01 May 2018

How to lead a social movement and survive

Ron Heifetz, one of the world's leading authorities on leadership, talks about the dangers facing those trying to lead great social change, and reveals lessons from the mistakes and victories of Martin Luther King.

Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna Ziomecka Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland
How to lead a social movement and survive  - NewsMavens
Martin Luther King speaks to protesters, akg-images/EAST NEWS

Zuzanna Ziomecka: What makes a message about social change powerful?

R: Basing it in commonly held values. In 1963, when Martin Luther King said in his legendary speech: "I have a dream,” his next phrase was: "a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.”

What gave him power was that his vision was not only his own vision. It articulated something that had already been there.

It was already embedded in the founding documents of the country. King gained power in influencing the American people, because he said to them: We are not living up to our own standards, to our values. We say we stand for equal opportunity and freedom, and yet this is not how we are living.

ZZ: But wasn’t he also pointing the finger and accusing people of doing things incorrectly?

R: No, he was also calling the community to live up to its own values. King was saying - "I know that many of you are happy and comfortable, but think of what makes you go to war and risk dying on behalf of your country. Think of what it means to be a patriot: it means to hold precious and sacred these values, so let’s live up to them."

ZZ: Thousands of people rallied to King’s message, but thousands of others pushed back on him and resisted the changes he wanted to make. His demonstrations got very violent.

R: That was part of the strategy - to generate non-violent civil disobedience that would, if you made sure the press was there with cameras, force people in the whole country, including people in neighborhoods far away from any black people, to look at their own television screen and see the brutality of racism that was usually hidden from view.

Having demonstrations that surfaced the brutality of racism forced the issues into American homes, so that daughters were suddenly saying to their fathers: "How could you vote for that senator?”

ZZ: The price for getting that message home was high. Is there a way that Martin Luther King could have protected himself from the assassination without weakening this purpose?

R: He could have reduced some risks, but he couldn’t have eliminated them. A year before he was assassinated he wanted to take a sabbatical, he was tired of being „The one.” He knew it had to be a movement and he was the face of it, but there were many people who were providing leadership in that movement - people in the streets, in organizations, rabbies, Catholic priests, people in politics. King had moral authority leading people in that effort, but he also knew that this dependency on him was a problem. He wanted to stop for a while but I think he fell into the common trap of beginning to think that people can’t do it without him.

ZZ: Could they have done it without King?

Well, it was already falling apart in 1968 because King made a strategic mistake, in my opinion. He lost his focus on civil rights.

When you lead without formal authority, your big advantage is that you get people to focus on a single issue, you unite a coalition of people from across the political range because they all agree on that one thing.

When you begin to take on more than this, you begin to divide you own community. Because it may agree on this one issue but not on necessarily on two.

King’s second issue was the Vietnam War. He began to equate the Vietnam War with racism. To some people who deeply believed in civil rights, the Vietnam Wars was part of America’s responsibilities to bring freedom and democracy to the world. They thought it was a virtuous activity, and not an immoral one. To be told that this activity was racist was upsetting to them. King’s mistake was a common one  - when you believe you have moral authority you think you have to address all the moral issues. 

ZZ: So maybe he shouldn’t have quit once the the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed and the problem was solved?

But it was not solved! There were laws that prevented black people from buying houses, getting mortgages, getting jobs. There was a lot to work on also in terms of culture, the social attitudes. Legislation is not a cure all - it’s just a piece of the puzzle.

Rarely is society changed by a law. The law is a mechanism, a teaching moment. It creates the boundary condition and says: here’s a new norm - we’re going to force you follow it. But just because people bang up against a new legal boundary doesn’t mean they will internalize it or the values represented by it.

People will find ways around it in order to hold on to the cultural assumptions embedded in their community and history. Ultimately, the law only begins to solve the problem, because it corrects certain types of behavior at the boundaries.

True change is in the culture. And this takes generations for people to work through because even partial departures from tradition require renegotiating loyalties with cherished members of our family, community, and ancestry.

ZZ: And doesn’t that work require a symbolic face; somebody who could trigger associations or memories?

It does, and it’s helpful if you have that, but it could also be multiple faces.

ZZ: What movement has had multiple faces?

The Civil Rights Movement had multiple faces. If King had not been assassinated, he wouldn’t have been hallowed in memory as the singular martyr.

