The courage to act before things get unbearable

“Hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is.”
– Rollo May

I have been thinking about motivation. Specifically, I have been thinking about what motivates people to ultimately act with others to create social change. It is a big question, and admittedly, this post contains more questions than answers.

It shouldn’t have to take tragic events to provide a breaking point, or a tipping point. It seems as though even when we have a long-held vision for something different, we will very often be satisfied to simply whine and moan about the state of things, and do nothing about it. Why?

I am not interested in using this space to review the volumes of literature out there on human motivation. This isn’t an academic exercise.

The worst excuse

Speaking of academic exercises, if you’re looking for yet another excuse to put off acting, just look to those who claim a need to wait for exhaustive research in ortime for changeder to ‘have all the facts.’ Sometimes having all the facts is impossible. Sometimes, the facts change daily. I have written before about needs assessment as a barrier to change.


The key to this question of motivation to real commitment seems to center around courage. At the personal level, activists from oppressed groups can be faced with a wide variety of very real physical threats, or risks to their livelihoods. Would-be activists from a privileged group can face retaliation for threatening the power structure upon which their privilege is built. The consequences of courage are relative on an individual basis, but are nonetheless real.

The personal resolve, followed by the collective determination to push beyond fear is common to all movements. The coordinated efforts of the courageous is where leadership and organizing are important. You can’t mitigate all the risk. Change is fundamentally a risky endeavor. Effective leaders can, however, anticipate the support systems that may need to be set in motion to soften the blow of real hardships sustained by change agents.

It seems as though courage frequently manifests itself when an issue becomes personal. How can you get someone whose life has not been personally touched by an issue to find the courage to be a public champion for change? Does someone you know have to get shot in order for you to actively seek to end violence? Does your own water have to become undrinkable before you insist that access to clean drinking water be considered a human right?

Political will

Of course, once you’ve organized at the grassroots level, political will is a whole different beast. The shared values of a majority of people usually doesn’t stand a chance against the competing interests of the folks who finance political campaigns. The politician’s notion of courage becomes distorted. It isn’t simply about doing what’s right when presented with opposing options. Sadly, saying “no” to billionaires is the most courageous thing many politicians can imagine.

Lobbyists and other people of influence and affluence are not the only barrier to political will. People vote against their self-interest all the time. How will we appeal to citizens to align their values with their political voice?

C. S. Lewis said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” We need to help each other find courage every day. If we amass enough of it, then perhaps we can commit to act before the testing point has forced us into finding a solution via unnecessary tragedy.

A Few Very Important Things To Remember About Leadership And Change

If you take away nothing else from this blog; I hope that you will at least remember these ideas.

If you are passionate about changing something in the world, or in your community, or in your neighborhood, and you know even one other person who shares your vision, you can lead efforts to make that change a reality.

Forget about titles (or lack thereof). Leadership is not a designation. In fact, it is not even positional most of the time. The world is not simply divided into leaders and followers. Everyone leads and follows on a daily basis.

Every day throughout the history of the world, people have locked arms with like-minded folks with some sort of plan to improve the quality of life where they live. They have learned from their mistakes, as well as from their successes. They have been temporarily derailed by disagreements, but did not let those differences distract them from their common desire to right the wrongs that they had witnessed.

If you can imagine things being different, then you can choose to act to make that transformation a reality. Choosing to act is always the first step toward leadership, and the first step toward change.

Small Accomplishments Are Important

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”
– Helen Keller

You want to change the world. Your goal is transformative change around important, complex social problems like economic inequality, or human rights. Your line in the sand can seem as big as the Grand Canyon. During those times when things seem to be moving slowly, if at all, it is important to appreciate and celebrate your little victories.

Think back to where you started. Identify small, but important events. Don’t do it for the sake of nostalgia. Use the opportunity to reflect not only on what worked, but why it worked. Can you create that kind of energy and excitement again? It’s like finding out in chapter 27 of a mystery that a throwaway line in chapter 2 turned out to be a critical clue; and then correctly solving the mystery before the author’s reveal.

Seemingly innocuous or unimportant accomplishments add up in ways that we cannot always know. Celebrating small wins keeps us motivated. It reminds us that we are making progress toward a goal. Also, as I have mentioned many times before, it is during those small battles that collaborators build those immeasurable things like trust and passion.

