It’s good to step outside your usual circles. It’s how we broaden our minds – that was the thinking behind why I joined a webinar hosted by The Resurgence Centre and Eco Resolution last week. It was pitched as a collection of short talks from front-line, grassroots activists about what it means to be a leader and changemaker.
While change-making leadership feels familiar, activism is new ground for me (unless you count flirting with XR Leeds and toddling along miner’s protests in the 90s). So I ventured there might be a spark of energy, wisdom and insight I could capture from the speakers, one I might relate back to the people I coach.
A who’s who of changemakers
The online guests were an eclectic mix of four lively speakers, each tackling fundamental problems facing humanity, like climate change, social injustice and the effects of rampant inequality.
- KMT Freedom Teacher: activist and mentor, using hip-hop for social awareness and social cohesion.
- Lyla June: indigenous environmental scientist, student, educator, community organiser.
- Noga Levy-Rapoport: leader from UK Student Climate Network and protester.
- Salvador Gómez-Colón: climate resilience and youth empowerment advocate.
Consider this my report back on what their front-line experiences of leadership and organising change might teach us, about our own day-to-day change-making in our careers and businesses.
Lyla opened by honouring her ancestors in her native tongue – a new one for me. This certainly doesn’t happen enough on our family Zoom quizzes, and I must admit to irreverently chuckling at the idea before reminding myself to be more respectful. I did however resolve to begin every future quiz by telling everyone to “calm down Barry” in a Scouse accent reflecting my Liverpudlian roots, then burning a shellsuit in homage.
Flippancy aside, Lyla had much wisdom to share.
Neither her protest against the Dakota access oil pipeline, or running for political office, ended in conventional ‘success’. The pipeline seems to be going ahead, and standing up to the bullying petrochem lobby ended predictably. But Lyla remained optimistic, thanks to the way she reframed what ‘victory’ means.
Victory is rarely how we imagine it
She argued that blazing a trail constitutes change, and doing something that’s never been done before is still a victory. Even if you don’t achieve what you thought you would. And she’s right. Braving fear, thoughts of inadequacy, and lack of knowledge is a very human triumph.
Lyla also argued that being a changemaker means asking ‘why not’ even if the world’s not ready. It’s about honouring your imagination as sacred, she said. Trusting in it, even if you can’t see where it’s leading you.
Manage any of that and you’ll see victories that most can only dream of.
This guy was slick. I mean really slick – polished and wildly charismatic in his delivery, especially for someone so young. All tooth and thrust, as they say. He was simultaneously intimidating and inspiring for someone like me to watch; my middle-age virility evaporating steadily in the radiated heat of his youth.
For all his charm, there was a strong current of humility and wisdom in Salvador’s words; openly alluding to the fact that he’s still at school, so why should anyone listen…
Well, I couldn’t help myself, and nor could leaders at the World Economic Forum, it seems, when he spoke alongside Greta Thunberg. Here’s what I gleaned.
Salvador opened by defining leadership as how you treat responsibility. If you’re responsible for something, someone or other people, or you take it, then you inherit certain (sacred?) duties as a leader.
Leadership is egoless, not authority
And leadership actually has very little to do with authority though, he argued. I find this a lot with those I coach. When we look at how they show-up in life, it turns out almost all of us are in positions of influence. And as Salvador says – that comes with responsibilities, like standing up when something’s wrong. Likewise, leaders by definition shouldn’t conform, especially to today’s global injustices and inequalities.
I was elated to hear purpose come up (it’s a bit of a theme in my coaching practice). We heard how an ethos, a mission, and cherished values are what give you self-assurance in times of uncertainty (like talking to crowds of strangers with killer conviction). And those values, coupled with stories, (another soft spot for this coach) are what convince others to join you.
Yet a leading changemaker should be egoless, argued Salvador. They empower others and run on empathy. As opposed to a traditional iron fist or inflexible power-agenda.
All that can be pretty tiring though, and result in burnout – something I hear often in coaching. Salvador’s remedy was to focus on the task at hand rather than the threat. And remember to recharge and rest – it’s your duty to others and your cause, not just our fallible human bodies.
KMT Freedom Teacher
Midway through the webinar, group appreciation and gratitude acknowledging was bountiful. I’m all for the sentiment behind this phenomenon, as long as things don’t turn into a bizarre empathy workshop. I’ve also got a blindspot for positive psychology, as a floundering pessimist.
So KMT, AKA Ian, was a welcome punctuation to the evening’s tone.
