Three critical elements to lead social change

Madlen Popignatova 17
Article by: Sophie Poulsen
Three critical elements to lead social change

In a world of complexity, with interconnected social issues affecting each other, how do we effectively lead for change?


Even for the most humanitarian amongst us, it is difficult to care about all causes equally. We see movements such as Black Lives Matter countered with All Lives Matter. Divisiveness is justified through fear of our communities being overrun by the burden of baggage immigrants bring with them. All the while, war and poverty ravage our global community, as we see in Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar amongst others. Even the fight for gender equality faces conflict, for example with transgender women feeling excluded from feminist movements. We might not even get the opportunity to resolve all of these issues, as the UN declares we only have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe. Meanwhile, there are people who claim climate change isn't real.


While many of us care about humanity, we don't know how to balance caring for everything with effectively changing something. This is especially true of leaders sitting at the helm of organizations mandated to bring about social justice and change. To add to this, nonprofits and foundations are competing for the same pool of resources from donors and private contributions, making it difficult to address social justice broadly without risk of losing support and resources for their own cause.

We spoke to participants from the social sector in the upcoming Class 15 of the Executive Leadership Program to get an inside look at the type of leadership needed to create change in these complex times. They emphasized three critical elements to effect social justice: systems thinking, authentic leadership, and diversity and innovation.

lead social change
In a world of complexity, with interconnected social issues affecting each other, how do we effectively lead social change? #socialchange #complexity #21stcentury #leadership #creativeleadership Click To Tweet

Systems thinking

For Michael Silberman, Executive Director of Mobilisation Lab, “the social sector requires a collaborative form of leadership. One person’s fight for justice is inextricably linked to another person’s fight for justice. There’s no such thing as social justice for one group but not for others. That requires leaders who are able to collaborate well, look outside of their own walls and organizations, and be highly creative and collaborative with other social sector leaders.”

In other words, social change is not about sectors; it’s a human issue.

Unfortunately, though, social change is crippled by competition.

We often don’t think of the social sector as a competitive marketplace. But just like the private sector, social change organizations have a limited resource pool. “You’ve got these great leaders who are competing for the same resources,” says Ami Becker Aronson, Executive Director of the Bernstein Family Foundation. “The question is: How do you change mindsets of the leaders and organizations to work in concert with each other rather than being in competition? That’s where systems change is needed.”

We must recognize we are in this together and part of a broader ecosystem. This is a great reason for leaders to be more willing to collaborate and share knowledge and insights. Michael has found an effective solution in Mobilisation Lab, which supports advocacy campaigners and their organizations to break through with a systems-based approach.

According to Ami, there are two pieces to creating systems change: responsible disruption and inviting risk as an entrepreneurial opportunity.

Risk-taking is especially essential in social impact efforts. “There’s often complacency when you try to effectuate change. The beauty of inviting risk is to responsibly disrupt the way we traditionally do things,” Ami explains. “I want to incubate this idea at THNK. It will be great to see how this develops.

Ami Becker Aronson
Ami Becker Aronson
Executive Director
Bernstein Family Foundation
"No amount of money will change one issue or solve one problem. At the end of the day, it's about people. It's about leadership. The more we can invest in the mindsets of these great leaders of our institutions or organizations, the more we can effectuate change."

Authentic leadership

“Authentic leadership is crucial to social impact,” says Indrani Goradia, Founder of Indrani’s Light Foundation, which helps caregivers at women’s shelters combat compassion fatigue and burnout. “We must not pretend to be supportive of a cause only to forget about it because it’s the easier path.”

This is where authentic leadership comes in. Rooted in purpose, authentic leadership reduces the likelihood of abandoning a cause, especially when dealing with today’s complex issues. It also enables the leader to maintain the same purpose as a driving force for the stakeholders they work with.

Being an authentic leader requires a level of self-awareness. For Peter Mortifee, Co-Founder and Chair of the Somerset Foundation, being authentic is about deeply connecting with our values, ourselves, and our own personal truth. “I admire leaders who are connected to themselves in an authentic, honest, and truthful way, and are able to be non-judgmental and compassionate with themselves, which in turn allows them to show up in more generative ways with others,” he explains.

Peter Mortifee
Peter Mortifee
Co-Founder & Chair
Somerset Foundation
"If we are going to imagine and manifest the solutions that are required for some of our most vexing challenges – and if we are going to do that in a way that is truly sustainable, then I believe that we need to achieve a level of wellness and sustainability within ourselves."

After 25 years of training, practicing, and teaching as a medical doctor, Peter founded the Somerset Foundation to support initiatives that bring him a sense of purpose, possibility, and fulfillment. When it comes to his own leadership, Peter says, “I think that THNK is going to help me grow. It’s going to help me evolve and who knows what might come out of it.”

Diversity and innovation

Michael emphasizes how important diversity is in achieving innovation, something he is looking forward to experiencing at THNK: “I really believe innovation happens through collisions with people with different contexts and experiences. So, I’m very eager to be in touch with and learn from people with different experiences and backgrounds.”

In any sector, diversity is important. It has been widely proven that diverse companies are more innovative because teams that are made up of people with a wider range of interests, experiences, and backgrounds understand their audience better than less diverse teams.

The social sector has a unique need for diversity – and it shouldn’t come at the expense of a social cause. Take the example of gender equality and women’s rights. If women of color and the LGBTQ community were equally represented in the organizations working towards gender equality, you probably wouldn’t see women’s’ marches being canceled because it was only representative of one segment of women.

In short, these organizations would be more innovative if they incorporated these different perspectives before designing their plan of action.

To develop the skills and mindsets needed to effectively lead social change, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.