New and emerging approaches on radically transformative leadership

Solutions to the world’s most urgent problems – from climate change to economic, racial and gender inequalities – cannot be found at the same level of thinking that created them. 

Today’s generation of 1.8 billion young people has inherited these problems and are tasked with the challenge of finding solutions. However, very rarely are young leaders fully supported with the tools they need to radically re-envision our world and create sustainable change. 

Most current approaches to enabling leadership provide young people with a set of skills and support standalone initiatives. However, such narrow approaches are ineffective. Here are some common partial responses that we encourage young leaders to utilize and the consequences when implemented in isolation:

1. Finding narrow technical solutions to specific problems: Building effective responses can create temporary solutions for certain problems, but as soon as one problem is resolved, others emerge. This includes responses such as distributing malaria bed-nets, which stop the current outbreak but, by themselves, do not strengthen health systems to prevent future outbreaks. 

2. Changing social, cultural and political norms and institutions: Engaging in policy work and advocating with decision-makers is important, but often the policies that are formulated and the institutions that are built do not solve the problems they set out to tackle. Instead they often replicate existing power structures, get stuck in institutional paralysis or are sabotaged by underlying social, cultural or economic dynamics. 

3. Individual journeys of self-discovery: Consciousness-based training programs and books on self-awareness pave the way for some (usually privileged) individuals to feel empowered, to connect with others in transformative spaces and explore new ways of living mindfully. However, these initiatives by themselves do nothing to transform the planet or create social change at scale.

Each of these tactics, while incomplete in itself, is an important component of a new comprehensive approach that is now emerging that aims to simultaneously: 

  1. Build shared commitment based on universal values; 

  2. Shift policies, norms, systems and structures; and 

  3. Solve problems, in order to generate equitable and sustainable results. 

This new approach is “radical transformative leadership”, a concept developed by Monica Sharma, a former United Nations official. Sharma drew on her practical experience in development, as well as on the latest research in diverse areas such as social psychology, communications and systems thinking. 

More information is available at radicallytransform.org.

This concept now underpins a growing set of leadership programs, including:

  • Leadership for Equity & Opportunity, by Rise Together in Oakland, CA (risetogetherbayarea.org/leadership)

  • Leadership for New Emergence, in New York, NY (new-emergence.com)

  • Stewardship for Radical Transformation, in Auroville, India (auroville.org.in)

  • Unleashing Full Potential for Social Transformation, in Mumbai, India (tiss.edu)

  • Systems-Change Leadership, by EWB Canada, in Toronto (ewb.ca)

These programs are designed to enable participants to develop initiatives that have the following characteristics:

  • Making the invisible, visible: Stimulates pattern thinking and connects previously unexamined systems factors explicitly to the outputs of the initiative

  • Shifting systems, solving problems while sourcing values: Builds alignment and shared commitment based on universal values to create sustainable and equitable change

  • Address complexity, simply: Develops outputs with the potential for generating significant outcomes while addressing complex systems

  • Leverage: Makes a significant contribution to addressing the issue, and is cost-effective

  • Visibility and measurability: Has the potential to gain visibility, and can quantify its key results

  • Relatively near-term results: The initiative can be long term, but also creates specific results in a six-to-twelve-month timeframe 

  • Not “business as usual”: Proposes a breakthrough in shifting the system, and at least one of the following: velocity, productivity, efficiency innovation, creativity, effectiveness, participation 

  • Not an “add-on”: Builds on existing initiatives and commitments; it is not about doing different things, but about doing the same things differently

But while these programs are rolling out around the world, few have focused on enabling youth leadership specifically. When thinking about funding, designing or selecting a youth leadership program, here are some questions to ask:

1. What are the unstated assumptions of the theory of leadership underlying this program? 

Some programs assume that certain traits result in leadership, and others focus on learned behaviours or proficiencies, with the theory that learning a few participatory skills can make someone a leader. Some approaches are transactional, while others offer an inspiring vision but without clarity on how to achieve change. Most programs assume that a certain kind of leadership is best, closing opportunities for young participants to explore different types of leadership and find the one best suited to their needs.

2. Does the program focus on knowing oneself and others differently? 

To be successful, youth leadership programs need to create spaces for young people to challenge their existing personal narratives, to create a more open and inclusive sense of self, and learn to interact with others through the lens of shared values, rather than narrowly defined social identities. Leadership programs that do not create spaces for personal reflection, challenge and growth cannot build skills for young leaders to create transformational spaces with others. 

3. Does the program foster a systems approach? 

Finding solutions to complex problems requires a systems-thinking approach that is able to identify root causes, map actors and interactions, and understand how multiple systems relate to each other. Young participants should be able to design solutions that transform existing systems and build alternative architectures for sustainable change.

4. Does the program provide coherent tools to make ordinary processes and spaces transformative? 

It is relatively easy to introduce new initiatives, but it is extremely difficult to transform ordinary practices, meetings and processes. Too many youth leadership programs are oriented solely around creating new projects. Programs should instead also provide tools and frameworks to facilitate change from within large organizations, institutions and structures.

5. Does the program provide tools and pathways for large scale impact? 

Programs must provide participants with operational strategies to scale ideas for immediate results as well as long term and sustainable impact. They should also provide tools and skills to build and expand networks, and to forge results-oriented and values-based partnerships across sectors and issues. 

There is an urgent need to build the capacities of a new generation of young leaders who can design and generate responses that draw on their most deeply held values, strategically shift systems and tackle the root causes of social injustice to create peaceful, free and just societies. We need to ask more of the leadership programs we provide young people. 

(References can be found in the downloadable PDF)


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