Three types of intelligence that will help you lead change

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

Stephen Hawking

Although I agree that it can come in useful on certain occasions, if you were hoping for tips on reconnaissance or spying, you are going to be disappointed. I apologize. I am using “intelligence” here in the context of acquiring skills, habits, and knowledge that help you better understand yourself, and other people.

We frequently think of intelligent people in terms of academic achievement. People with academic intelligence are logical, and seek evidence based on the analysis of data. They remember theories, and formulas. They got good grades in school.

There are, however, other types of intelligence. Some people say there are eight types, others nine. Some believe there are 12 types. I want to focus on three particular types of intelligence that are necessary in order to effect change. They are: emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and existential intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence

I like the definition of emotional intelligence on the helpguide.org website it says that “emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.”

We are passionate about the things we want to change in the world. Passion and emotion go hand in hand. We feel the desire for change on a very personal level. The emotions of both our allies, and our rivals run deep. Emotions can lead to deeper ways of knowing. They can also inflame tensions.

Things you can do to develop your emotional intelligence include:

  • Hone your listening skills – Avoid preconceptions. Encourage the speaker to be open and honest. Understand the speaker’s point of view and ideas, even if you don’t agree with them.
  • Understand that all criticism is not an invitation to fight.
  • Try to empathize. Don’t avoid difficult conversations. Examine your own biases.
  • Be aware of the ways your emotions might be barriers to understanding complex situations. Take time to consider expressing clear, thoughtful responses rather than simply giving knee-jerk reactions.

Social Intelligence

Social intelligence is developed through experience. Unfortunately, we cannot anticipate every circumstance and event in life. We can’t fully cultivate social intelligence simply from educating ourselves. Sometimes our interpersonal interactions do not go well. Recognizing why those exchanges went poorly helps us learn from our mistakes.

Leading change requires diplomacy. Good diplomats have social intelligence. They show discretion and thoughtfulness in their interactions with other people. Tactful consideration for others builds trust, and trust is priceless.

Healthy personal relationships are at the core of every level of positive change. We do not walk the world alone. In the words of the late American radio personality Earl Nightingale, “Getting along well with other people is still the world’s most needed skill. With it…there is no limit to what person can do. We need people, we need the cooperation of others. There is very little we can do alone.”

Existential Intelligence

Existential intelligence is all about bringing out the philosopher in you. It involves thinking deeply about the big picture. Pondering existential questions is often related to the desire to create social change. For example:

  • Are there values that we all share?
  • Are there universal human rights?
  • What is your purpose in life?

Thinking about life’s big questions can lead to people evaluating their values, and making changes in their lives in an effort to take responsibility for their actions based on those values. People leave “successful” careers to work at making the world a better place. (See the post, “Narrowing the Gap Between Our Ideal and Our Real Values”). You may not spend countless hours contemplating existential questions, but whatever time you do spend will always be time well spent.

There is No One Version of ABCD

This is the latest post in a series that looks at Asset-Based Community Development. Previous posts include:
Asset-Focused Leadership
Asset-Focused Leadership Part II: the Importance of Associations
The Unexpected Benefits of ABCD

I want to present a different way to think about Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). People tend to think of ABCD as something that requires a “community” in order to implement strategies, or projects. Community is after all, part of the name, right? We have a vision of what we want things to look like, and our minds jump to a scale that reflects the ideal. We want a ‘big tent,’ and go to great lengths not to exclude anyone. That’s admirable, but I’m impatient. I have a bias toward action.

I believe that before you create a group, or better yet, a network, you consider your own assets. What can I do RIGHT NOW based on the skills, talents, and relationships that I have? Where can I plant the seeds of change? Who can I help educate? Make a list that answers these questions, the make it a to-do list. This is also ABCD.

If when you are accomplishing these small tasks you cross paths with one other person who shares your values and your vision, have them answer the same questions. Then try to connect your combined assets in a way that could lead to a specific action. Do your assets complement each other’s? Do they get you at least halfway to a collaborative action? This is also ABCD.