You are in this pursuit for the long haul. Doing and recognizing the everyday efforts of people is important. Member of Congress and civil rights leader John Lewis put it this way:

“I am prepared to take the long, hard road, knowing it may not happen today or tomorrow, but ultimately, eventually, it will happen. That’s what faith is all about. That’s the definition of commitment – patience and persistence.  People who are like fireworks, popping off right and left with lots of sound and sizzle, can capture a crowd, capture a lot of attention for a time, but I always have to ask, where will they be in the end? Some battles are long and hard, and you have to have staying power. Firecrackers go off in a flash, then leave nothing but ashes. I prefer a pilot light – the flame is nothing flashy, but once it is lit, it doesn’t go out. It burns steadily, and it burns forever.” (source)

As a leader, you aren’t always required to provide the fireworks. Your greatest contribution just may be making sure that all the pilot lights remain lit.

(This is a companion piece to an earlier post, Learning and Leadership: the Importance of Reflection)

You Don’t Need a Leadership Course in Order to Lead

“Real leadership comes from the quiet nudging of an inner voice. It comes from realizing that the time has come to move beyond waiting to doing”
– Madeleine Albright

To get things done in this world you don’t need a credential, or a badge that says “leader.” If the world’s greatest writer wrote a book illustrated by the world’s greatest artist titled, How to Ride a Bicycle, it would be a poor substitute for sitting on a bike, finding your center of balance, and pushing on the pedals. We learn by doing. Leadership is no different.

Every time that you: A) imagine something being different, or being better than it is; B) decide to do something about it, either alone or with others; and C) act to make that change happen – YOU ARE DEMONSTRATING LEADERSHIP.

Leadership doesn’t require great scale. It doesn’t have to be obvious to everyone. Leadership is collaborative or distributed more often than it is positional. It doesn’t need to be heroic; it just needs to effectively move you toward a goal. You lead anytime you do things like:

  • have the courage to challenge someone’s racist or sexist joke;
  • accept responsibility for (and learn from) your failures;
  • do what is right, rather than what is easy (to paraphrase Dumbledore);
  • see the gifts and talents of others, and acknowledge them; or
  • listen with the goal of understanding – even when someone’s views or values conflict with your own.

Anyone who has a vision for something different and the desire to make that change happen can be a leader.

Quit Putting People in Boxes

“I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge.”
– Igor Stravinsky

Even though most of the pieces on this site feature tables that compare and contrast ideas or traits while putting them in boxes, I do not, in principle, believe in the practice of categorizing people by putting them in boxes. I know that assigning qualities or attributes to individuals based on things like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is popular with some organizations, but I don’t believe that it is important at all when organizing for change.

I’m not the only one out there who questions the value of such practices. In an article in Psychology Today, titled “Goodbye to MBTI, the Fad That Won’t Die,” Dr. Adam Grant, author of the bestselling book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, writes:

“. . . in the MBTI, thinking and feeling are opposite poles of a continuum. In reality, they’re independent: we have three decades of evidence that if you like ideas and data, you can also like people and emotions. (In fact, more often than not, they go hand in hand: research shows that people with stronger thinking and reasoning skills are also better at recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions.)”

For a fairly concise academic article that looks at the scientific validity of MBTI, see “Measuring the MBTI… And Coming Up Short” by David J. Pittenger. One of the conclusions Pittenger comes to is:

“The MBTI reminds us of the obvious truth that all people are not alike, but then claims that every person can be fit neatly into one of 16 boxes. I believe that MBTI attempts to force the complexities of human personality into an artificial and limiting classification scheme. The focus on the “typing” of people reduces the attention paid to the unique qualities and potential of each individual.”

What does all of this have to do with leadership? Leaders who believe that they can create an effective team by making sure that they have people of every profile “type” are setting themselves up for missed opportunities resulting from the failure to uncover the hidden assets in the people with whom they are collaborating. Thinking that people fit some imaginary profile might lead to limiting expectations.

Preconceived notions of what people can do, and how they can grow and develop will keep things from happening, not make them happen. It is the systematic marginalization of people. This is the opposite of what a leader should do. Leaders see people at the sidelines, and invite them in as full participants in an endeavor.

Asset Mapping: a Better Option

Test-determined categorization should not be confused with asset mapping. Asset mapping is not categorizing and labeling people by “type.” Asset mapping looks at people who may have been told that they have limited value based on their type, and finds the value in their unique contradictions, their failure to fit molds, their creativity, and the exceptional perspectives that they bring to the table.

