The world has enough super stars. What we need is more ordinary people who find meaning and value in all types of roles.  We can’t all be cast as the lead in the play of life.  Even if we were, a lead without a cast looks strange and alone on stage. Without stagehands, tech, writers, and ticket sellers, we would all be waiting in the dark in an empty room with nothing to say.  Maybe I feel this way because of my semi-Hindu upbringing, but a story with a single lead is also a worn-out concept.  Why can’t life be more like the Ramayana – a story with many leads, many heroes, many plot lines, and many characters – instead of a hero saving us all from ourselves?

Time and time again, young, idealistic folks tell me they want to change the world. Yet the only pathway they see is to start their own organization addressing small pieces of the puzzle or starting from scratch with a single idea that will “change everything.”  This is not to say that there isn’t value in innovation, but entrepreneurship comes with risks. The reality is not as glamorous as the idea. Running an organization means you are responsible for people and systems, not just ideas.  And innovation is not just about the idea – it’s about the execution of the idea, which is a combination of timing, luck, planning, and hard work.

In my experience, the non-profit sector – and the individuals committed to social change – place too much emphasis on the visionary leader at the expense of the large teams and support systems those leaders need to be effective.  Charismatic leaders bring vision, energy, excitement to an organization, which is important to motivate employees and inspire action. But they are necessarily crazy.  Visionaries rarely manage organizations. There is someone else behind the wizard’s curtain making thing happen.  That role is just as – if not more – important than the position at the helm.  Without human, financial, and operational resources, a good idea is just a good idea – no matter how innovative, inspirational, or charismatic it is.

On the one hand, no single person can change the world.  On the other hand, every single person can change the world.  If you come to work and make sure that the phones and computers are working, think of how many people use those phones and computers to communicate about plans and ideas that will make a difference.  Without the phone or email, there would be no communication.  So whose role is really more important?  We need to stop putting single ideas, single individuals, and solo leaders on pedestals and start recognizing broader daily contributions.

Real change is unsexy. It’s not about podium speeches, awards, or hanging out with important people.  It takes place through discipline, systems, and conflict.  We all have our place and no place is more valuable than another.

 

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