Leadership From Below: On Becoming a Change Agent

by Miki Kashtan

As you watch the news, go to your workplace, interact with family, friends, and the community at large, you no doubt encounter events or behaviors that you would like to see changed. Maybe your landlord raised your rent; maybe your neighbors have late night parties; maybe relationships in your workplace are strained; or maybe it’s a government action that you believe is harmful.

Sometimes you have the capacity to create the change you want. If you manage a department within an organization, you usually have the resources to change policies or procedures. It is entirely up to you whether or not you will engage others in the process. If you are a landlord, you can evict a tenant. It is entirely up to you whether or not you will try to work things out with the tenant. If you are a parent, you can move your children to another school. It is entirely up to you whether or not you will consult with them about which school they want to attend.

But what if you are the employee, the tenant, or the child? What are your options when you lack access to power?

Suffer – You can stay put and suffer, which can look like complaining; taking drugs; playing small; becoming numb or cynical; or simply experiencing pain and active helplessness.

Exit – You can quit your job, end your relationship, or move to a different town if things become unbearable. But how often can you do that, and in how many spheres? How much can you tolerate experiencing a sense of power only through leaving?

Fight – You can fight with the people who are in positions of structural power. What happens then? By definition, someone who is in a position of power can easily mobilize resources to prevent the change from happening. And even if you win, you may lose – so often individuals and groups who successfully challenged people in power repeated the same practices they initially started the fight to change.

Collaborate for Change – Is there any other way of engaging with the existing power structure? Can we overcome the fear, discouragement, and tendency to see others as enemies or threats to the success of change, and work together to create an outcome that works for all?

We all have examples of success: citizens working with developers to create plans that work for more people; employees engaging effectively with their bosses on proposals that support everyone; teenagers opening up conversations that transform family relationships; and the path of nonviolence, from Gandhi onwards, is full of examples of political changes that were created by appealing to the humanity of people in power.

Leadership from below, like nonviolence more generally, focuses on cultivating internal resources to make up for the absence of structural power.

Acceptance – Collaborating for change without forcing your way or giving up presupposes staying open and accepting the reality of what is, and being motivated by clear vision rather than desperate energy to create change because what is is not bearable to you.

Courage – Collaborating for change leans heavily on the inner power that comes from the willingness to lose everything and still be at peace.

Stewardship of the Whole – Collaborating for change points to a vision of leadership as stewardship of the whole. Even when people are opposed to your proposed changes, you maintain a commitment to include their needs in the mix of what you are trying to create.

Fruitful dialogue with people in power can be hard work, and benefits tremendously from concrete skills in addition to an inclusive attitude.

Empathic Listening – If you lack structural power, those who have it are likely to only want to listen to you because of the quality of connection. Connection thrives on empathic listening, no matter disagreements, not matter how people express themselves, in order to hear what’s behind the words and actions. Empathic listening is also vital to being able to integrate objections so that you can propose solutions more likely to work for everyone.

Concrete Proposals Grounded in Needs and Observations – Your power to create change increases to the extent that you focus on: 1) specific strategies instead of oppositional critique or vague abstractions; 2) the needs and vision behind your proposal, including what you know is important to the people you are talking with; and 3) specific observations to support your proposal instead of generalizations and evaluative statements. The combination of these elements can support the people you are talking with in knowing what you want and why it matters, and in having enough clear, honest, and fearless information to understand what you are responding to.

Focus on What You Want – Our habit and training is to focus on what is wrong around us (or within us). Collaborating for change relies on inspiring others by focusing instead on where you want to go – your vision, your values, and a picture of what’s possible.

Making Requests for Connection – Engaging with those in power to create mutually beneficial change calls upon you to nurture the sense of connection even, and especially, when obstacles arise and you need to find trust and mutual understanding. Making frequent requests to establish connection conveys to the people you are talking with that you are not so focused on getting your way that you ignore them. Everyone wants to matter, whether or not they have structural power.

When everyone matters and we cultivate skills for leadership regardless of structural power, not only do we create possibilities for new outcomes; we also lay the foundation for a new way of living together. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of non-violence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.”

© by Miki Kashtan