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A New Leadership Mindset for Scaling Social Change

by Natalia Castaneda March 12, 2010

This is a draft of the framing piece for the Leadership for a New Era (LNE) collaborative research initiative launched by the Leadership Learning Community.  LNE seeks to promote a leadership model that is more inclusive, networked and collective.  This piece is currently being collectively developed by a variety of LNE partners.

Current Leadership Thinking

Over the past 50 years our thinking about leadership, whether in communities or board rooms, has been heavily influenced by heroic models of leadership. We traditionally think of leadership as the skills, qualities and behavior of an individual who exerts influence over others to take action or achieves a goal using their position and authority.

Leadership for a New Era was launched because we believe this way of thinking about leadership is only one part of the story -- one that does not fully recognize leadership as a process grounded in relationships that are fluid, dynamic, non-directive and non-unilateral. Understanding leadership as a process requires us to think very differently about how change occurs and how we work with others. We will never mobilize leadership at the scale needed for significant progress on social justice or any other complex issue without expanding our thinking about what leadership is, how it works and how we can support it.


Leadership as a Process

Through Leadership for a New Era we are deepening our understanding of leadership as a process through which individuals and groups identify and act on behalf of a larger purpose, such as greater equality and the well-being of people and the planet. Understanding leadership as a shared, relational process is fundamental to many cultures even though the dominant model of leadership in the U.S. is deeply rooted in individualism. These cultures have much to teach about sustainable change and transformation.

Traditional approaches to leadership and leadership development assume that training an individual leader with appropriate knowledge and skills will result in an increase of organizational capacity which will in turn lead to better community results.


Leader Development Model for Stronger Organizations & Community Results
Individual Development (leads to) Strong Organizations (that produce) Better Community Results


While this model has had notable successes, it is not scalable. In other words, we will not reach the scale of change we seek, developing one leader at a time. Our attachment to this leader development model prevents us from recognizing that often, leadership development that focuses on teams, organizations, communities, and networks is better positioned to accomplish systems and social change. Intuitively many of us have experienced the power of the collective in the creativity and productivity of teams, in sports or in music, and yet we have not brought this experience to our leadership thinking and at some cost! We can reach more people and tackle bigger problems by investing our time and resources in relational leadership processes that support teams, organizations, communities and networks to take collective action.

To support the kind of leadership that results in transformational changes, we need to focus on how individuals and groups are supported in connecting, organizing, systems thinking, bridging, and learning as a dynamic leadership process that mobilizes action on the scale needed to address the inequities and injustices we care deeply about.

Leadership as a process for transformational change



Connecting authentically with openness and humility lays the foundation for developing a shared sense of purpose out of which collective action grows. This involves connecting first with oneself to clarify one’s intention, values, beliefs, and worldview, and then and asking questions that help individuals make meaning of their individual experience and understand each other better. Through this process groups begin to identify shared frustrations and aspirations. Building relationships that foster trust and mutual understanding enables groups to work through conflicts and build shared commitment and accountability.

Organizing is the process by which a group with a shared sense of purpose develops and implements strategies for achieving its goals. Organizing involves utilizing tools and creating communication pathways and structures that help the group set direction, plan, allocate resources, make decisions, engage the skills of individuals/organizations and mobilize action.

Systems Thinking is the process through which we utilize a systems analysis to observe and understand the structural systems that perpetuate disparities and inequities. By looking at the complex interactions among multiple factors influencing the system we begin to identify leverage points that we can experiment with by prototyping interventions in the system.

Bridging is a process of uncovering shared concerns, frustrations, hopes and goals across differences in culture and focus of work. As we recognize interdependence and find connections in our efforts we uncover and unleash new opportunities to link and leverage our work. By finding common purpose and expanding our networks we achieve new scale and reach creating the conditions for transformative change.

Learning/Reflecting is a continuous process that is integrated with action. It is the means we can use to hold ourselves collectively accountable for how we are doing and mobilizing to do better, individually and as groups. Reflection requires that individuals and groups understand themselves, inquire into the level of awareness, the identities and motives they bring to the work, and the personal work required to serve the collective purpose of the team, organization, community or network. Through reflection, we continue to clarify and evolve our individual and collective purpose, more fully embody our values and renew our commitments.

What are implications of an expanded model for leadership development work?

Leader development: The majority of leadership programs recruit individuals. Many individuals have noted the value of these programs in helping them develop critical skills that make them more effective leaders in their organizations or as political leaders who have increased understanding of how to assess a political landscape or advocate for policy change. Over the past 10 years many leadership programs have recognized the importance of cultivating systems thinking and a stronger capacity for collaboration. Cultivating these capacities have opened up greater possibilities for having an impact on communities and systems. A few programs have taken a more integral view by emphasizing the inner shifts (including a deep sense of connectedness with the whole) that are critical for embodying relational and systemic change.

Leadership development: As a field we are still learning how to support the leadership process within teams, organizations, communities and networks, while inviting individuals to do the inner work that enables them to contribute their gifts in serving the collective. The focus of leadership as a process is not who (which individuals to recruit into a program) but on how to strengthen the capacity of organizations, networks and communities to engage in the leadership process. Examples of programs developing the capacity of communities to engage in leadership are Leadership in Action, Kellogg Leadership for Community Change.

Examples of Effective Leadership Developed in Networks and Communities:

Sources for chart:

  • National Housing Institute, “Network Organizing: A Strategy for Building Community Engagement”, William J. Traynor and Jessica Andors, 2005
  • Data collected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2005 (Leadership in Action Program)
  • Leadership for 21st Century Change Brochure, Kellogg Leadership for Community Change
  • "Ten propositions on transforming the current leadership development paradigm”. Otto Scharmer, 2009
  • “Unleashing the power of the parents to fix their kids’ schools.” Tory Read, 2006

Leadership development results: The majority of leadership development programs hold themselves accountable for individual level results. A few may also look for team level and organization level results. Few programs design their programs to be accountable for community and systems level results. Having the intention to achieve change at greater degrees of scale can transform how leadership is developed. An example of a program that looks for population level results is Leadership in Action. In Baltimore, they co designed a program that engaged a diverse cross section of community folks to significantly increase the number of children who enter school ready to learn. By learning to coordinate and align their efforts across different parts of the system that produces school readiness, significant improvements were brought about in the course of one year.