Since mobilizing people around asset mapping is based on discovery, social capital, and relationship development, it flourishes in a culture of blurred lines. It takes people out of boxes and explores the energy and creativity that emerges from not having to be the type of person you were artificially designated to be.

For more on asset-based approaches and asset mapping see the posts, Asset-Focused Leadership, and Asset-Focused Leadership Part II: the Importance of Associations.

The Leaders and Followers Myth

“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”
– Ralph Nader

The leadership industry overstates the importance of leaders. They have to; that’s where the money is. The stubborn persistence of positional leadership exists to a great degree, to perpetuate a dualistic notion that some people are better, or more worthy than others. Those with the “leader” moniker assume entitlement. In this model, leaders exist on some higher plane, and followers are considered subordinates. This is all part of a facade that equilibrium and stability are present, and that is supposed to be comforting, I guess.

The world is not simply made up of leaders and followers. Attributes generally attributed to leaders, such as critical thinking, creativity, empathy, and diplomacy, are not solely leadership traits. They are the things that make us human — all of us, “leaders” and “followers.” In most human endeavors, work, commitment, and inspiration by followers dwarfs the contributions of leaders.

When you see evidence that positive change has occurred anywhere in the world, it is usually the result of people who might usually be identified as followers, locking arms with other passionate people, and collaboratively making that change happen. You can’t put “followers” in a box.

In a 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review, Barbara Kellerman suggested a new typology for looking at followers. She categorizes followers based to a certain degree, on how they act in ways that demonstrate “leadership” abilities. Kellerman’s followers are divided into five groups: isolates, bystanders, participants, activists, and diehards. When you get beyond the isolates and the bystanders, you find people who are engaged to varying degrees, in activities that look a lot like what I think of as leadership. These people still strongly support their leaders, but at the same time they aren’t sitting around waiting for marching orders to come down from the next level on an org chart.

Jeffrey Nielsen’s 2004 book, The Myth of Leadership, says that the traditional notion of leaders and followers creates a rank-based culture, with the following assumptions:

leaders and followersAccording to Nielsen, the implications of the peer principle require that the following values be recognized, respected, and implemented:

  • Openness with information-as opposed to the secrecy allowed and considered legitimate with leaders and leadership.
  • Transparency in the decision-making process, which requires greater participation of all affected parties-as opposed to the top-down and behind closed door decision-making allowed and considered legitimate with leaders and leadership.
  • Cooperation and sharing of management roles and responsibilities, which requires the exercise of power-in-common-as opposed to the command and control nature of the exercise of power-over allowed and considered legitimate with leaders and leadership.
  • Commitment to peer deliberation as the legitimate exercise of authority-as opposed to the rank-based exercise of coercive, manipulative, or even persuasive authority allowed and considered legitimate with leaders and leadership.

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.”
– Peter Drucker

The myth of leaders versus followers is closely related to the concepts we examined in, Leaders Versus Managers. The idea of maintaining strict control by keeping those around you on a “short leash” works well for cult leaders and dictators, but not for grassroots social change organizing.

The idea of not equating leadership and control is also a primary difference between leading for change, and leading an organization, be it a business, an NGO, or anything else set up to be an institution. You don’t want people to follow you; you want them to follow a common vision for a better future.

Traditional Versus Creative Leadership

“The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued. So it’s much more about creating climates. I think it’s a big shift for a lot of people.”
– Sir Ken Robinson

traditional vs creative leadershiptable: John Maeda and Becky Bermont/Redesigning Leadership

A creative leader is able to bring out the creativity of other people. It is the opposite of “do as I say, not as I do” leadership. More than other types of leadership, this is really about cultivating an organizational culture that supports and values creative thinking and problem-solving.

A survey of over 1,500 CEOs, conducted by IBM found that creativity is the most important leadership quality. Flexible, open-minded leaders rely on creative problem-solving at some level every day.

According to Sanjay Dalal, CEO & founder of the website Ogoing, the top three characteristics and traits of creative leaders are:

“1. Great at generating many ideas – innovative, game changing and even commonplace.
2. Always looking to experiment with good ideas. Sometimes, trying out a few times.
3. Unwavering belief in their creativity and innovation, coupled with originality in thinking.”
See more at

Creative leadership isn’t just about generating novel ideas or approaches; it actually changes systems. Travis N. Turner notes that, “creative leaders tend to pursue revolutionary strategies (that reinvent the system) rather than the incremental strategies (that improve the existing system).” For this reason I believe that it is more than a fad, or a “flavor of the month.”

