Moral leadership for systemic change (pt. 3)

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Community Stewardship on a Systemic Level

The nature of our ecosystems is not always local, especially when it comes to systemic challenges which – as we have discussed with various Social Venturers – require systemic solutions. What you will find, however, is that people – geographically close or note – remain at the very core of community which informs your role as a changemaker.

One of the best resources I have come across with regard to leadership for social and environmental change is Jacqueline Novogratz’ book “Manifesto for a moral revolution” and the accompanying online course The Path of Moral Leadership

Systems do not change overnight. In the meantime the world needs brave souls to create new models of companies, organizations, schools, government etc. designed for a world at risk.

Novogratz, 2020, p. 32

Jacqueline Novogratz outlines 12 characteristics and skills that she had observed in social change leaders over the course of 20 years at Acumen. Some of these are familiar to anyone who has worked with (social) startups before, others are more nuanced approaches touching on fields like empathy and storytelling. Allow me to summarize the key insights and elaborate on some of the less obvious perspectives from the approach of Moral Leadership:

Less surprising but important reminders of how to lead change are: 

  1. Just start. Let the work teach you.
  2. Redefine success (shift your mindset from problem solving to a future that does not yet exist; Peter Block makes this point and this ties back to our series on Purpose)
  3. Cultivate moral imagination (view other people’s problems as if they were your own and act on them, “empathy without action risks reinforcing the status quo” p. 43)
  4. Listen to voices unheard (learn to listen not just with your ears but whole selves, in the startup world, we call this customer discovery well done, our series on Allyship provides more context in building diverse and equitable ecosystems)
  5. Use the power of markets: Leverage your entrepreneurial mindset to discover demand for what it is you’re trying to achieve 
  6. Partner with humility and audacity. Remember that people, not institutions, create change. As you set out to find comrades-in-arms, remember that every partnership is based on a foundation of trust, and trust is an investment in building authentic and respectful relationships with stakeholders within our ecosystems.
  7. Embrace the beautiful struggle. Systemic change takes time. Bring a long-term view of what it is you’re trying to achieve.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. – Rumi

Novogratz, 2020, p. 126

The more complex and nuanced ideas Novogratz puts forward inform our work as ecosystem builders both on local and systemic levels:

8. The ocean in a drop

“Each of us contains a multitude of identities.” (Novogratz, 2020, p. 80) As ecosystem builders, we must be aware that every individual in our community wears different hats – both personally and professionally. If one of these identities is threatened, it will rise to the top and might obscur the general discourse. Novogratz recommends:

  1. “Know yourself.
  2. Be open to the multiple identities others might carry within themselves.
  3. The person or organization with greater power must be the bridge that extends understanding to those with less power.” (Ibid. p. 87 f.)

This last point in particular places emphasis on our role as allies in an entrepreneurial ecosystem

9. Practice Courage & hold opposing values in tension

“A nonprofit demands a fair amount of political savvy in order to balance the needs, interests, and opinions of various stakeholders.” Todd Nuckols shared in our conversation in 2019. As executive director of Lighthouse Labs RVA,  Todd had first hand experience of what it means to stand up for what he thought was right and necessary. In this case, the mantra “Investing in the lives of founders’ acted as a north star for the organization to resolve stakeholder conflict and move forward. 

As any ecosystem builder will tell you, managing expectations and views of stakeholders that are at times opposed is hard work and requires a lot of practice. But we need to step into this discomfort nonetheless because, as Jacqueline Novogratz says:

Finding and maintaining the right balance between the individual and the community, freedom and belonging, competition and collaboration, requires moral leadership precisely because that balance can be discovered only by inviting constructive conflict for the betterment of the whole.

Novogratz, 2020, p. 122

Constructive conflict is necessary and as ecosystem builders, it is often up to us to create a safe space for that conflict to unfold. Our role – as Peter Block outlines (see part 2) – is not necessarily to resolve that conflict but to create the space and opportunity for opposing parties to come together and potentially respectfully agree to disagree.

If we ignore the tensions within ourselves , our organizations, and our societies – if we keep the conflicts internalized and unmentioned – they don’t disappear. Instead, as soon as we begin navigating complex issues and decisions across lines of differences, those conflicts become exacerbated.

