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  • Rich Tafel

True Leadership Means Wrestling Away the Steering Wheel

The social innovation movement in America must develop a new type of leader who is ready to tackle complex, unjust systems at their roots.

Ask a social change leader in the US how they measure their organization’s success, and you’ll hear about more beds for the homeless, more meals for the hungry, more education for kids, and more healthcare for the sick. You’ll hear how they provide these services cheaper, faster, and more effectively than ever before.

What you’ll hear is that the social sector treats symptoms.

Providing charity to people in need is and will always be necessary. But until the public sector actually changes the rules that perpetuate injustice, we are operating under a delusion that we are really changing the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German minister who led religious opposition to the Nazi party and a pacifist who studied Gandhi, explained his radical decision to participate in numerous efforts to assassinate Hitler this way: “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can't, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

What a great image for our social sector today. We applaud ourselves for aiding innocent bystanders after they’ve come to harm—and we should—but it’s time for leadership that wrestles away the steering wheel.

There are social entrepreneurs leading the way.

Robert Eggers founded DC Central Kitchen during the inauguration of President George H. W. Bush by taking food from events to feed the hungry. Over the past twenty years, the program has fed thousands weekly. Moving beyond charity to systems change, he developed a cutting-edge job-training program for those he fed to work in restaurants. And seeking even greater change, today Egger is creating a political action committee to reward policy leaders who change systems.

If we consistently produce hundreds of thousands of homeless, hungry, uneducated, and sick people, we must ask what broken systems do we need to change? Is it our capitalist system? Our welfare state system? Our political system?

We need leaders who take on real change, which means replacing systems that perpetuate injustice—otherwise, we’re just perpetually comforting the wounded and burying the dead.

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