Strategic thinking is inherently creative thinking. Leaders are continuously imagining how events will unfold. They are developing contingencies based on the reality that things are not always predictable.

An article by consultant Charles Day, in Fast Company magazine listed the “four weapons of exceptional creative leaders.” You can see how his list includes a number of ideas we have explored already. Day’s list includes:

  • Context – Context is built from the future back, based on the best current information. Understanding context requires both knowledge and imagination.
  • Clearly Defined Values – Shared values are the heart of an organization’s culture. Creative leaders realize that this arises from conversation and discovery, and not from orders or memos.
  • Trust – Eric Hoffer said, “Someone who thinks the world is always cheating him is right. He is missing that wonderful feeling of trust in someone or something.” Be creative. Imagine how you are going to establish and maintain trust among your stakeholders.
  • Momentum – According to Day, “Innovation is the consequence of exploration. And you can’t explore while standing still.” Nowhere is creativity more important than in creating and maintaining momentum.

There is much more to say about this (design, process, developing creativity skills, . . .), so more on this topic later.

Evaluating Success

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted”
– Albert Einstein

I am a big believer in what Einstein says in the above quote. Leading people means that your endeavors are rooted in personal relationships. People don’t go around attaching numbers to the things that matter in relationships — things like love, and trust.

There are, however, many aspects to our shared work that can, and need to be measured. I’ll plan to explore some specific measurement strategies later, but first I want to unload a few of the things that I have picked up over the years related to evaluation of projects of various types. I’ve put them in a slide deck for easy browsing.

Contribution and Attribution

Sometimes when we search for attribution, that straight line of logic that confirms our logic model, we fail to both see and acknowledge a whole continuum of contributions by quiet, unassuming allies. Success is usually achieved by many, many small, often seemingly unrelated actions by people who share our vision. It is important to not get caught up in the hunt for causality, in search for the coveted “best practices.”

Even if we could identify each and every action, conversation, etc. that lead to an accomplishment, it still wouldn’t necessarily effectively inform future actions. This is because you can’t replicate every context, relationship, and cultural nuance that produced the initial win.

It is, however, important to acknowledge even the smallest contribution at the time it is being made. People need to know that their contributions, no matter how small, made a difference.  

Evaluation Resources

American Evaluation Association Public Library
Better Evaluation
Community Toolbox
Institute of Museum and Library Services

Asset-Focused Leadership Part II: the Importance of Associations

“As associations proliferate, the space for leadership multiplies. And as leadership of each association rotates, the experience proliferates. In this way, America’s great space for leadership development is in associational life.”
–John McKnight

(Note: The following is an abridged version of my essay, “The Value of Associations and Four Strategies for Involving Them,” from the book: Asset-Based Community Engagement in Higher Education, John Hamerlinck and Julie Plaut, editors, Minnesota Campus Compact, 2014. It is based to a great extent, on the work of the extraordinary John McKnight)

Associations are the magnifiers of gifts and capacities of local people. Because they are voluntary, they are also the least expensive strategy for mobilization. The motivation to associate is based on personal priorities. If we know a community’s associations, we know what people really care about.  I have heard John McKnight refer to them as the “implementers of care,” because they mobilize people to get together and are a dominant force in any community.

The key to sustainable, democratic community change lies in groups of people who are at the table not because it is their job, but rather because they care too deeply not to be there. If we truly believe, as educators, in reciprocal partnerships, where the community outcome is just as important as the educational outcome, then those partnerships need to figure out how to involve associations.

Often we forget that not-for-profit organizations are institutions. They are not led by the people they “serve.” In his piece “The Four-Legged Stool,” McKnight explains some fundamental distinctions between associations and not-for profit corporations:

  • “Associations tend to be informal and horizontal. Not-for-profit corporations are usually formal and hierarchical.

  • Not-for-profits are legally controlled by a few. Associations are activated by the consent of each participant.

  • Associational participants are motivated by diverse incentives other than pay. Not-for-profit employees are provided paid incentives.

  • Associations generally use the experience and knowledge of member citizens to perform their functions. Not-for-profits use the special knowledge of professionals and experts to perform their functions.”

