. But it’s time to stop letting fear and uncertainty hold us back from creating a new future.
How do we do that?
In any movement, someone has to be willing to be the “lone nut” – the one who takes the first, visible action, no matter how small. Malala Yousafzai, globally recognized as a brave and vocal advocate for education and who was attacked by the Taliban for her efforts, began by writing an anonymous blog. Over time, her message of equal rights gained momentum around the world. That first step can feel scary or trivial - like it isn’t enough. But if we continue to wait until our efforts feel big enough, we may never act. Imagine if Malala had never started writing, had never spoken out about the need for change? It doesn’t need to be perfect, it needs to happen. Leadership is about starting – having a vision for how the future will be different and finding some way, however small, to begin moving toward that vision. Try something – something visible, something public – to allow others to begin to understand your vision and link arms with you to achieve it.
Maybe you’ve already witnessed a lone nut whose efforts inspire you – someone like Malala. If that’s the case – join them. The first followers are just as critical as the first leaders. Rogers’ Law of Diffusion shows us that momentum is created by a small set of “innovators” who are willing to adopt a new technology, idea or way of behaving. “Early adopters” and then the “early majority” begin to catch on as they recognize the benefits of this new mode and start to feel a sense of urgency for getting on board. Eventually, these followers become the next group of leaders.
As more people raise their hands to join a movement, leaders often make the mistake of over engineering the group and its efforts. Resist. For change to be successful, you need voices from large, diverse groups of people - not just the “usual suspects.” The collective drive of coordinated, passionate people can be a powerful engine. Find ways to generate ideas from as many people with varied backgrounds as possible. You may be surprised by some of the solutions they come up with. A friend of mine, grappling with the chaos of racial tensions in the US, understood that she couldn’t (and didn’t want to) come up with answers on her own. She began to create an affinity diagram, mapping the assets and skills of those in her network who shared her passion for positive change. This first step expanded the conversation, bringing aligned people together to get creative about solving a problem. Efforts like this provide opportunities for leadership to emerge from more people, and leadership is the main ingredient that can move discussion to action.
The biggest mistake we see when driving change is losing sight of the criticality of urgency. It’s easiest to build passion and focus at the beginning when optimism is high and the spotlight is on. But you can’t assume that it will sustain itself without intentional, consistent effort. When the initial adrenaline and energy wane, communication becomes your most powerful tool. We see this on social media every day. A particular story populates everyone’s newsfeed temporarily and then a few days later, it’s back to funny cat videos and pictures from a night out with friends. Keep talking, even when – especially when – the topic has fallen out of vogue. Share wins along the way, both big and small. Demonstrating progress motivates those already involved and helps those on the fence recognize the impact your movement is having.
Talking about solutions is not enough. It’s time to move. Let’s start where we are, with what we have: the opportunity to change our world. Together we can foster better leaders – leaders who are invested in making this world a safer and more connected place. I’m ready to get started – to join those “lone nuts” I see making strides toward this future. Are you?