What is so important about social change leadership anyway?
Social change organizations do more than resolve the problems of their immediate communities. They have realized that their community's grievances are part of a broader unresolved justice agenda, whose resolution represents a public good. As such, they perform an important public leadership function. Yet, they have not been studied enough, or at best, they are conflated in studies with much larger nonprofits that do not necessarily work with marginalized communities.
At a time of complex global challenges, every member of society is called upon to exercise citizenship and act responsibly. The idea of the leader as savior no longer matches the types of challenges facing the world today. When everyone's power is recognized, leadership can play an important role in distributing responsibility for addressing the seemingly intractable problems of our times among key diverse actors. Distributing leadership for collective problems enhances the chances of addressing them more effectively.
Social change organizations are local sites for democracy in action as they open spaces for every member of their communities to participate in making change happen. They also offer helpful lessons to both private and public sector organizations striving to become less bureaucratic, more flexible and more adaptive to their environment.
Thanks to their adaptive leadership practices, social change organizations are adept at what scholar Bill Traynor describes as allowing form to follow function. In other words, whereas many organizations overemphasize the importance of structures in the name of professionalization and efficiency, social change organizations keep their eye first and foremost on what they need to achieve, and then design the form with which to achieve it. This means that they tend to be more democratic and participatory, relying heavily on the quality of horizontal relationships more than on top-down authority.