Don’t Talk to Me about “Driving” Social Change


I recently met with the former head of a major pharmaceutical company to talk about improving the lives of kids. This well regarded executive was excited to invest a significant amount of his time, post his tenure at the helm of a Fortune 500 company, in leading an effort to address youth substance abuse.* I was energized by his passion and fervor for the issue, and his true desire to use his platform and experience as a leader to make a difference. But I was troubled by his orientation towards the leadership he felt was required. “We need to drive these evidenced based practices through the system, from top to bottom,” he said. “We need to force communities to understand what’s good for them.” Uh, oh, I thought to myself. Yet one more well-intentioned, influential individual in society who wants to bring about change for the better, but just doesn’t get how social change happens.

The minute you use words like “drive” and “force” to describe your intended process for bringing about change I head the other direction quickly. We can’t force change in a system – or if we do, it’s likely to result in only temporary change. If we want to exercise leadership in bringing about social change, our leadership task is really about facilitating the conditions within which others can make progress towards the goal. The leadership work of social change requires an ability to catalyze collective leadership in others – a form of leadership that Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton and I refer to in a new Stanford Social Innovation Review article as “System Leadership.”

Nowhere in the social sector is the need for system leadership more apparent than in the collective impact efforts many of us are involved in supporting. By its very nature, collective impact eschews top-down hierarchical forms of leadership that may work in the corporate world (though, even in the corporate world, most executives are finding that top-down leadership works less and less as an effective means for bringing about organizational change). Indeed, one of the qualities of collective impact that enables communities to achieve progress at scale – across, in some cases, hundreds of organizations – is the fact that no one individual or organization is in charge of a collective impact effort.  

So what type of leadership does foster success in collaborative efforts such as collective impact? In our new Stanford Social Innovation Review article, The Dawn of System Leadership we describe three necessary capabilities:

  • The first is helping people see the larger system of which they are a part. Creating this understanding helps collaborating organizations in a collective effort jointly develop solutions not evident to any one individual organization, and to work together for the health of the whole system rather than just pursue symptomatic fixes to individual pieces.
  • The second involves fostering reflection and more generative conversations than can result in truly innovative solutions. Deep, shared reflection is a critical step to enabling groups of organizations to truly hear one another’s perspectives. It is an essential doorway for building trust where distrust has prevailed, and for fostering collective creativity.
  • The third capability centers on shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future. Change often starts with conditions that are undesirable, but artful system leaders help people move beyond just reacting to these problems to build­ing positive visions for the future.

A few years ago author and New York Times columnist David Bornstein described the need for collective impact this way:

When it comes to solving social problems, society often behaves like a drowning man whose arms and legs thrash about wildly in the water. We expend a great deal of energy, but because we don’t work together efficiently, we don’t necessarily move forward. (March 7, 2011, New York Times)

For collective impact efforts to move from thrashing to thriving requires leadership less like that described by the eager-for-change pharma exec, and more like the leadership examples Senge, Hamilton and I share in The Dawn of System Leadership. Folks like Molly Baldwin at Roca, a community based organization who is transforming how communities think about supporting troubled young men and boys, and Darcy Winslow formerly of Nike, who helped catalyze an industry sustainability revolution in the design of athletic shoes and apparel.

Baldwin and Winslow truly get how social change happens. What they also get – because they’ve lived it – is the developmental journey that system leaders must go through to become effective at this work. This is a journey that’s both inward and outward facing – and one that typically advances through the use of powerful tools that support system leadership.

As a collective impact practitioner, what other capabilities and tools have you found to be helpful in catalyzing collective leadership? What advice do you have for other Collective Impact Forum members who are attempting to develop their system leadership skills? We look forward to hearing from you.

Read The Dawn of System Leadership on

*Note: while this story is true, I’ve changed the issue here to protect anonymity.


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