Choosing Leaders is like Choosing What to Eat: Fruit or a Twinkie?

Good leaders are as important for a healthy organization as good food is for a healthy body. Would you trust the Twinkie King to be a leader for your group?

Good leaders are as important for a healthy organization as good food is for a healthy body. Would you trust the Twinkie King to be a leader for your group?

I’ve been writing about the need to be careful in choosing who to develop as a leader.

Grassroots leaders are what nourish your organization. Just like you need to eat food that will keep you healthy, you need to recruit and develop leaders that will keep your organization healthy.

This can be tough. It’s often easier to eat a Twinkie than to eat a carrot. Choose the leaders that will nourish your organization. You’ll be healthier for it.

Not everyone is leadership material

Not everyone can be a leader. If you choose the wrong people to be grassroots leaders, you may find they have no followers.

Not everyone can be a leader. If you choose the wrong people to be grassroots leaders, you may find they have no followers.

This post might get me in a bit of trouble.

You see, the progressive movement puts a lot of stock on the idea of grassroots leadership. To quote a line from Wobbly history as told by Utah Phillips, “We’re all leaders here.”

Except it just isn’t true.

Not everyone wants to be a leader, and not everyone who wants to be leader is cut out to be a leader.

Your job as an organizer is to build up leaders. It is to recruit, train, and nurture people who will be able to inspire and lead others in the community.

And not everyone is up for the job.

Just so you know I’m not just saying this to vent, in Tools for Radical Democracy, Minieri and Getsos write:

Although people might be doing important work, thye may or may not be leaders. For example, if a member who comes to every meeting is great at motivational speaking but cannot effectively engage with other members to make decisions, it may not be appropriate to develop her as a leader or place her in leadership situations. [Emphasis added.]

Leaders are important. Grassroots leadership is important. It is important enough to be thoughtful and intentional about. Carefully recruit leaders. Actively develop leaders. And yes, sometimes you will have to, very sensitively, deal with someone who is not cut out to be a leader.

Want leaders? You need a strong pipeline

Recruiting leaders is like a funnel. You need a lot of contacts to go in the top to get a few leaders to come out the bottom.

Recruiting leaders is like a funnel. You need a lot of contacts to go in the top to get a few leaders to come out the bottom.

The grassroots organizing model is about raising up community leaders to take action for the cause.

How do you get those leaders?

It takes both recruiting them and then building them through training, support and experience.

And you have to recruit a lot of supporters to get a few leaders.

Tools for Radical Democracy has a sobering analysis. They say you need:

  • “Four Hundred contacts for whom you have a name, address, and phone number
  • One hundred who express an interest
  • Thirty who attend a meeting or an action
  • Ten who come back again and continue in some form with the organization
  • Between one and five who engage in a leadership-development activity…
  • One or two who continue to develop as leaders.

I don’t know about you, but this tells me I need to get out their there recruiting, following up, and training!

Ranking prospects to choose who to follow up with

I picked up another great tip from Tools for Radical Democracy by Minieri and Getsos.

In their amazing chapeter on recruitment, they recommend recruiting new activists with one-on-one conversations. That’s nothing new, but what I hadn’t thought of systematizing was doing a quick rank of prospects so you know who you most want to follow up with.

Minieri and Getsos recommend a 3-point ranking.

Does someone really get it? Do they seem like they really want to get involved? That’s the person you most want to follow up with. He’s a 1. You want to make sure you get back to him and soon.

That person who is interested in the issue but doesn’t necessarily seem keen on getting involved? You still want to follow up with her, but she’s not as high of a priority. She’s a 2.

And that guy who signs your petition to get you out of his way? He’s not worth a lot of time. He gets a 3. Keep him on your list for suveys and such, but you don’t want to put a lot of time into him.

Now, this is something most of us get intuitively. It’s not rocket science to follow up with the people who are the best prospects for getting involved.

What I like about this is the idea of creating a system for identifying who those best prospects are and recording it right then and there so you don’t forget.

Make the ask feel special

invitation by tracyhunger on flickr.comIn You Don’t Have to Do It Alone, the authors share the following story:

Julie [one of the co-authors] once received an invitation to a garden party at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Queen of England. Yes, that Queen of England. Julie had to sign a receipt when the invitation was delivered. The envelope was stamped front and back with “Lord Chamberlain Buckingham Palace.” It was addressed in beautifully handwritten calligraphic script. The message on the card itself was embossed in gold. It began with the words, “The Lord Chamberlain is commanded to invite . . . ”

Talk about a special invitation. Julie still has it. The Queen, and the Lord Chamberlain, could be sure she would attend.

How different is that from the mass email “could anybody help with . . .”

This over-the-top invitation makes a point that you and I can learn from, even if we don’t have a Lord Chamberlain to command.

Your best chance of getting somebody to say “yes” is to make sure that the ask feels special to them.

There are many ways to do that: a personal phone call, a specially-printed invitation, a phone call from a big-wig. Even just personalizing your email so they know you wrote to them and not to fifty people at once.

You may not have gold-embossed stationary, but you can still make someone feel special.

And when you make someone feel special, they are more likely to say “yes.”


bonus observation: Did you notice the specific, compelling details in the description of the invitation? Wasn’t that more impressive than a bland “Julie received an invitation from the Queen of England”? When writing, these kinds of concrete details help paint a vivid picture in your reader’s mind. It’s worth recording them.

The danger of homogenaity

Photo by Daveybot on FlickrJust a quick follow up to my post on who to invite: it’s downright dangerous to have decisions made by people who all think the same.

First, their decisions won’t have the strength of multiple viewpoints.

Second, the decisions will face more opposition when they come to the larger group.

I saw this recently when the City of Ann Arbor was considering creating a greenway through the city. In good municipal fashion, they convened a greenway committee.

Who signed up to be on the greenway committee? The people who are passionate about a greenway!

Now I’m not a greenway advocate, so when I look at their decision, it doesn’t have legitimacy to me, because I don’t think it really looked at the issue in a comprehensive way.

Another example: a local Catholic parish used to have a Life Committee (or some such group). In Catholic social teaching, the sanctity of life leads the Catholic Church to oppose many things, not just abortion and euthanasia but also war, poverty, and the death penalty.

But the Life Committee just cared about abortion.

They were a faction.

And they lost legitimacy for it.

So, if you want to create a faction that will promote a narrow perspective (and there is value in this, to be sure), by all means, only seek out the hard-core fringe of people who would volunteer themselves to be on that committee.

But if you want sound and balanced decisions that will have more legitimacy in the wider community, then you have a harder task ahead. Then you need to recruit not just people who already agree with you and think like you, you have to recruit people with different perspecitves.

And then the hard work begins…

you have to respect those different perspectives.