The Key to Successful Mass Movements: It's Not What You Think

April 14, 2020

Gandhi sat in cold damp cells and ate nothing for weeks. Susan B. Anthony marched for decades. Nelson Mandela reflected on change under a scalding sun. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. Cesar Chavez walked row after row of California crops. And Erin Brockovich convinced hundreds of small-town residents to join her fight against the machine. In all cases, transformation came. Relief was realized for the oppressed, prejudiced, and hurt, and—by extension—each of us.

Movements are mostly sparked by pain, anger, or distrust, usually due to a smoldering sense of inferiority, insignificance, or irrelevance. A movement grows only when inspirational voices or powerful figures rise to lead. Some motivate in relative silence. Others speak loudly and carry a big stick.

It was a long way from sitting on a bus to the end of segregation. The distance from toiling on a segregated island prison work camp to chairing an integrated country was immeasurable.  And, an infinite number of steps were walked to get the women’s right to vote.

How does cultural transformation ultimately happen? What and who are the reasons some efforts flame out while others scorch the unwanted status quo?

Movements that effect true change have pragmatic stalwarts—loyal, matter-of-fact, advocating forces—who can take lofty ideals born of burning anger or abject fatigue and translate those into street-level action. It is these dedicated managers who build and coordinate the tools, structures, and systems that inform and direct those willing to give their voice to a cause. They do this from the middle ground at the same time that leaders use empathy and emotion from above to stir a mass of supporters below.

Formulaically, this is the model of a movement: Gathering Anger or Distrust  > Inspirational, Emotion-Based Leadership Energy  > Comprehendible, Sustainable, and Actionable Directives  > Engagement and Retention of Street-Level Activists  > Growing and Repeated Mass Involvement  > True Change

While the following items can be viewed as works in progress—especially based on geography and culture—in much of the world we have seen the end or reduction of imperialism, slavery, child labor abuses, gay and lesbian oppression, and unequal gender rights. In each and every one of these movements, the stalwarts were the critical propellant. This position is similar to executive assistants, nurses, operations managers, and construction supervisors, those who understand the mission, translate that into synergistic directives, and then monitor and grow supporter behaviors needed for success. In the end, all of us benefit from the coordination of this production.

We still have a long way to go on many of these issues, but thanks to top visionaries, mid-section managers, and ground-level supporters, innumerable lives are better. Using the fire metaphor again, these transformations each began with a spark that conflagrated due to persistent stalwart fueling, and reached a mass inferno of change.

The coronavirus has inspired new emotion among the weary and oppressed. The most exhausted and angry could be Mother Earth, herself. We are witness to the planet being allowed to breathe, after being smothered for too long. Leaders are arising, some are already in place—such as Greta Thunberg—and others are stepping into the light. But this movement, like all, requires stalwarts.

We need those who are not visionaries or inspirational voices or big-stick carriers. We need doer-advocates to inform the world of what and how and when and why to act. We need you—knowing that you are eager to play a bigger role with your skills and energy—to help manage this essential affair. We need you as fuel to help make the checklists, grow the progress, and foster sustainable efforts of the masses.

My next post on movements will list positions that you might consider filling in order to play a vital role in a successful cultural transformation. Remember, these positions aren’t always sexy. If you are looking for glamour, it’s probably best to just look in the mirror. If you are looking for honor, it’s probably best just to look inside yourself. If you are looking to help, I can show you how.


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