How to Lead a Movement in Your Company

Jun 02, 2019

In talking with hundreds of aspiring young leaders, I’ve learned two things: 1) We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. I call that a movement. 2) Every leader thinks their cause is significant enough to be a movement.

In today’s social media world, it seems that movements happen faster and bigger than ever before, but movements have been around for millennia—the Reformation, Christian foreign missions, the push for racial equality, the dot-com revolution.

These movements were not giant glaciers—masses of ice moving blindly down a mountain. No, these movements were streams that turned into rivers that turned into oceans. Sometimes swiftly. Sometimes in slow motion. And at key points, individuals stepped in to redirect the course of the stream or to harness the power of the river or to simply ride the wave in the ocean.

These individuals are leaders and every movement has at least one. Think Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr. Or read about the way David Brooks describes St. Augustine here. Their actions did not create movements as the undercurrent was already in motion. Their actions did, however, determine the course the movements would take.

Have you seen the TED video with nearly 3 million views of the leftover Woodstock dancer on the hill coaxing the crowd into a movement?

You may not think of yourself as a Martin Luther King, Jr., but many of you are in the middle of something that either is already really big or has the potential to be (at least you think so).

Does that describe you? Are you in the middle of a movement? On the cusp of one? Are you just hanging on for the wild ride or are you playing the role of the catalyst? I’ve worked with a lot of movement leaders over the past three decades, and I’ve come to eight conclusions about how to do it right.

1. Check your humanity at least twice a day. Being in a movement is intoxicating. Leading a movement contributes to the potential god-complex in all of us. When you wake up and when you go to bed, remind yourself that you put your pants on one leg at a time, as the old timers would say. Stop for a pause in the bathroom mirror and say out loud with good eye contact with the person staring back: “You are not all wise; You are not all powerful; You are not all good.”

2. Listen to those who have ridden similar waves. You’ve likely never ridden this kind of wave before. Even if you have, the pieces and the players always introduce new variables to you, so listen to those who have gone before.

3. Throw most conventional best practices and traditional planning tools out the window. Best practices are built on the way things are. A movement is a sign that things are changing. (FYI, this reality can make it tough to bring coherence and alignment to the board, employees, etc.)

4. Don’t overreach. This tip goes in two directions. Don’t reach up and down the supply chain and try to do it all yourself. And don’t reach forward to try to force your own legacy.

5. Be the steward-in-chief. Don’t see yourself as the founder or the leader, but instead, see yourself as the steward. Your connections, your plans, and your assets are yours to manage but not to hoard. Hold everything loosely. Digest the real difference in an owner and a steward.

6. Check the thermometer regularly. Get feedback from trusted sources on your team, offering, opportunities, direction, risk, and pace. Pivot appropriately, then allow some time for things to normalize and get more feedback. Organize for fluidity and agility.

7. Don’t let your funding get too far behind your momentum and outcomes. Most aspiring movement leaders are so driven by the vision, they forget to gas up. Or they gas up once and forget that they’ll have to do it again before they know it.

8. Give control to volunteers. Movements are built around the notion that the end user or customer sees himself as the owner of the product or service of the movement (think YouTube). Build with that model.

I’ve come to this conclusion: Instead of building a movement, build a highway.

Among the reasons I migrate to the highway metaphor is the honest appraisal of attribution and what part of the movement movers we can claim as our effort. So many elements of a movement happen in spite of us or around us, not because of us.

But we can labor toward building a framework, a system, a platform, or a path for folks to follow.

Seth Godin wrote, “Leadership is about giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.”

In his book To Change The World sociologist James Davison Hunter argues that evangelicalism has failed to launch broad movements in the world because institutions are left untouched. Real change happens in the individual mind, but it stays with the individual and doesn’t change institutions. Evangelicalism doesn’t build enough highways.

Consider Amazon. The company didn’t create the e-commerce movement, but it made it easy to get somewhere that suddenly seemed like a place worth going.

Or look at Passion, Louie Giglio’s music and worship movement in evangelical Christianity. My buddy, Louie, built partnerships with people like John Piper and Beth Moore. He bought a record label and worked with Chris Tomlin. Louie created a highway, a way for college students to engage in experiential worship, deepen their faith, and to be moved toward action (including social justice causes like stopping sex trafficking).

History and observation tell us that if someone will take the risk and apply the resources to construct a highway, people will travel on it. And then when the traffic picks up, we might just find ourselves riding a movement.

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