Leadership on the Edges

For the past few years, I have been responsible for building the Global Fellows Program at Acumen Fund and now we are working to develop our new regional programs around the world, the first will launch in Kenya this summer.  From these experiences I have begun to understand what makes talent in this field unique, and I want to share these reflections with those of you who aspire to be leaders in the social sector.

From my perspective, social entrepreneurs are masters at forging connections between opposing worlds. These leaders aren’t just comfortable bringing together two opposing ideas; they thrive on it. Take for example, non-profit venture capital. This is radical. Why? Well, because our mind likes to keep our creative process in silos (black/white, right/wrong, business/social, rich/poor). Things are simpler that way. In her TED talk, Chimamanda Adichie discusses the danger of a single story. Leaders embrace the tension created by many different stories; they find innovative ways to allow opposing narratives to co-exist, merge, and create new value in the world.

Now the question is: How do you as an aspiring leader in this field build these capabilities?  I believe it is about living and thinking on the edges.  Understand your sector but step out often to learn from others. Then bring that knowledge back to develop something new. True visionaries are the ones who recognize and develop synergies across the boundaries in which we are normally contained.

So how do you do this?  The greatest piece of advice I can give is to listen.  I don’t mean just close your mouth. I mean actually listen so hard that you are willing to change your mind. Synergies come when you allow yourself to silence your point of view and recognize the value of someone else’s story and ideas.  This is not just about low-income communities. This concept should be applied whether you are talking to the wealthiest or the poorest in the world.

To give you a couple of examples, 2011 Fellow Benje Williams just posted a blog on the synergy between design and development.  Most people don’t think these two have anything in common.  Another example comes from the slums of Nairobi. While many people might overlook the concept of leadership development in the context of a place like the Kenyan slums, the current manager of our Kenya leadership program, Suraj Sudhakar, helped spearhead TedxKibera and continues to cultivate in leaders in this locale.

The second piece of advice I can give is exposure yourself to new ideas and ways of thinking as often as possible.  To give you an example, when people ask us about the social entrepreneurship curriculum we teach the Fellows, I always tell them that while we do teach social entrepreneurship, our curriculum is much more than that.  We expose Fellows to design thinking (IDEO does a training), business (we have trainings with professors from Columbia and New York University and have conversations with everyone from Seth Godin to Bill Mayer), art (we have been known to do our performance development plans in the Met), music (thanks John Forte), finance, the latest technology and social media (Carlos Dominguez from Cisco spend a day with us), philosophy (inspired by Aspen Institutes Good Society), and storytelling (Ariel Group runs a training, and see the results)!

So what I am proposing is that social entrepreneurship is, in fact, not a field but a way of thinking.  A way of building bridges, of seeing the world not for what it is but what it can be. My mentor C.K. Prahalad used to say to me, “I don’t like to think outside the box, I like to create my own box.”  So for those of you trying to build your careers in this field, create your own box and then leave it often to explore how you can make it stronger.  Build a box that listens to and incorporates the voices from the slums of Mumbai to the penthouses of Manhattan.    Because at the end of the day we are all the same and the more we can recognize these synergies the closer we get to creating a more inclusive economy and social system.

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