Many western cultures disproportionately value individuality, putting tremendous stock in singular leaders or celebrities (think: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, George Washington, Che Guevara, Ghandi). In reality, however, powerful social change movements are the work of a collective, and the brainchild of many committed and brave individuals. The most visible leaders become icons, but rarely do they alone drive lasting change. When leaders mentor other leaders to succeed them, as Socrates did for Artistotle, and Aristotle for Plato, the impact can be transformative. (In the case of those three, the impact could hardly be more profound: arguably, they formed the foundation for much of modern thinking and philosophy.)
When I look at the high-profile movements around me today—Black Lives Matter, equal opportunities for the LGBTQI community, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, the immigrant “Dreamers,” the Arab Spring—I find it difficult to name a single leader at the helm.
As susceptible as any of us to the myth of the singular leader, I found this disconcerting at first. Take the example of the Arab Spring. Although its long-term impact remains to be seen, it has so far managed to bring about democratic governments in four countries, and spark major protests demanding democracy in at least ten other countries in just 18 months. How, I wondered, could a seemingly leaderless movement manage this?
I soon realized that the Arab Spring wasn’t leaderless. On the contrary, much of the impact it has had has come from having leaders in every country: local leaders organizing in their own neighborhoods, journalists writing and shooting videos to garner support, and social media activists providing information, education and co-creating manifestos, strategies and plans together in groups.
Far from leaderless, the movement is intentionally structured around decentralized leadership, an approach that can be very effective. Should any leaders leave the movement or be imprisoned or otherwise silenced, there are hundreds of others who are ready to fill their shoes and carry the movement forward.
As I examined these movements, I started to see a formula: First, we progress at an accelerated rate when leaders enable others around them to be leaders as well, rather than focusing on being the most visible figureheads. Second, progress is unstoppable when leaders cultivate other leaders to carry the work forward. Third, leadership can come from anywhere: young people, the media, the retired, parents, you and me. In India, the movement for Net Neutrality is taking on the social networking giant Facebook—and it has no identifiable leader. If we were to push to find one, we would find the movement being led by a group of stand-up comedians!
Inspired by the stories of successful leaders who “lead from behind” and enable others, I decided to try it out myself.
My “choice” was driven in part by necessity. About five years ago, my friend and colleague Robin Chaurasiya, and I, working from our 2-bedroom apartment in Mumbai, started Kranti, an organization with the goal of empowering victims of sex trafficking to be social change leaders. For the first couple of years, we were cooking three meals a day for the girls, taking them to school, doing homework with them, taking them to art and dance classes, writing fundraising proposals at night and running around to partnership meetings on Sundays. We burnt ourselves out. I took another job and only supported Kranti part-time. Robin took some time to go through therapy, coaching and meditation and came back to Kranti a different kind of leader.
We knew we had to put the empowerment model into place or risk losing any hope of impact.
Now, the older girls take the younger ones to school, help them with homework and go to their Parent Teacher Association meetings. Each girl runs her own fundraising page on Global Giving and writes reports to their donors. They self-organized and divided the household chores. The girls are travelling the world and delivering talks on their right to an education, against caste and class discrimination, and working to heal other victims of sexual abuse like themselves.
This is now a bona fide movement, with marginalized girls becoming the social change leaders for our generation—and it feels unstoppable. I might leave, Robin might retire but the movement will go on. Sumaiya and Saira and Ashi and Sapna and Kavita or any number of other girls who are now empowered will lead it, enabling other younger girls to become leaders along with and after them.
That, to me, is leadership.