The table below illustrates key distinctions McKnight makes using four important questions as filters. It shows how associations need the capacities of citizens, who care about something, to come to a consensus, and act on their common interests. Institutions, however, need consumers whose needs can be met by consuming goods or services produced under specific controls.

associations vs institutions
This comparison makes no judgment as to the relative value of either group. The table is simply meant to illustrate the distinct differences between the two types of organizations. Both types of groups are crucial to a democratic society and both must have the noted characteristics in order to work effectively.

It is in these non-elected, non-paid groups who come together for a common purpose where one will find social assets like caring, mutual trust, reciprocity and collective identity. Associations are not always easily identifiable, but they are all around us. Sometimes they have an obvious identity like a book club or quilting group. Other times they are just a group of people who have coffee at the same café three times a week. These groups represent the un-mobilized workforce of community change. They are simply waiting for someone to ask them to act on what they care about.

Four Strategies for Finding and Working with Associations

Mobilizing associations is critically important in ABCD.  How might we work with, and support the work of these groups of community members? Here are four places to start.

1.  Increase the number of personal relationships in the community.

Whatever your other goals might be, it is always useful to include increasing the number of personal relationships in the community. When people realize that there are others who care deeply about the same things that they do, they start looking for more out there who share their concerns. Pretty soon the talk becomes talk about doing something. Suddenly, a group of concerned residents organize themselves and begin to advocate for change. These associations are at the heart of our democracy.

2. Be deliberate about mapping associational assets.

If you are already committed to addressing a particular issue and your project meetings are only attended by people whose jobs brought them there, then you may not be recognizing the assets of associations. Early on in your planning process, identify community stakeholders and try to identify even a few formal and informal associations to lock arms with in your efforts to improve the community.

Even if these associations don’t immediately seem like they would share your project goals, try anyway. Think of the adopt-a-highway programs all around the country. Most of the student councils, local businesses, and book clubs that volunteer to pick up roadside trash don’t have mission statements about littering or environmental stewardship (if they have mission statements at all). The people in these groups do, however, enjoy the time they spend with people with similar interests; and they enjoy doing things that improve the community’s quality of life—or at least appreciate the public recognition they get on roadside signs. Mapping assets can help find a campus-community partnership version of the adopt-a-highway program.

3. Allow institutions and associations to do the things that they do best.

It is necessary for institutions to produce goods or services under fairly strict controls. When you are on the operating table, you would probably not be comfortable with the surgeon looking for a general consensus by asking: “Where does everybody think I should cut now?” When that surgeon participates in her neighborhood book club, however, nobody expects her to take control by instituting rigid protocols and standards for everyone’s participation.

In 2001, the George W. Bush administration created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. After the first round of grants to faith-based organizations revealed that local church groups weren’t necessarily very skilled at federal grant compliance, a subsequent request for proposals included an organizational development component—in other words, it aimed to turn them into institutions. Institutions tend to be good at things like accounting, assessment, and evaluation. Associations are good at things like organizing, caring, compassion, and trust.

Institutions can support associational work by supporting local organizers. They might, for example, serve as the fiscal agent for grants that support the work of people who are passionate about developing their community, but who don’t happen to work for a nonprofit or government entity eligible to receive certain types of grant funding. They might increase the amount of purchasing they do from small, locally-owned businesses. They might make more of their community-based research, community-based participatory research. Imagine ways to complement the work of associations, without taking it over.

4. Provide opportunities for residents’ voices to be heard.

There are countless ways to find a community’s associations. There are the usual lists that folks at a Chamber of Commerce or a Welcome Wagon might have, but there are also types of civic engagement that can help unearth the often invisible groups in a community. Citizen journalism, oral history, and community arts projects are just a few of the ways to listen to residents, and to have them lead you to associations you may not know about. Many community associations may be active in online spaces. Do not dismiss the value of the assets of those who chose virtual platforms to express their values and creativity.

You may find that what started out as a search for community connections might also identify specific strategies to implement any eventual projects. People who face daily challenges have unique insights into how those challenges might be overcome. Many associations came into being for the sole purpose of mutual benefit.

Read the first section on Asset-Focused Leadership here.