When I think of things that could be changed for the better, I often divide the necessary changes into two categories. Is this problem something that requires a change in policy, or is it something that can be addressed by changing practice? When you look at a list of changes of practice that could lead to positive improvements, those modifications are frequently things for which you don’t even have to acquire permission. For example, handling situations with more generosity, and more humility isn’t difficult, or expensive. It also tends to reveal shared values among people who are not frequently in conversation. This is also ABCD.

I will repeat something I have said many times before. ABCD isn’t necessarily a detailed process, or plan. It is more of a worldview. You can engage in ABCD without creating an actual asset map. You can engage in ABCD without positional leadership. ABCD simply requires authentic human connection, and a mutual commitment to create change by allowing people to share their skills, talents, and knowledge for everyone’s benefit.

Four Phrases Change Makers are Tired of Hearing

Image by Willi Heidelbach from Pixabay

Note: I realize that more than half of my readers are not U.S.-based, so I apologize in advance for what is probably a very American-centric bit of writing. If there are similarly frustrating phrases where you live, feel free to comment below.


There are certain phrases that make me cringe. My negative reaction to these frequently repeated expressions is rooted in the ways that they can be obstacles to creating change in the world. Here are four of my least favorite phrases.

“It is what it is.”

Being told to “deal with” a frustrating situation because there is nothing you can do to change it, sounds like an instruction to give up. If a condition is unacceptable, there is nothing the people who benefit from the status quo like to hear more than, “all we can do is accept it and get over it.” When you hear, “it is what it is,” the best response is to come up with strategies to create change despite the situation, not give up because of it.

“No offense, but . . .”

Obviously, when you hear this phrase, you are about to be offended. The reason a person will use this phrase when talking to you is that they think that you need to know that they believe that they are smarter than you are. They don’t, however, simply use this thinly veiled passive-aggressiveness to challenge facts. In my experience, “No offense, but,” is frequently the introduction to any number of logical fallacies. It’s a power play often followed by nonsense. Know your stuff. Hold your ground.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

I understand that many people find comfort in the thought that a supreme being’s providence makes a horrible reality perhaps a bit more tolerable. Other folks like to explain things based on the alignment of the stars and planets. I’m not here to ask you to abandon your belief system.

There are times, however, when changes in human designed policies and practices are at the core of some terrible things in the world. Yes, everything does happen for a reason, and if we take the time to analyze the situation, we can figure out what those reasons are. And if those reasons can be addressed by correcting flawed human constructs, shouldn’t we do what we can to make those changes?

“In these trying/uncertain times.”

I do not disagree that a global pandemic has created disruption and uncertainty in people’s lives. I also know that for poor and marginalized people, life has always been trying and uncertain. I am not interested in simply getting the world back to a pre-COVID state. I want the world to be better than that.

The pandemic has given lip service to “all of us being in this together.” But in reality, this extraordinary event has reinforced the harsh realities of inequality. Poor people got poorer healthcare. People were deemed “essential workers,” yet were often not paid enough to meet their basic needs. As we move toward returning to “normal,” we need to remember to continue to work on reducing the uncertainty in everyone’s lives.

Finding Answers in the Grassroots

“Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Logical, sensible solutions frequently come from the people whose lives are most closely affected by the issues you seek to remedy. Their ideas are usually very insightful and rational, because they have experienced first-hand, the inherent flaws in the current strategies to correct those issues.

Many years ago, I was invited to a meeting around strategies for educating “unbanked” immigrants on the perils related to relying on check cashing businesses and other high interest rate opportunists. The meeting was attended by six or seven well-intentioned, white, gray-haired, male bankers and other business types, myself (an employee of an education-related nonprofit organization younger than the others, but also a white male), and finally a Latina woman who was probably also the youngest person in the room in addition to being the only person of color, and only woman.