Part of the problem with martyrdom is that people think of you as the only one and assume that you’ve got the magic and if you’re not there, then the magic is gone. They think the magic dies with you. They don’t see that the magic was in them all.

We had many other people who were powerful spokespersons for justice and civil rights. Some of them were more militant, and some - more conservative, but you had a whole spectrum of people working these issues. Instead of being another competitor in this emerging market of multiple civil rights activists, King could have blessed it all. He could have built bridges between all the different fractions of the civil rights movement who were competing on what was the right way to go.

ZZ: That’s a powerful role for someone without formal authority. What happens to accountability in such cases?  In Poland, we have a powerful man calling the shots in our current government who does not have a formal mandate to yield power and yet he does so.

That doesn’t worry me. Your powerful man behind the scenes is accountable indirectly through the people who look to him for instructions and guidance. The current people in the political party that he created are being held accountable by the voters who voted for them. So he is indirectly accountable in the sense that if the voters decide to vote against current government, he will lose. What concerns me more are people who lead in the social movements. It’s important for them to be trustworthy.

ZZ: Why wouldn’t they be trustworthy?

Because they are human, and there are various temptations to any human being when they become a source of significance to others. These vulnerabilities did not exist in the same ways when people lived as hunters and gatherers. When we lived in small communities of 15 to 30 people, with a lot of land and resources around us, in environments that didn’t change much for generations, you didn’t need strong authority. People knew what to do. Elders learned from their elders.

It’s only since we invented agriculture, about 12000 years ago, when people stared to grow and store food, that you began to have collections of people larger than 20 in one place.

It’s a very short time in evolutionary terms and we have not changed our basic social predispositions, which are still hardwired in us. We still approach complex life as if we were living in small communities.

That’s why in an organization we have to break reporting relationships down to small groups of ten, because that’s how we lived - we would sit around a campfire and work it out in small face-to-face groups. The human being doesn’t have the carrying capacity to have a hundred direct reports, because it’s just not how we evolved. We recreate for ourselves these small group-based communities.

ZZ: Sounds like the foundations of modern management.

Oh it goes back much further then modern management. In the Bible, when Moses’s father in law, Jethro, comes to visit early in the Exodus, he says to Moses: „How are you, my son in law?” and he notices that Moses is really exhausted. And then Jethro consults Moses and says: „You’re going to wear yourself out. Because from before dawn to dusk you sit in your tent with lines of people coming to you with their problems. This is not sustainable. You have to organize, you have to find ten lieutenants and they have to find another ten lieutenants all the way out to the periphery”.

ZZ: Ok., I understand that we are wired for small communities. How does that play into our human hungers?

Anyone in the position of authority, like Moses, is likely to be overwhelmed by all of the hopes and aspirations, and disappointments and frustrations of so many people. We weren’t designed to have more that 20 people to look at us at the same time with a lot of yearnings or anger.

People with high authority are like nodes connecting countless wires of electricity that stream into them, all this emotional current of people’s hopes and yearnings, frustrations, anxiety an anger - that’s a lot for a human being to conduct.

ZZ: So leaders ...short circuit?

Sometimes. There are characteristic temptations and distortions that authority figures face. There are normal human hungers that we all have, that are valid and good in many ways - the desire to feel that we matter in life, that we’re important to people, that we have control over our lives, that we have power over our local environment, or the desire for intimacy and sexual gratification.

When a human being, who knows how to deal with those hungers when it’s just them and a few people around, begins to conduct all this emotional electricity for thousands of hundreds, millions of people, it’s very easy for each of these hungers to grow out of control.

When people with authority fall under these temptations and let their hungers run wild, they do damage to others. For example, they may do damage because of the hunger for importance - they may begin to think that they’re the only ones that have answers, and that the world won’t succeed without them. And then this normal hunger to be important to people gets distorted and becomes grandiosity.

ZZ: Is teaching leadership the answer?

One of them, yes. Helping talented people grow their leadership skills is a way to increase the capacity of a country to thrive in the face of all the dangers and changes that the world is generating and that need to be addressed. This is truly an urgent task. 


Ronald Heifetz is the King Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership and founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. This interview took place in December 2016 when Professor Heifetz was in Warsaw to conduct workshops and lecture at the Leadership Academy for Poland.


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