Asset-Focused Leadership

“Every single person has capabilities, abilities and gifts. Living a good life depends on whether those capabilities can be used, abilities expressed and gifts given. If they are, the person will be valued, feel powerful and well-connected to the people around them. And the community around the person will be more powerful because of the contribution the person is making.”
– John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight

If you are interested in developing many of the other concepts we’ve been looking at, such as collaborative leadership, supporting more effective networks of concerned people, and helping them find their power; then Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is the organizing strategy for you. I have dedicated a good chunk of my life to helping folks discover community-building assets. I have done countless ABCD workshops, and have written about it on occasion. ABCD principles contribute many useful ideas to a re-imagined concept of leadership; therefore, I’ll dedicate multiple sections to it.

Don’t be scared off by the word phrase “community development.” Community can refer to small groups of people who are passionate about the same issue, neighborhoods, or communities of interest – including those made up of people not sharing a community of place. For our purposes, development simply means to make better. Let’s start with the fundamentals.

ABCD, is an approach described by John McKnight and John Kretzmann, in the 1993 book, Building Communities from the Inside Out. It is founded on the belief that communities and neighborhoods thrive when built upon the knowledge, interests, and capacities of their residents, groups, and institutions.  This contrasts with the typical “needs-based” approach where the starting point is based on an assessment of deficiencies.

ABCD is not a formula. Rather, it is an approach to creating positive change that has many paths, but which necessarily includes three elements. One of the roles of leaders in asset-based endeavors to be a persistent compass when it comes to these three filters.

  1. ABCD is, by definition, asset-based. It starts with what already exists in the community. ABCD requires the community to inventory the skills and talents of individuals, the assets of formal and informal associations (including relationships) and those of local institutions.
  2. ABCD is internally-focused. The community frames the issues and challenges, and designs possible plans of action. This internal focus is intended simply to stress the primacy of local definition, investment, creativity, hope and control.
  3. ABCD is relationship-driven. To be successful, communities must be deliberate about constantly building and rebuilding relationships among residents, local associations and local institutions. Relationships create the underpinnings on which trust is built. Sharing common values and goals is one thing, but when you add trust to the mix, you have the beginnings of a recipe for power.

asset vs needOne way for leaders to assess their efforts as they begin is to ask themselves these questions:

  • Who decides what will be done? – Is this the vision of a small group of individuals, or is there a shared vision across a larger group of stakeholders?
  • Who are the producers of results? – Are “interventions” being done to, or for people; or are people accomplishing things on their own behalf?
  • How will the gifts of individuals & the community be identified and mobilized? – What approaches to asset mapping and strategic planning make the most sense?
  • Whose capacity is being built? – Are you simply replacing one rigid top-down system for another?

 Mapping Assets

Simply put, asset-mapping is systematically finding out what skills, talents, knowledge, relationships, and other assets currently exist in the community. This should include unearthing the capacities of:

  • Individuals – Talk to as many people as possible. Don’t forget marginalized people, those whose presence is not frequently (if ever) recognized.
  • Associations – These are social assets. They are not always easily recognized. They are identified by the fact that people are associating with each other without getting paid. The people in associations are together because they share a common passion or interest. Associations can be formal (a church congregation), or informal (a group of friends who meet every Tuesday for coffee at the same café).
  • Institutions – All public, private, and nonprofit organizations including schools, government, and businesses.
  • Physical Assets – This includes things like public space, buildings, and natural assets.
  • Exchange – Financial transactions, including things like deliberate local purchasing or boycotting.

Don’t panic. You don’t have to map the assets of the entire community. This isn’t an exercise in database creation. This is about looking for opportunity. These opportunities reveal themselves during the process of finding out how newly discovered assets can be connected and leveraged to increase relationships and moving people to act.

Once you know what change your community seeks to make start mapping with folks who might already be working to create that change?  No special training is necessary, though there are many people who can help you get started.

Your early group of leaders will have to define your community, figure out who is available to do the work on the ground, and assess your initial resources to do the mapping. You can use any number of methods, either via surveys, or better yet through one to one conversations, or appreciative inquiry. Remember, lists of information are good, but stories are even better because they can reveal hidden social and cultural assets.

Useful Resources

More on ABCD to come

Finding Opportunities in Conflict

“What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict, but we cannot get rid of diversity…Fear of difference is fear of life itself.”
– Mary Parker Follett

We experience conflict every day. Every time you make a decision you are to some degree, resolving conflict. For people organizing to create change, conflict sometimes needs to be resolved between allies, and of course, always needs to be addressed with adversaries.

Rather than survey the mountain of literature available on the topic of conflict resolution, let’s focus for now on two things. First, we’ll explore Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann’s, Five Modes for Handling Conflict, and think about how they might relate to leadership. Secondly, we’ll address the notion that conflict – this thing that we’d all just like to go away, actually has numerous benefits that can help to develop other areas of our capacity to lead.