I was there just in case there might be a role for my organization to play in any action that might be taken, so I mostly listened. The discussion was primarily about financial literacy curriculum. Banks had developed educational materials, but the materials were all in English. There wasn’t anything in the languages of Latin America, Southeast Asia, or East Africa. There also wasn’t much discussion about any strategies other than translating that traditionally developed and delivered curriculum. That is until the only woman in the room finally spoke.

She said (and I’m paraphrasing, but it was this direct, and this succinct), ‘This is what you have to do. You go to churches, or community centers and talk to parents. You tell them that their kids are going to get ripped off by these places. People want to protect their children so they’ll listen. Of course, it is mostly the parents who are getting taken advantage of by these businesses. You educate the parents, and they will educate their children.’

She knew the culture and how to navigate communicating within it. The best solution did not center on ‘experts’ developing curriculum. Rather, it was rooted in human relationships, and parents wanting to understand something better so that they could protect their children.

I have seen this sort of wisdom emerge over and over throughout the years. I once attended a workshop where a man in my affordable housing discussion group said that the rent on his apartment was higher than a house payment would be for a home that would suit his family’s needs. He just didn’t have the money to make a down payment sufficient for a bank to give him a loan on a house.  He wasn’t an economist, but he knew a solution to increasing his low-income family’s wealth by getting equity in a house.

My introduction to the concept of environmental racism came via the words of a Native American living on a reservation next to a hazardous waste dump. I learned about potential approaches to the multiple transportation, and childcare challenges faced by single mothers, from those women.

People can be experts on the issues related to the challenges they face in their everyday lives. If you need technical expertise seek it out. However, do not underestimate the wisdom of regular folks whose expertise has been gained from experience

The Unexpected Benefits of ABCD

NOTE: This post is a companion piece to the post, “Asset Focused Leadership,” which provides an overview of ABCD fundamentals.

“Happy accidents are real gifts, and they can open the door to a future that didn’t even exist. It’s kind of nice sometimes to set up something to encourage or allow happy accidents to happen.” — David Lynch

An asset-based community development (ABCD) approach to creating change requires a recognition of the fundamental humanity of every member of the community, and allows each person’s gifts, skills, and talents to be shared and celebrated. It should not be surprising that these basic tenets often result in unexpected discoveries of human ingenuity and accomplishment.

Communities use ABCD to uncover, and creatively implement ways to address local issues. Along the way, however, small groups of collaborators, many of whom have only recently met, begin to see their community through a different lens. As people work together to create positive change in their community, social capital, and trusted personal relationships are created.

That trust can be a key to a sense of belonging for people who formerly found themselves on the margins. Being surrounded by gifted, caring people does more than instill confidence that committed people can get things done. It often uncovers a generosity of spirit, and a level of compassion that the community had not previously seen.

The unexpected benefits of taking the time to ask people what they care deeply about, and what their talents are, consistently changes the conversation. People are forced to rethink notions about where wisdom and expertise reside. That gives them confidence to believe that they don’t have to wait around for someone else do something about improving the things that they are passionate about.

Action Plans for Social Change

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Creating change is a multifaceted endeavor. There are deeply rooted issues, diverse groups of stakeholders, and many moving parts. In fact, the thought of wrapping our collective arms around an enormous problem, and replacing it with something good seems too overwhelming for most people. The path to success for too many people appears to be unattainable. That is why it helps to have an action plan.

The popular, “Model for Managing Complex Change” credited to Dr. Mary Lippitt, and popularized by Dr. Timothy Knoster, suggests that there are six elements necessary to effectively create change. Those elements are: vision, consensus, skills, incentives, resources and an action plan. (You can see a good general overview of the model written by Sergio Caredda, here.) All of these elements are discussed to varying degrees elsewhere on this site. Right now, I want to focus on the idea of an action plan.

What is an Action Plan?

An action plan essentially answers the important who, what, when, where, and how questions around coordinated activities that bring you closer to your goals. The plan also addresses questions related to logistics, coordination, communication, and resources. If you’re looking for some pretty good “how to” instructions for community-centered action plans, I’d suggest the action plan section on the Community Tool Box website.

