An Invitation to Dance: Transformational Leadership for Social Change

"Never enough” cultures within organizations and movements too often thrive on shame, which creates deep-rooted fears of the very vulnerability that we need to achieve the collective change we seek. What could be accomplished if leadership on every level realizes and raises up the more subtle inherent inner power of all those serving and being cared for?

By Edward M. Cardoza and Rev. C. Perry Dougherty

Many social justice organizations, movements, and causes face the strategic tension of aiming for breadth versus depth in their pursuit of change. Is the transformation of one person enough? Don’t we need thousands, millions, or more to make real change? Some groups operating on national or global levels may struggle to demonstrate real heart and mind change, while others leading change at individual and community levels find it hard to replicate their methods at “scale,” and the majority of groups uncomfortably attempt to navigate the vast ocean between deep local transformation and mighty scale.

How do you as a leader share your vision for change that welcomes the transformation of every individual person you meet to get there? Derek Sivers, in his TED Talk entitled, “How To Start A Movement,” offers insight from the way a dance party begins. One person begins dancing. As others join, that one person welcomes them into the vision of dancing no matter their moves (or lack thereof). Slowly, a larger and larger group forms, giving and receiving dance moves, inspiration, and joy. Before long, no one knows who started the movement at all.

Could a vision for a more just, equal, and unified world guide a kind of leadership that opens the doors of a cause wide enough for all to enter?

Leadership of a cause is a dance with the world. Not everyone will be your personal inspiration and partner, but everyone ought to be invited to dance. There is something organic about opening to and inviting in everyone that gives the dance party its power.

Too often social justice leadership styles have been forceful and combative in their approach to make change. There are leaders who, with a militant allegiance to strategy, cut off dialogue, creativity, and innovation. There are organizations in which finding and discharging blame is seen as the primary and most virtuous activity in the quest for justice. Some leaders predetermine their future success to such a point that they become blind to the humanity of those they are serving.  Leaders often unconsciously use these approaches and others like them not only with those who stand in the way of change but also with colleagues, allies, and friends.

It can be easy to forget that any collective change requires vast numbers of people to move through vulnerability. To develop the connection, courage, and compassion needed to move through vulnerability, people must feel the presence of personal and structural relationships that reverence the inherent dignity of all and that have mutual respect as their foundation.

It can be easy to forget that any collective change requires vast numbers of people to move through vulnerability.

Too often suffering and sacrifice—how “down” are you with this struggle?—become metrics for success within social justice organizations, movements, and causes. These kinds of “never enough” cultures thrive on shame, which creates deep-rooted fears of the very vulnerability that groups and leaders need to achieve the collective change they seek. Not surprisingly, these cultures, if not reoriented, slowly push people further away from the cause.

Any notion of social justice or leadership is made small through these orientations to service and activism. Could a vision for a more just, equal, and unified world guide a kind of leadership that opens the doors of a cause wide enough for all to enter? Could a vision for real transformation allow people to bring their whole selves to their engagement, service, and learning? What could be accomplished with leadership that on every level lives out the change it wants to see?

To see such visions of social justice and leadership, there must be a different and more comprehensive focus on power. While most social justice efforts are deeply concerned with undoing oppressive power structures, the individuals within them often have a remarkable inability to know their own inner power, share outer power in relationship and systems, and comfortably release the desire for control. To work seriously for any kind of structural transformation requires the capacity to lead, listen, resist, and speak with deep awareness of the integral and multidimensional nature of power. Power plays out on inner and outer as well as individual and collective levels. We exist in a world where there will be inherent inequities in power in certain contexts, so how we hold, share, and release power matters. Realizing and raising up the more subtle inherent inner power in all life matters. What could be accomplished with leadership that on every level lives out the change it wants to see?

Any leader within an organization, movement, or cause can choose to deepen his or her ability to be aware of power, to enter conversations, to engage all voices, and to develop relationships with all those interested. Any leader can choose to put themselves out into the world in a way that invites deep and meaningful debate and exchange and that remains open to the possibility of being changed (not just of changing others). Any leader can choose to dedicate him or herself not just to getting things done but also to being a beacon of hope that inspires moving into the shared vulnerability of life and change. These kinds of leader must be able to admit when they are wrong, must be able to listen to and for change not just in others but also in themselves, and must be able to sit patiently in the spaces of not knowing without feeling judgment, shame, or anger. These kinds of leaders must find purpose, meaning, and insight in failure, in evolution, and in not knowing. It is in such humility, openness, and curiosity that there will be space for partnership, voice, community, creativity, and, eventually, change.


Edward M. Cardoza is the founder and Executive Director of Still Harbor. Rev. C. Perry Dougherty is the Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation & Society. Through their work at Still Harbor, they serve as facilitators, spiritual directors, and chaplains to individuals and organizations dedicated to social justice.


Image: "Silent iPod Disco" by Terry Russell/Flickr