Five Modes for Handling Conflict (Thomas-Kilmann)

conflict resolution
Chart source: An Overview of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument,

According to Thomas and Kilmann, our behavior in conflict situations focuses on two dimensions: 1) assertiveness (What’s in it for me and how do I get it?); and 2) cooperativeness (How can I satisfy others’ concerns?). Leadership means having to constantly balance these dimensions in order to move closer to your desired outcomes.

Competing – Everyone uses all five of these modes of conflict resolution. More often than not, however, competing gets the most attention. When you are trying to make specific changes in the world, a zero-sum orientation is often where you find yourself. A referendum passes or fails. A candidate wins or loses. The key for leaders is not to let this single-mindedness spill over into every interaction, because the next success might depend on collaboration with one of your winner-take-all victims.

Avoiding – dodging conflict for the sake of appearing neutral can have a similar outcome to any aversion to risk – no pain, no gain. Removing yourself from a situation could mean not benefitting from the gains resulting from the successful resolution of the conflict. Leaders should to at least some degree, embrace conflict rather than avoid it.

Accommodating – allowing an unchallenged “win” in an effort to not rock the boat is a situational judgment call. What is the return on the investment of this good will? One warning, accommodation is also where a lot of ethically questionable behavior resides – like spinning something to make yourself look good, and the other party feel good,( “let’s let them think that they’ve won this, meanwhile we’re sticking it to them over here”).

Compromising – This is what used to happen in politics. People agreed to something that was tolerable to all parties, and maintained some sort of reasonable working relationship. Granted, compromise usually ends up in only baby steps forward, but small steps ahead are better and no progress at all, or backwards movement.

Collaborating – This is the elusive “win-win” situation. The value in collaborating lies in capitalizing on diversity – diversity of ideas, of approach, of notions of success.

Conflict Can Have Benefits

Try to look at conflict beyond simply being something that you want to go away quickly. You might see that it has some benefits. Here are some of them:

  • Conflict checks our complacency and self-satisfaction simply by making us aware that problems exist.
  • Conflict reveals diverse perspectives, getting beyond an either/or worldview, challenging our assumptions and leading to more comprehensive solutions.
  • Conflict resolution requires you to tap into your creativity. You learn about yourself, and about others, leading to greater emotional intelligence.
  • The process of resolving conflict often opens up new communication avenues and processes. In fact, lack of communication is often the source of conflict.
  • Successful conflict resolution can build trust. When people feel heard, and when their opinions are recognized and validated, the fair treatment they received makes them more likely to come forward in the future, before conflicts have an opportunity to fester.

Excellence Versus Perfection

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen, Anthem

excellence vs perfectionTable based on a poster from

There is not a great deal of conflict or controversy around this comparison as it relates to leadership. Perfection exists as a concept, but not as a practical reality. Good leaders encourage people to strive for excellence, not perfection. If you always wait for perfection nothing will ever get done. As psychologist and author Harriet Braiker put it, “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”

In terms of leadership, both of excellence and perfection find themselves under scrutiny in the context of achieving success. Success is usually measured by comparison to others. Our most visible manifestations of leadership are in campaigns — contests for the public’s hearts, or their imagination.

If in these challenges our competition is excellent, then we have to be more excellent — we need to be perfect, right? No.

In his 1989 book, The Heart of the Order, sports columnist  Thomas Boswell describes the difference between success and excellence this way:

“Success is tricky, perishable, and often outside our control; the pursuit of success makes a poor cornerstone, especially for a whole personality. Excellence is dependable, lasting and largely an issue within our own control; pursuit of excellence, in and of itself, is the best of foundations.”

If success is perishable, and perfection is unrealistic, then leaders in this “pursuit of excellence” are really part of an ongoing learning community, a network of people absorbing and acting on their shared knowledge and wisdom.

If we can agree that excellence is preferable over perfection, how can we make sure that excellence has substance? Look at the mission statements of nonprofit organizations, schools, and businesses. Apparently everybody is already excellent, because the claims of excellence are everywhere.

Maybe excellence is more of a constant reminder of betterment, of constant improvement, more than it is a state of being. Maybe the best way to achieve excellence is to maintain a modest intellectual curiosity, and an attitude that we want to learn something new every day of our lives.