I knew we were in for a treat when KMT opened, frankly, by admitting he was in a bit of a state knowing what to talk about. Hardly surprising given all he gets up to: community permaculture projects and raising social cohesion with hip-hop as his vehicle.
Laughing, he then admitted Salvador was a tough act to follow – ‘pitching for president’. KMT’s humour, admission of vulnerability, and total lack of pretence was an instant tick in the world-class leadership box for me.
If authenticity is being utterly yourself, whatever the situation – then this was it
KMT likened leadership to the activity of a bee – an apt analogy for his community permaculture project. He said that much of the work of leaders is (and should be?) invisible. And you only know the extent of their impact when they’re gone. That’s when things fail.
The juiciest insight I took from KMT was how to tackle setbacks.
He argued that the way to meet adversity is with consistency. I took that to mean living in line with what you value. If you believe in humility and honesty, be receptive to feedback. If you believe in self-sacrifice, welcome the rough times and learn.
This was something of a theme in the rest of his talk, as he delved into attitudes to mistakes and failure. Now he had my attention, as a lifelong perfectionist. KMT argued that mistakes aren’t just OK, they’re important, and we should emulate nature in our leadership style.
I wasn’t quite clear on what KMT meant by that, but I intend to quiz him on it. I suppose he meant embracing change, and adapting to what evolution teaches us about failure (as well as success.
When Noga took the stage I found myself thrust two decades into the past, reflecting on my own convictions, and robustly constructed reality of absolutes. Her introduction was a no-holds barred attack on the toxicity of late-stage capitalism and its dysfunctional power structures. It was an unashamed sermon, and visceral critique rooted firmly on the frontline of protest and idealism.
And rightly so – there was much truth in what she said.
What I lacked in the certainty of youth was abundant self-awareness, whereas Noga made a point of acknowledging inherent naivety. She argued that youthful optimism and unbounded imagination are actually superpowers when it comes to systemic change.
I can’t argue with that. We need less jaded, white-male cynicism at the helm, and fresher, ambitious, diverse perspectives. Perhaps a balance of skyscraping hope, energy and ambition, blended with the realism and pragmatism of our elders?
Noga went on to criticise how we teach people to become changemakers (or rather, don’t). Our state education system (here in the UK), is woefully inadequate at schooling young people in local action and grassroots leadership. Having lived through and worked in it myself, I can point to many structural flaws in education, but Noga is right – this is a principal one.
To be a changemaker one needs to believe that taking action is worth it, and will effect lasting, meaningful change. The earlier, the better.
Otherwise, we end up in situations I often untangle with changemakers – coaching through excess fear and “stuckness,” like you’re not sure which way to turn because of overanalysis, low confidence and competing priorities.
It’s almost as if helplessness is conditioned into us early, then confirmed in later life.
Changing our relationship with the future
While I joke about my kind of changemakers saving the world, one poignantly haunting observation from Lyla was that we’re not individually responsible alone for solving systemic existential problems we face, like climate change.
When you look at things like that, it’s a step towards finding space. Room for manoeuvre. Space to reflect, think and ease the individual pressure. Perhaps even for joy and focus to fill the void?
I’d add you can apply that sort of thinking to any problem. You can choose what to take responsibility for, you can ‘want’ to do something at whatever scale you see fit. That goes some way to easing the burden of making progress as a leader and changemaker.
Changemakers have a tendency to focus on the future, is another closing nugget (I forget who from), yet often at the expense of the present. Enjoying those little steps that chip away at a bigger problem can, and should, be more rewarding than ultimately solving the problem. Are most of these problems we’re talking about actually ‘solvable’ anyway?
To challenge oneself to do the impossible is the most human thing to do
To challenge oneself to do the impossible is the most youthful thing to do, said Salvador. I’d extrapolate that it’s probably the most human thing to do, regardless of how old you are. As is acknowledging what one does know and doesn’t (says Noga) – that’s the start of solving any problem, great or small.
It’s also a bedrock of change-making leadership.
It took me a while to make peace with this realisation, yet there’s no rule saying you should know everything and be completely correct and successful on every first attempt. Yet you’d be surprised to learn how often that gets in the way of people I coach. Many other talented people may never even start in the first place, because of this fear of failure, imperfection – what is essentially our basic humanity.
That’s enough insight for now
I’ll be sowing these seeds of wisdom in my coaching practice, but what will you do with it?
How can you and I bring more vulnerability and humility in the face of such serious, existential problems, like the speakers above have – despite what they’re up against? What about your humour, charisma or other personable traits that draw people to us?
We need more of that, if we’re to come out the other side of this with our humanity intact.