Guest Articles

December 26

Diana Wells / Supriya Sankaran

New Paradigm for Leadership – Everyone Leads

When Darrel Hammond, founder of KaBoom! set out to make sure that every child has a great place to play, his plan for building playgrounds had a special twist. Instead of building the playgrounds himself, Darrel made sure that parents, teachers and employees led the change. They chose the site, raised money and volunteered time for construction. To reach more children, Hammond open sourced his model and created toolkits for communities to build their own playgrounds. The result? As of 2014, local communities have build 10 playgrounds for each one KaBoom! builds, resulting in over 2,500 playgrounds that have impacted the lives of over 5 million children in the U.S. since 1996. The more transformative impact lies in triggering communities to serve as changemakers. In 2014 alone, 39,860 volunteers across the United States, Canada and Mexico contributed 266,062 hours in labor for playgrounds used by 362,200 children.

Like other successful social entrepreneurs, Hammond’s approach challenges the dominant leadership paradigm in society – one in which a few lead and everyone else follows. They break from an authoritative, hierarchical approach to leadership and instead pave the way for everyone to participate as changemakers. They create new roles for people, purposes for institutions and relationships between actors.

At no time in history have we needed such leadership more. Technology has lowered barriers to participation. This level of individual empowerment and inter-connectedness is accelerating the rate of change and its complexity. In this fast-changing environment, operating under the old one-leader-at-a-time paradigm is proving ineffective. Linear, repetitious and hierarchical structures may have served leaders in the industrial economy, but will not serve the knowledge economy.

Beyond the ideas of social entrepreneurs that are impacting millions lie important lessons for all leaders grappling with today’s complex environment. Over the years, we have found leading social entrepreneurs do differently because they see the world differently.


Seeing the world differently

Leading social entrepreneurs have a foundational belief that, given the opportunity, everyone wants to and can contribute. They see people less as “employees” or “beneficiaries,” and more as co-creators and changemakers. This positive worldview is not constrained by traditional roles or hierarchies, and enables them to envision new possibilities, particularly for those traditionally denied agency.

This mindset has helped shape new norms in society. For instance, street children run their own banks (Ashoka Fellow Rita PanickerButterflies), disaster “victims” rebuild their communities (Ashoka Fellow Anshu GuptaGOONJ), and citizens act as lenders (Ashoka Fellow Matt FlanneryKiva). The mindset also helps them see people, whom others perceive as the “problem,” as the solution instead. For example, it is the belief that only offenders can successfully stop re-offending that led Ashoka Fellow Mark Johnson to set up prison councils in the United Kingdom to empower prisoners to shape rehabilitation policies.


Doing Differently

Seeing the world through this lens changes the way leading social entrepreneurs design their models and drive their strategies. We have observed four key ways:


Applying empathy

When Ashoka Fellows Drs. Abhay and Rani Bang of India graduated from Johns Hopkins with masters’ in public health degrees, they did not have a business plan. The medical doctors first convened what they called “people’s health assemblies” to listen to communities and understand healthcare challenges in Maharashtra, India. This helped them uncover patient perspectives on healthcare priorities, design and accessibility. For instance, one member of the community articulated the prevailing view that “doctors and nurses drape themselves in white clothes. We wrap dead bodies in white shawls. How can you save lives if you are dressed like a dead person?”

By applying empathy and being open to unlearn their assumptions, the Bangs designed their approach much differently. They built a network, the Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health, (SEARCH) which included door-to-door women health workers. The women learned to diagnose pneumonia and administer basic antibiotics. A hospital was designed as a series of huts to be friendlier and allow relatives to accompany patients. Empathetic listening helped reduce mortality rates among pneumonia-affected children from 13 percent to 0.8 percent.


Building changemaking teams

The commitment of leading social entrepreneurs to drive change that will outlive them compels them to create a culture of changemaking.

Rather than looking at certifications, social entrepreneurs invite team members who are proactive. Instead of assigning tasks, they facilitate open dialogues that build shared purpose and instill ownership.

It is this kind of transparent, intrapreneurial and purpose-based culture in SELCO (founded by Ashoka Fellow Harish Hande) that enabled Shankar, a janitor, to successfully implement his ideas for spreading SELCO’s solar program into urban slums. Today, Shankar is a branch manager of SELCO’s Bangalore office. Hande attributes SELCO’s success to a leadership team that openly debated. This has weeded out ideas based on biases and ego, while enriching outcomes.


Open sourcing solutions

Leading social entrepreneurs are committed to scaling the idea and not the organization. Instead of capturing the market, they invite competition and create empowered partners.

For example, Ashoka Fellow Jeroo Billimoria, founder of ChildLine and Aflatoun, has successfully brought the idea of children’s social and financial education to 3 million children a year across 113 countries in partnership with 181 organizations. Billimoria advises to “… let go of the model… It is going to be different. But this difference is not wrong just because it is not your vision. It enhances your vision and makes it grow… We have to learn to take on the vision of other people.” Key to ChildLine’s rapid growth was extensive documentation of practices, careful partner selection processes, and dialogues to adapt solutions and feedback mechanisms.


Building a ‘team of teams’

Leading social entrepreneurs are able to address big problems by tearing down walls that exist between siloed sectors, and effectively building a “team of teams” advancing toward a common goal.

Ashoka Fellow Tristram Stuart’s strategy to reduce global food waste is a case in point. He mobilized public opinion by engaging leading chefs to cook for over 5,000 people at Trafalgar Square with fresh but cosmetically imperfect food. He offered concrete data and waste reduction solutions to companies like Tesco, McCain and Ahold to evolve their strategies and save millions. To reduce waste by supermarkets, Stuart’s organization, FeedBack, successfully campaigned to relax retailers’ cosmetic standards for fresh produce. FeedBack has also worked with restaurants to minimize wastage. Lastly, to mitigate waste at the farm, FeedBack mobilized communities to “glean” surplus food and re-distribute it to food banks. Since 2013, FeedBack’s efforts in the United Kingdom alone have contributed to a 21 percent reduction in household waste and a 10 percent industry-wide reduction.

Key to Stuart’s success in driving such large-scale change with only a five-member team was his ability to draw in actors in ways that unlocked multiple financial, environmental and health benefits for all.


What can we take away?

To successfully lead in a complex environment, the core role of a leader shifts to nurturing an environment for changemakers to emerge. Part of nurturing others to lead requires overcoming personal and organizational egos to listen, trust and share leadership. It requires self-awareness and openness not only for change externally but for change internally. We have seen Ashoka Fellows struggle in this journey, but when they succeed they gain an authenticity that ultimately rallies people around the idea.

Each one of us has the innate potential to unleash this new paradigm of leadership in our schools, universities, work spaces and communities. We too can root our leadership in building a culture of changemaking.


Diana Wells is the president of Ashoka.

Supriya Sankaran is director of Venture and Fellowship, India for Ashoka


Top image: shelgerard via Flickr.

Homepage image: shelgerard via Flickr.


[yop_poll id=”10″]

Education, Social Enterprise