The best leaders are not those who have the most followers, but those who make the most new leaders. I’ve seen this over and over again in my 35 years as an international peacebuilder. When we systematically invite others into leadership, positive change can grow exponentially.
One day in 2015, just as Sierra Leone was recovering from its unprecedented Ebola epidemic, I stood on the edges of the village of Gboundu and watched Fatim Sesay speak with clarity and conviction to a hundred or so women sitting in a circle, under the cover of a few large mango trees. Gboundu had been ground zero for Ebola and half the village had died, along with 80 more from neighboring villages. Gathering now from those villages, Fatim invited the women to organize in order to help lead their community’s post-Ebola recovery — at a time when virtually all outside aid had either dried up and disappeared, or had never reached them in the first place. She spoke powerfully to the women about how they could be important leaders in their community, and how their participation was critical to the future health of their families, their communities, and their region.
Fatim issued a powerful invitation to act and inspired others to join her.
We make more leaders by inviting others into action, voice and community leadership — and then supporting them as they step into it. Leadership like Fatim’s doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. Fatim’s leadership was fueled by Fambul Tok’s Lilian Morsay, who nurtured Fatim Sesay, and thousands of other rural women across Sierra Leone. Fambul Tok (“family talk”) has helped Sierra Leone heal after war and again after Ebola by inviting ordinary citizens into extraordinary-ordinary leadership on behalf of their communities.
As Fatim responded to Lilian’s mentoring, the village women responded to Fatim’s invitation. They organized to work together, deciding first to make and sell soap and use the proceeds for their region as a whole. They have since built community centers, given their children access to education and prevented election violence. Their leaders now advise the district on peace and development and other districts on how to strengthen community leadership.
There are at least four advantages to invitational leadership:
1. Invitational leadership breaks down resistance
As strong a community leader as Fatim is, she had actively resisted stepping into this public role. When Fambul Tok staff member Lilian Morsay first approached her, Fatim literally ran away and hid. But Lilian saw her potential, patiently coaxed her out and invited her to step up to help her community, assuring Fatim that she could, in fact, do that — and do it well.
2. Invitational leadership sees potential in others
Lilian herself had been invited and supported in just such a way years before, by Fambul Tok director John Caulker who saw her leadership potential, and now she was the national director of Fambul Tok’s Peace Mothers program. She was committed to identifying and mentoring other rural women into new action on behalf of their communities.
3. Invitational leadership can be embedded
Invitational leadership can be organizationally embedded, supported and structured into the work itself, creating a positive spiral. Fambul Tok’s way of working involved going into communities and identifying those with unselfish, other-orientation and good communication skills. Then they were invited into more leadership roles and activities on behalf of their communities. This approach actively makes leaders at every turn. And then these leaders, in turn, make more leaders — inviting and supporting others in their communities to work for the good of the whole. It’s a positive spiral for good, as we saw in Gboundu.
4. Invitational leadership has a long-term impact
The benefit of invitational leadership and its long-term impact is exponential and sustainable. It takes time to cultivate new leaders by seeing people’s potential and nurturing them to overcome resistance and step into new roles, but it is worthwhile. The best leaders are those who make more leaders. And when organizations build programming around that, they make exponential transformation possible.
The same lessons I’ve learned in social change work can be applied in corporate settings as leaders channel their energy toward inviting others to lead and supporting their growth. Who, and what, is waiting to be invited into the full potential of your work? And how can you offer the invitation?
Libby Hoffman is the founder and president of Catalyst for Peace, co-founder of Fambul Tok (family talk) in Sierra Leone, and author of “The Answers Are There: Building Peace From the Inside Out.” Learn more at LibbyHoffman.com.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.