The Three Types of Leaders Who Create Radical Change

 
 
Every successful social movement requires three distinct leadership roles: the agitator, the innovator, and the orchestrator, according to institutional change expert Julie Battilana.
 
 
by Carmen Nobel

What determines whether a social movement will be a flash in the pan or a real catalyst for longterm change? Why did Occupy Wall Street subside in a matter of months, for instance, while the American Civil Rights Movement thrived, resulting in the passage of multiple laws?

Julie Battilana, a long-time scholar of institutional change, has identified common themes among those social movements that don't merely broadcast the need for a social change, but actually create long-term impact.

According to Battilana, every successful social movement features three distinct leadership roles: the agitator, the innovator, and the orchestrator.

Any successful pathway to societal change requires all three, as Battilana explains in the article Should You Agitate, Innovate, or Orchestrate? Understanding the Roles You Can Play in a Movement Toward Societal Change, co-written with Marissa Kimsey, a research associate at HBS. The article appears in the new issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review.

“If you look at the history of any successful social change movement, you’ll see there were moments of really effective agitation, innovation, and orchestration that led to the adoption of the change,” says Battilana, the Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and Alan L. Gleitsman Professor of Social Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, who, for more than a decade, has studied and researched the ways in which organizations and individuals implement changes that diverge from taken-for-granted norms. “Although history remembers some individual actors as highly influential, single leaders rarely change the course of society on their own.”

The Agitator stirs the pot by articulating and publicizing societal grievances, rallying an otherwise diverse group of people around a mutual desire for change.

“Effective agitators are able to draw attention to a problem and convince others that it requires both some corrective action and collective work to bring it about,” Battilana writes in the 2015 teaching note Power and Influence in Society. “To demonstrate that the status quo is not acceptable and to mobilize others, agitators thus need to communicate in a manner that ensures grievances are shared and collective and not seen as irrelevant.”

"If you do not innovate and have a solution to the problem you’ve identified, the movement will die "

Take, for example, marine biologist Rachel Carson, who alerted the public to the dangers of pesticides in the 1950s; Donald Trump, who, throughout 2016, rallied citizens around the slogan “Make America Great Again;” or Teresa Shook, who launched the Women’s March on Washington after Trump’s presidential victory.

The Innovator develops a solution to address the grievances. That means anticipating roadblocks and coming up with alternative paths, as well as justifying those alternatives in appealing ways to engage individuals, groups, and organizations to support them.

“An innovator is likely someone who has studied, lived, or experienced something beyond the norms in a given environment and thus is able to create a vision of a different future that nonetheless makes sense to, and captivates, those living within the existing practices and conditions,” Battilana writes in “Power and Influence in Society.”

Without leaders who can lay out a persuasive path of innovation, a movement will never make it past the agitation stage, Battilana argues.

photo of Pho soup Innovators sometimes draw on existing, proven approaches to create long-lasting solutions. Battilana and Kimsey cite the example of the French youth services organization Unis-Cité, which was modeled after the American nonprofit City Year. Credit:  Unis-Cité

“If you do not innovate and have a solution to the problem you’ve identified, the movement will die,” she says. “I think that’s what happened with the Occupy Wall Street movement. There was an effective agitation; the movement came at the right time—a time when the world was screaming that we needed a different financial system. But there was a lack of innovation. And we ended up coming back to a system that is quite a bit like what we had before.”

The Orchestrator spreads the solution created by the innovator, continually strategizing how best to reach and work with people both within and outside the movement, as the movement for change grows in size and complexity.

“Orchestrators often need to tailor their message to the interests of the various constituencies they are trying to persuade to embrace the change,” Battilana writes in her teaching note. “However, in doing so, they need to strike a fine balance, as they also need to ensure that the overall message around change adoption remains coherent.”

“Agitation without innovation means complaints without alternatives, and innovation without orchestration means ideas without impact,” the authors write in “Should You Agitate, Innovate, or Orchestrate? Understanding the Roles You Can Play in a Movement Toward Societal Change.”

Traps and challenges

Battilana and Kimsey explain that each role requires a combination of communicating, organizing, and evaluating.

Agitators need to communicate the necessity of the social change movement; innovators need to communicate the validity of their proposed solution; and orchestrators must be able to tailor information to different types of constituents—sometimes different groups all over the world—while still maintaining a cohesive message.

Agitators must also organize and launch a collective action against the status quo; innovators must build a coalition of support behind their ideas; and orchestrators must expand and sustain the collective action.

Each of these three roles also comes with its own set of traps, a point Battilana stresses when talking to action-driven students:

  • Among agitators: fragmented agitation—triggering multiple areas of outrage that can’t work together as a cohesive cause, and a stalled solution—raising a valid complaint but lacking a remedy to offer.
  • Among innovators: tunnel vision—failing to consider the negative implications of a proposed solution, and impractical elegance—proposing a solution that looks great on a computer screen but is virtually impossible to orchestrate.
  • Among orchestrators: mission drift—losing sight of the envisioned social change, and dilution—watering down the movement to the point that it no longer addresses grievances.

Battilana has advice for avoiding potential traps and how to determine when to play which roles. Keys include continually assessing progress and changes in the environment, as well as the understanding the individual’s sources of power and motivations. Power may come from personal sources (e.g., charisma, expertise); positional sources (e.g., holding official leadership roles, elected or appointed); and relational sources (connections with family, friends, and colleagues). “Leaders leverage these various sources of power as they push for change,” Battilana and Kimsey write in their article.

"Most movements are full of hidden heroes"

Battilana also warns that effecting change does not guarantee glory. Behind any successful movement lies a great deal of thankless determination and sweat.

“Societal change takes time, it takes a lot of work, and most of the time you’re not going to get a lot of recognition,” she says. “Most movements are full of hidden heroes, if you will. No one may ever know about them. Some of them had to work their whole lives and didn’t see the moment when finally things changed. But they played key roles in agitation, orchestration, or innovation.”

Related Reading:

As America Recedes from Global Leadership, Its CEOs are Stepping Up
Beyond Heroic Entrepreneurs
What Are the Limits of CEO Activism?

What do you think?

What existing social movement is dying for leadership? What would you do to get the troops back on track? Add your comment to this story below.

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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