Novogratz, 2020, p. 122

10. Avoid the conformity trap

Albert Einstein famously said “We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” 

As I outlined in Manifesto for a new majority, part of our role as entrepreneurial ecosystem builders is to rally against the “We’ve always done it this way” mindset because clearly, it created a lot of inequity in entrepreneurship today. Instead, it is imperative that we explore ways of creating an alternative future that break with tradition. 

Doing the right thing can be soul crushing and frustratingly lonely when peers and colleagues would rather you “won” according to the rules of the status quo.

Novogratz, 2020, p. 135

11. Accompany each other

“The 21st century capitalism rewards money, power, and fame, not the immeasurable impact we have on a person’s confidence, their courage or their ability to make it through another day.” (Novogratz, 2020, p. 193)

When we launched the campaign Unsung Heroes of Ecosystem Building, one of my favorite outcomes was reading and listening to the nominations. The gratitude and appreciation for the often thankless work of ecosystem builders held up a mirror to their genius, tenacity and contribution to a community and something greater than themselves. Especially when we do hard things for a long time, it is powerful to have someone from your ecosystem take you aside and say “I see you. I see what you’re doing. It’s hard but you’re on the right track. Keep going.” It can be as simple as that. 

Entrepreneurship is a team sport, so is ecosystem building for social change. Even if we don’t always agree, respecting and acknowledging each other’s commitment to making a difference in the world is powerful in building and growing this community of changemakers. That’s why groups like Startup Champions Network and events like the ESHIP Summit are key to keeping our fires lit – it’s where we accompany each other. It is the fuel that drives Social Venturers.

12. Tell stories that matter

As we learned from Peter Block in part 2, storytelling is much more than communicating.

The stories we tell ourselves and others about ourselves and others are who we become.

Systems change takes time and it would be easy to fall victim to discouragement and nay-saying when the change we work to create takes twice as long and triple the work we anticipated.

As a moral leader, you have to tell stories that unite and inspire, reinforce our individual and collective potential, and paint a picture of the future we can build and inhabit together. 

Novogratz, 2020, p. 204

The next time you are in the room with stakeholders in your entrepreneurial ecosystem, resist the urge to regurgitate all the challenges and problems you have been discussing ad nauseum over the last months or even years. Instead, shape a narrative of possibility based on the unique gifts in your community (see part 1 “Communities: A collection of Gifts & Talents”). Take note of how the atmosphere in the room changes. Choose to tell a story about your community that your ecosystem gets excited about and let that drive your conversations and efforts.

How do you lead without being a leader?

Whether we redefine leadership in entrepreneurial ecosystems or stay clear of the term altogether, I suggest we think of ourselves as stewards combining our skills and characteristics as 

  • Feeders,
  • Keystones, 
  • Creators of invisible infrastructure to support entrepreneurs, 
  • Conveners and listeners

… in order to help create an alternative future for the entrepreneurs we seek to support.

Let us stop beating the same drum about everything that is wrong in our specific community – be it a community of startups, social entrepreneurs or changemakers at large. Our obsession with problem solving has not changed the course of history, so let’s stop doubling down on what has never worked to begin with. Instead, let us focus on the hidden treasures of our communities – be they geographic, professional, or idealistic – and reimagine a future together with its members, not for them. As ecosystem builders, it is our job to create a narrative that reflects on the gifts and talents and unique opportunities of our communities.

We need to understand that while entrepreneurs lead the ecosystem, we play an important role of connecting and facilitating the flow of talent, information and resources. In most cases, it is neither well paid nor an award-winning role (though it absolutely should be!) but I have a hunch that if you’re passionate about building a community, neither money nor fame brought you here (read more about this topic in my conversation with Rick Turoczy). 

First and foremost, being an effective ecosystem builder means we need to listen. It means we need to create space for difficult and future-oriented conversations to take place, and we often need to create an infrastructure for these conversations to turn into action. Whether we work locally or globally, let us agree to uphold the highest standards of moral leadership to bring about lasting social and environmental change.

Ready to dive deeper? Grab our resource guide on Community Leadership!


Image credit: Photo by Tim Arterbury on Unsplash