Action plans recognize and target specific problems. They implement strategies that must be informed by the people who are most adversely affected by the status quo, and they help to create the awareness, and the conditions for a readiness and willingness to change.

The most effective plans recognize that minds have to change before policies can change. Some of those minds are opposed to your vision, and some are undecided, or simply ambivalent (See the post, “Change Happens at the Center”). So do your homework because as Neil de Grasse Tyson writes, “How strongly you feel about an issue is not itself a measure of the strength of your argument.”

Scale

Scale is perhaps the most important consideration in planning actions intended to create social change. The smaller the scale, the easier it is to create a more detailed plan. For example, a plan to get a local council to remove discriminatory policies, is easier than creating a single plan to eliminate all institutionalized racism. The latter requires thousands of smaller plans with a shared vision. Social movements are comprised of countless small actions undertaken with a common goal in mind.

Contingency Plans

Good planning also recognizes that things don’t always happen exactly as they are planned. Just because one part of a plan didn’t go as expected, does not mean that all is lost. It is always useful to do some sort of scenario planning to create options where you might encounter unanticipated events. When you are assessing potential “if this, then that” situations, you are weighing the risks and rewards of certain actions. Consider the implications of individual points of breakdown in your plan. Making contingency planning part of your action plan can keep you moving forward.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” -– Abraham Lincoln

False Dilemmas: a Recurring Battle

fire-and-water-2354583_640

Note: This is a companion piece of sorts to a couple of earlier posts: Getting Beyond Either/Or, and Change Happens at the Center. Both of which touch on the importance of seeing opportunities for creating change when you look beyond the only two options you are being presented with.


A False Dilemma (also known as a False Dichotomy) is a logical fallacy that reduces an argument down to only two options despite the fact that many more options may exist. We hear them every day: “America, love it or leave it;” “You’re either with us or you’re against us;” “You either love me or you hate me.”

People in opposition to your goals will use these fallacious arguments in an attempt to force you into an extreme position to create the assumption that there are only two positions. That way they can paint you with broad strokes, and start employing other logical fallacies to misrepresent your positions.

False dilemmas are particularly popular with politicians in ‘us vs. them’ two party systems. People with lines drawn in the sand are not interested in entertaining the idea of reasonable alternatives. To paint the two-options-only picture serves to get potential supporters to forget logic and reason, and to dig in their heels against a one-dimensional villain.

How Do You Counter a False Dilemma?

According to the website, Effectiviology, there are several ways to respond to a false dilemma argument. Here are a just a few of those strategies.

  • Refute the premise of mutual exclusivity by explaining why two options can both be true. Give examples of how ideas be defined as either/or can be described as both/and.
  • Refute the premise of collective exhaustivity by providing counterexamples which show that there are additional options beyond the ones which were presented.
  • Refute the validity of one of the options that it contains. For example, one frequently repeated either/or dilemma is the argument against raising the minimum wage is that raising the minimum wage will put small businesses out of business. However, Researchers say raising the minimum wage doesn’t kill small businesses or reduce job opportunities.
  • Refute with a counter-dilemma using similar premises, but which reaches a different conclusion.

One of my favorite ways to confront a false dilemma is to point out what values both sides have in common. It is the quickest way to show gray areas of this ‘black and white’ argument. Common self-interest is a powerful thing.

The Game is Not Over: Bouncing Back from a Defeat

“Fortitude is the marshal of thought, the armor of the will, and the fort of reason.”

– Francis Bacon

Losing an election, a local council vote, a legal challenge, or failing to remove a barrier to the change you want to see can be discouraging, and emotionally draining.  Rarely, however, does your opposition’s victory eliminate every opportunity for you and your allies to move your cause forward. To use a tennis metaphor, your loss may have been a point, or a game, or even a set, but it wasn’t necessarily the match. Here are a few things to consider once you’ve dusted yourself off and are ready to jump back into the thick of things.

Feeling Bad – Once a setback has occurred, don’t spend more than a few minutes feeling sorry for yourselves (OK, it may take a day or two). It is important to honestly evaluate your missteps and tactical errors. Don’t beat yourselves up for your mistakes. Learn from them.

