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Why the Best Leaders Give Their Power Away

May 12, 2018, 1:00 PM UTC

The students of Parkland, Fla., top Fortune’s 2018 list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders, and the #MeToo movement clinches the third spot. Movements matter—today as much as ever. Individual crusaders when joined together can collectively topple corporate executives, undercut industries, upend elections, and wreak havoc on policy plans.

With the advent of social media and other democratizing technologies, much is written now about “new power”—how decentralized networks often triumph over more conventional, top-down models. But new power is old news to social change makers.

While every movement embodies collective leadership, not all campaigns are created equal. Some successfully coalesce around a common vision. Others fail to gain traction, spinning out of control or momentarily flaring bright, then fizzling.

Whether a movement succeeds is determined by how it is led. Any group of impassioned people can mount a protest or organize a march on Washington, but social change making at the end of the day is an act of leadership.

The difference between strong movements and weaker ones is that the winners are “leaderfull.” They give power away, rather than hoard it. They provide common direction, rather than commands. Instead of squabbling over who gets credit for organizing the march, or who “owns” the donor lists, or who appears on CNN or Fox News, leaderfull movement figureheads share power, authority, and the limelight. The suburban students from Parkland displayed leaderfullness when they passed the microphone at the March for Our Lives to urban peers who face daily gun violence in schools and streets.

Leaderfull movements strike a balance between two extremes; they are neither leaderless nor too leader-led.

Remember Occupy Wall Street? Those champions of the 99% had a flat “leaderless” governance structure and a list of more than 20 disparate demands—and soon faded. At the other extreme, some movements are too leader-led: The top dogs attempt to control the movement from above, suffocating it.

Leaderfull movements, on the other hand, purposely push power out to the grassroots, vesting authority in local chapters rather than controlling from the top. They disburse money, media attention, and training tools out to rank-and-file membership. They encourage people with the lived experience of the problem to lead—whether they’re survivors, victims’ families, or otherwise inured to the cause. All of the winning movements of modern times—such as tobacco control, gun rights expansion, and LGBTQ marriage equality—were successful because leaders embraced bottom-up approaches. Their top brass acted more like orchestra conductors than military commanders or corporate CEOs.

Take the National Rifle Association: Its leadership structure is an upside-down pyramid, with its members at the top and staff supporting them from underneath. While the media spotlights the NRA’s steel-willed EVP and CEO Wayne LaPierre, the real power of the NRA derives from its millions of members and hundreds of thousands of field organizers, always ready to defend or advance gun rights—and vote for them. The NRA nurtures and grows its networks of supporters at state and local levels, and has leveraged those networks to advance the gun rights cause and elect firearm-friendly political candidates in all but a handful of U.S. states.

While the gun rights movement has been leaderfull, gun control has historically been too leader-led. But that’s beginning to change. New gun reform groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, established in 2014 after the Newtown tragedy—and now #NeverAgain—are catching up to the NRA. In just a few years, Everytown’s supporters ballooned to more than 4 million (according to its website), and with chapters in all 50 states, it is aggressively working to block the NRA’s agenda—preventing guns in schools and on campuses, and fighting the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act pending in Congress.

Gun reform is finally becoming leaderfull, and that means it stands a fighting chance.

Leslie Crutchfield is the author of How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don‘t and executive director of Georgetown University’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative.