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Orchestrating Movements:
A New Role for Leaders

2011 has been a rough year for leaders. Popular revolutions toppled dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya; the Occupy movement attacked corporate leaders who led us into recession; Europeans tossed government after government; and Americans watched in horror as their political leaders led the nation to the brink of default. We shook our heads as global summits failed to make any significant progress towards addressing climate change, as so-called thought leaders seemed unable to transcend the polemics of punditry, and as corporate leaders smugly walked away from ruined companies with eight-figure bonuses.

In contrast, 2011 has been a remarkable year for transformative change. Governments once considered invincible have fallen, and democracies have been born. Where we once looked to leaders for positive change, we now look to youth in the streets, their faces covered by a keffiyeh, one gloved hand throwing a teargas canister back at the lines of riot police. Time Magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year was not a leader, but the protester. Leadership is changing, and in 2012, being a sustainable brand leader will require more than just working through the conventional channels. It will require the ability to lead a movement.

In 2009 Mayor Frank Jackson of Cleveland, realizing that he could not achieve the economic growth and environmental sustainability he sought through the conventional channels, opted to start a movement. The Mayor convened a summit of hundreds of people from all segments of society. They created a vision and formed groups to work on areas such as energy efficiency, local food, sustainable manufacturing, and green energy generation. Since 2009, new laws have been passed, new businesses started, bike lanes built, vacant lots changed into gardens, major institutions have shifted their policies, and plans for energy generation facilities have been created.

The movement in Cleveland is far from finished, but these successes would never have been possible through the usual approach of a few policy changes and some government grants. It required leadership that was willing to release the reins and mobilize people outside formal channels. These ‘orchestrated movements’ (term created by David Strang and Dong-Il Jung) require wisdom and sophistication:

Create aspirations, not grievances. Unlike movements that are premised upon intense dissatisfaction, orchestrated movements seek not to overthrow the current leadership, but to collaborate. Through focusing on aspirations, not grievances, leaders can mobilize people without creating frustration that may backfire.

Emphasize collective responsibility, not blame. People often have a tendency to blame leaders for current problems and give leaders credit when things go well. Orchestrating leaders need to create a sense of collective responsibility, both to avoid energy-draining scapegoating, and to create the sense that if we want to change our situation, we need to do it ourselves.

Create opportunities for unlikely collaboration. Orchestrated movements are at their most powerful when those at the peripheries and the center of the system collaborate. One of the achievements of the Sustainable Cleveland movement came when a number of biking advocacy organizations worked with local businesses and the municipal government to gain funding for a bike lane. Through combining the planning resources of the city, the economic influence of the businesses, and the lobbying power of the advocates, they were able to achieve a goal that had previously been pursued unsuccessfully by each.

Be ready to let go. Social movements are hard to control. Orchestrating leaders need to be willing to let go as the movement gains its independence and begins to pursue objectives that the leader may not have initially foreseen. Such leadership requires courage, and a commitment to empowerment and change above the interests of power.

The challenge for leaders is to shift thinking from inside to outside conventional channels, from being bosses to orchestrators, from creating controllable action to mobilizing the masses. In doing so, leaders can move towards sustainability in a way that empowers all segments of society. 2012 will continue to see protests attacking the rich and powerful, but with a little courage and humility, it has the potential to give birth to a more inclusive and powerful idea of what it means to lead.