Last month, I had the thrill of attending my first Skoll World Forum. I was fortunate enough to moderate a panel of extraordinary young leaders who are working to advance peace-building in extremely challenging contexts: Catalina Cock Duque of Mi Sangre is mobilizing young people for peace and reconciliation in Colombia; Iliana Montauk created Gaza Sky Geeks, the first and only startup accelerator in Gaza; Joseph Munyambanza is the force behind innovative education and peace-building initiatives for young people in the Congo and Uganda; and Angela Nzioki is an IT evangelist and mentor for women in tech in Kenya.
These remarkable leaders are working to build bridges across complex divides of culture, ethnicity, age, and class. And talking with them about the challenges they face in building movements got me wondering: Do the ways we recognize individual leaders in the nonprofit world inadvertently undercut the very thing they are trying to achieve?
Take two common strategies we regularly use in the nonprofit sector to recognize leaders: awards and sabbaticals.
Awards single out the individual leader and lift them up as exceptional. But for leaders who are trying to build collective power or mobilize groups of people, this can be problematic—and in some cases, destructive. When asked about being named a World Economic Forum young leader, Duque explained, “The spotlight on me was not helpful; it should be on the real leaders—the young people we are working with.” Distinguishing one person’s singular contributions in leading a movement can be harmful to the overall cause, because it can weaken the morale of the team. It can also cause admirers to mistake individual recognition for impact, not realizing what it takes to sustain a movement beyond an individual charismatic leader.
By elevating one person over others, awards also accentuate the loneliness at the top. For example, leaders may find peers in a fellowship awarded to them, but they eventually have to return to their teams having had an experience that no one else at their organization shares. They may find it hard to communicate or explain the new capabilities they learned to others at their organization. This kind of leader-centric approach also denies the larger group the opportunity to learn a common vocabulary and set of tools.
Sabbaticals also focus on the singular leader who gets the opportunity to step out and recharge. When this happens, most organizations figure out how to distribute aspects of the leader’s role to others within the organization; other team members end up stepping forward to take on new tasks and growth opportunities. Yet too often, when the leader comes back, those who took up the slack are relegated to their previous roles. What would it look like to hold open the space created by the sabbatical, and make sure that newly expanded roles and responsibilities benefit the organization going forward? If sabbaticals worked this way, they could actually contribute to building stronger, more durable, and distributed leadership teams—instead of benefiting just one person deemed worthy of recognition.
Listening to my Skoll panelists also got me wondering whether the strategies we use in a highly individualistic culture like our in the United States are even more problematic in cultures that prize interdependence and collective identity, such as those in the Global South. Certainly, even in this country, the singular leadership model is increasingly rejected by a rising generation of new leaders in movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street.
Here, I find useful the framework in the provocative Harvard Business Review article, “Understanding ‘New Power,’” by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. They describe “old power” as functioning like a currency: held by few, guarded, hoarded, and closed. They describe “new power” as functioning like a current: held by many, open, channeled, and participatory.
The young leaders I spoke with at Skoll talked about the hard work they’ve done to build this kind of “new power”—one that’s open, participatory, and peer-driven. They emphasized their struggles to model inclusion and equity while also learning how to manage others, and the pain associated with being singled out when they are trying to build distributed and shared leadership.
Perhaps it’s time for us in the nonprofit and philanthropic space to create new models for supporting leadership—ones that keep the benefits of recognizing individual leaders without compromising the collective efforts, movements, and environment of inclusion these leaders are trying to build. As funders, we can help prizes become more inclusive and support a more intentionally “organizational” approach to sabbaticals. “New power” leaders can help us support them better by asking for what they really need—as long as we’re listening.