Leading from the Margins: Part III

Continuing the reflections from the last two weeks – observations prompted by the piece by Meyerson and Scully on what it means to lead from the margins.   They also speak of strategies for those who are at the margins who wish to effect meaningful change within the organization while sustaining their distinctive or ambivalent (their word) identity.   Drawing on what they would offer, I suggest three things for our consideration. 

First, patience.   Those who effect change from the margin as either radicals who bring about a revolution or they are radicals, perhaps but their vision is the long arc:   they know that substantive change will come slowly, gradually and incrementally and they are either in it for the long term or they are doing their part knowing that the fruit of their endeavours may not be evident for many years.  But, they stay the course; and patience because the hallmark of their disposition.   They do not lose hope; they are not continually exasperated. 

Second, small wins.   Meyerson and Scully note that it is important to choose our battles well . . .and chose those that may be nothing more than a step in the right direction.  The genius of a small win is that as often as not it is not viewed as a threat to the status quo; and those who may not support the “win” do not feel like they, in turn, have lost.   We can respond, as they note, to unexpected opportunities to achieve something of value, however seemingly minor:   a very slight revision to a policy that signals something important, or a slight change in the way that contracts are issued that reflects a significantly different way of viewing good work but in terms of the contract, is actually a relatively minor point.   We see openings for changes in policy or practice that are more family friendly, or more accommodating to the working patters of women [or men] with young children, or accommodations for religious practice. 

As a side note, those who lead from the margins need to learn what it means to seek principled compromise.   They cannot be purists or idealists; rather, they will seek to shape policy or direction, and so on, without insisting that they have the last word.  They don’t have the last word . . . so they know they have to be content with any way they can shape or influence the discourse. 

Third, they speak of authentic action – which, it seems to me, is about staying true to oneself, regardless of the circumstances, and being present to others.   It is to allow the human factor to take precedence over office or role or hierarchy or any other way that we might think of “us and them” . . . whether it be the “senior leadership” and the rest of us, or a difference of ethnicity or religious affiliation.   One has to be human, first and foremost.  And what this does, on occasion, is open up possibilities to be an instrument of change.   One fosters political and social capital that one can draw on for what I mention above:  small wins. 

What I have sought to stress, in all three of these blogs on “leading from the margins” is that this capacity – to be a change agent when one has limited influence or power – is a vital capacity for all of us who work within organizations.    And thus, rather than continually bemoaning that we do not have more voice or power or influence, let’s start asking what we can do, from the margin, and how we can actually flourish and, over the long term, bring about good developments.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.