Accepting Criticism – People may criticize leadership groups or individuals. That’s normal. Admit your own mistakes. Own your failures. Follow that up by reasserting your dedication to your cause and inviting a committed group of people to start planning your next action. You’ll do so with the confidence that you won’t make the same mistakes twice.

Reaffirming Goals – Remind yourselves why your goals are still important. Reaffirm your shared values with all of your allies. Don’t dismiss those who are not yet ready to jump immediately into direct action. Give them space, and let them know that they are valued, and they’ll be back when your cause’s energy builds again.

Cultivating More Leaders – Finally, remember that a leader’s job is not to find followers, but rather it is to create more leaders. Have one-to-one meetings with people who joined you along the way, who may not have been with you during earlier strategy planning. You’ll find more leaders, and more ways to articulate your messages, and make your case for change.

The fight is not over.

Small Victories

allies
Image by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

— Howard Zinn

The pursuit of social change is not always about big wins. When you are in it for the long haul . . .

Sometimes you will point out complexities where people saw only black and white.

Sometimes you will sow seeds of uncertainty.

Sometimes you will point out ambiguities.

Sometimes you will remind people to examine their own competing values.

Sometimes you will meet one new, likeminded ally.

Small victories create the underpinnings for the platforms upon which change is built. Leaders of change need to identify these victories, and articulate their value to your allies. Recognizing the small wins serves to remind us that leadership is a distributed activity that takes place at an interpersonal level. Every person engaged in every small action is demonstrating leadership for change.

Contrived Nostalgia as an Enemy of Change

“In every age ‘the good old days’ were a myth. No one ever thought they were good at the time. For every age has consisted of crises that seemed intolerable to the people who lived through them.”

– Brooks Atkinson

Manufactured nostalgia for a golden age, a mostly fictional, idealized “good old days” can be an insidious, deliberate strategy employed by people actively opposed to progressive change.

There are always those who will try to convince people that the way to a better future is to re-create some romanticized, imagined era. It is usually conveniently portrayed as a time that existed before anyone alive today could have lived through. Harkening back to “a simpler time,” however, is often just a thinly disguised way of saying a time before people demanded human rights, inclusion, and equality. This isn’t about nostalgia; it’s about power.

Persistent individual, as well as institutional racism, and sexism have often been rationalized by those who oppose change, with claims of cultural or heritage preservation. You will call for change, and someone will try to call you out for your “cultural relativism.” This argument is a red herring. You have no moral, or ethical duty to be tolerant, or accepting of anyone’s heritage that sought to oppress people by denying them fundamental human rights. No heritage, or culture deserves to be celebrated if it resulted in realities such as human trafficking, discrimination, rape, or even genocide.

People who oppose the change you are trying to create will attempt to define their nostalgic vision as a zero-sum game. This is because the only way their argument works is if you mistakenly believe that extending equal rights to oppressed groups, takes rights away from the dominant group. It does not take away their rights. It takes absolute power away from them, and their power is not a birthright.

If there are elements of a bygone era that have inherent value (cleaner water, and a smaller income inequality gap come to mind), then by all means make that part of your vision for the future. However, can’t we all agree that no ethical person should have fond memories for discrimination, inequality, and the abuse of power?

Community Outreach vs Community Engagement

“The organizer dedicated to changing the life of a particular community must first rub raw the resentments of the people of the community.”
– Saul Alinsky

community outreach vs community engagement

Here are a few quick thoughts on these differences as they relate to leading social change.

  • There is a role for both outreach, and for engagement when organizing for change.
  • Community engagement should happen early, and often. Its goal is organizing to act in support of achieving your desired change.
  • Community outreach is a function of communicating to engaged partners, or gathering information or data from them.
  • Outreach defines the community (audience) it is intended to reach.
  • Engagement can create self-defined communities (affinity groups).
  • Community engagement is formative. It thrives on both diversity, and inclusion.
Read more about this distinction at buildthefield.org.