The social impact sector does a lot of harm. Often, our victims are those who we set out to support -- the people and communities that are already vulnerable in our society. This is not something we like to talk about. As practitioners, funders, and do-gooders we want to believe our good intentions and good technical skills have prepared us to do good. But, examples from history and the present day show this isn’t the case. While there are many things we can do to reduce harm and increase meaningful impact from our collective work, there is one step we can take that represents our most important leverage point: create more effective social impact leaders.
The Core Competencies of Highly Effective Social Impact Leaders
As this question is core to our mission at Thinking Beyond Borders, we examined some historical examples of exceptional social impact leadership: Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Prof. Muhammad Yunus. By reading about the movements and change efforts they led, and reading their personal writings, we noticed two key areas in which they all excelled: critical consciousness of themselves and the world, and building and leading institutions that were truly mission-centered.
Impact through Critical Consciousness
These leaders each pursued critical consciousness of the world and themselves as a fundamental part of their social impact work. To do this, they each developed key capacities: 1) They rooted their purpose and direction in a constant critical examination of their values and beliefs; 2) They were humble but powerful learners who valued questions over answers; 3) They strived for higher order empathy. While I’ve written about these capacities elsewhere (here and here), it’s important to note that on a daily basis, each of these leaders used these skills in working with stakeholders and in maintaining their own personal and professional focus to create a more just society.
It is these capacities that ensured that the Indian Independence movement did not become a violent revolution against the British. These capacities resulted in Black communities of the US Deep South finding love in their hearts and actions in the face of violent and vicious racism during the Civil Rights Movement. It was leadership of this sort that spurred creative protest and a reordering of society, not simply an inversion of power. None of their respective movements were without flaws, nor were they complete. But, their approaches to social impact resulted in that rare and exceptional impact that brought greater equity and justice to society.
Mission-Centered Institution Building
Generating meaningful social impact and building the institutions that will sustain that process are two related but different practices. Knowing how to build an organization effectively is important. What was exceptional about the great leaders we examined was how they combined business and funding models in a manner that allowed the organization to operate and evolve based on the need of the impact work rather than the organization’s bottom line. They established management and leadership structures that encouraged their teams to be responsive the impact work. They developed communications that inspired stakeholders to engage in creating social change rather than simply build brand loyalty.
It was this type of leadership that led to peer to peer ride-sharing to sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott, long before Uber gained a multi-billion dollar valuation. This leadership led Grameen to establish lending circles that created spaces of mutual financial and personal empowerment for women in their home communities, long before the banking industry pursued micro-lending profits in large scale. As these movements evolved, and as equity and justice advanced, the institutions these leaders created fell victim to changing politics. But, the impact they created remained because the communities they worked in solidarity with had not been encouraged to become dependent upon them.
Lessons for Developing New Leaders
While it’s easy to hold Dr. King, President Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Prof. Yunus up as superheroes of social impact, it’s important to note that they were (are) mortals like the rest of us. If we focus on developing the skills that made them exceptional, we can generate a uniquely qualified cadre of aspiring social impact leaders.
As educators, we’ve identified a set of principles for developing leaders of this calibre:
- Focus on Impact - Aspiring leaders need support in thinking critically about how to define equity and justice, how an effective and ethical pathway is shaped, and what the impact leader’s role in the process should be. These are dynamic and challenging topics. Unfortunately, the social impact sector rewards those who pursue large scale, brand recognition, and specific business models. Teach aspiring leaders how to handle these tensions and maintain their focus on the impact that will lead to greater equity and justice.
- Value Questions Over Answers - Asking good questions that illuminate dynamic topics is a crucial skill. Disappointingly, most education systems generate students who believe they are successful learners when they can present a convincing answer rather than a well refined set of questions. Create learning environments that place value in asking questions and pursuing greater understanding that can be translated into even better questions. Require learning to center around identifying and questioning the core assumptions of arguments and one’s self.
- Instill Humility - Great leaders are great listeners who reflect constantly on their potential and limitations. They admit their mistakes, provide space for others to lead, and are the first people to applaud the successes of their peers. However, great leaders are often driven and ambitious, determined to achieve their goal and overcome obstacles. Support aspiring leaders with learning environments that provide opportunities to wrestle with this tension as teams and individuals. Provide mentors who can support them in their highest and lowest moments. Identify heroes whose struggle with the tension between ambition and humility is made plain and relatable.
The social impact sector invests countless resources in working toward equity and justice. Our global society and local communities reflect the passion and commitment of so many who have shaped their lives in this pursuit. Yet, our present day and all our days past also reflect efforts wasted, misdirected, and many that inadvertently caused harm. As a sector, we can be more effective. It starts by being more intentional in how we create our leaders.
You can learn more about how Thinking Beyond Borders is working to create highly effective social impact leaders by reviewing our programs. Our high school summer abroad and gap year programs help students begin the pursuit of critical consciousness related to creating social impact. Our college study abroad programs teach the skills to lead mission-centered and mission-effective institutions.
Robin Pendoley is Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, an educational institution helping students develop the skills and capacities to lead highly effective social impact careers. Born and raised through his early childhood in a working class community in the San Francisco Bay Area, Robin learned that equity and justice are complex but worthy pursuits. Through study, travel, and work in urban and suburban public education, he concluded that meaningful social impact is difficult to create and requires a rare combination of skills and capacities. In 2007, Robin co-founded Thinking Beyond Borders with the vision to create an educational institution that develops highly effective social impact leaders. Robin earned a B.A. in International Development Studies from UCLA and an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His blog posts on education and social change have been featured on Forbes, Ashoka, and Innovation Excellence.