10 principles for leading social change

10 principles for leading social change

What social change activists do

I first learnt about leading change in the 80s and 90s through organisational development, practice improvement and change management. Back then, a social approach to change wasn’t even on the radar. Change programmes were mandated, signed off, and only went ahead when there was a seal of approval from the top. Now, in the new networked, more open and flexible world of the 21st century, a socially driven, connected approach to change is essential for any organisation.

From leading large-scale change programmes locally and nationally, I saw that without exception, when things went well it was largely due to relationships being shared, open and mature – and when things didn’t go so well, it was because relationships were just the opposite. Yet distracted by the pull of organisational positional power, I become buried under layers of listening to who I ought to be and how learned  helplessness happens in large organisations. When I came to this realisation through my own journey of change, I found my passion and purpose had not changed – just that its meaning had new significance in our new social era. My purpose – what’s important to me – is to unleash the ‘power of connection’, connecting people to people, enabling others to achieve purpose. My problem had been that in the old world of change, this wasn’t encapsulated in any job description:‘Chief Connector’!

What I discovered is that when you work with aligning your own purpose with others to build a coalition that is about ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’ it is even more potent.

This is where these ten principles start: with co-creating a shared purpose. And it’s the golden thread that runs through the other nine. In adapting the principles, I was influenced by the work of Marshall GanzGary Hamel, John Kotter work on community organising, leading change and innovation. It chimed so clearly with my own practice and values. And when you live your values, this builds resilience by reminding you why you do what you do.

Organisational social change activist Celine Shillinger (Boston) observed that, “while these principles seem both familiar and ‘obvious’ to me, I realise they are very far from organisations’ usual practice”.

I agree. These principles are not new. They’re based on decades of evidence from community-based social change. Yet it’s still not common practice for organisations to embrace, learn from and embed these principles, complementary to traditional change methods, to accelerate their strategy.

I have worked in many organisations that struggle with ‘polarity’ wars: a strong emphasis on compliance over commitment, a focus exclusively on top leadership development while ignoring grassroots activism, and change driven at one level of the system rather than a whole-system, tiered approach. Change often starts with good intention and soon loses its energy.

Some people interpret social change methods as communications and marketing speak. For me, the essential difference is that the social change activist’s journey is to challenge people to act on behalf of their shared values and interests, working through dialogue in relationships, interpretations and action. Activists start with ‘What are you fighting for? What is in tolerable? they find the fire in the belly and don’t just work with what they can plan for.

These principles can help any organisation or system to socialise its strategy or transformation plan, engage grassroots, and breathe life into an improvement effort or a call to action that sparks a movement for change. I am currently working with a USA healthcare organisation who are taking an activist approach seriously to propel their transformation programme, starting with a programme of “Making space for hope” and challenging themselves and all their employees to think and lead like an activist.

Our traditional approach to change needs a moral awakening!

If nothing else, these principles will inspire. As Mary Freer (Australia), social innovation leader, remarked: “Just reading this has fired me up!”. 

Jackie Lynton – is Founder and Social Change Activist – IHO People: @jackielynton. iho-people.com



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