The How’s of a Societal Leader

Text by Zenith Chua
Photo by Martin Tan

As one sets out on the quest to be a societal leader, it is only natural to ask, “What must I do to be considered a societal leader? If we broadly define societal leadership as “the practice of creating sustainable value and impact for the betterment of society within one’s largest sphere of influence” (Institute For Societal Leadership at the Singapore Management University), then the issue is not about the “what” but the “how”.

From the exposure I have had with social entrepreneurs and leaders in the social sector, I would like to propose nine guiding principles for societal leadership.

  1. The key is not in the form it takes but what it does for society

Societal leadership is first of all, a practice, and by the word “practice”, it is action-oriented and not constrained by the form it takes. Instead of fussing over the details of definition, it is more important to take action. Not rash, but calculated actions.

  1. A network of interdependencies has to be forged and maintained

Beyond the decision of the nature of the entity, it is vital to recognize that any societal problem is wicked (Camillus, 2008) in nature. As such, there will be a need for public-private partnerships, strategic alliances or ecosystem creations. One alone, however capable, is not able to fully extinguish every flame in a forest fire. A network of interdependencies has to be forged and maintained in order to best leverage on each entity’s strength and forte.

  1. Balance between building on existing infrastructure vs satisfying constant demand for novelty

Innovation has been the much advocated path by experts in tackling societal issues. However innovation does not always equate to radicalness or novelty. Not every societal issue needs a radical solution – some may just require a better connection or maintenance of the existing infrastructure. PlayPumps is a case in point. The product (merry-go-round pump) was novel, but there was no demand for it. On the other hand, the Moser Lamp was a novel innovation that brought light at almost negligible cost to the poor in Philippines and beyond. To balance between building on existing infrastructure versus satisfying constant demand for novelty is an important decision to make.

  1. Investments are meant to build the effort, not kill it

This leads me to the role of investors. Investors often bankroll on novel or radical ideas, or ideas that are trending on the media. It is always good to be seen as a forerunner. However investing in a solution targeting societal issues requires a different mindset and key performance indicators. PlayPumps was well funded by foundations, grants and celebrity endorsement, but yet they shut down in 2010 after buckling to critics and poor performance. There needs to exist an alignment between the desired returns (monetary and/or non-monetary) of investors and fund-providers, and the desired performance and role that the product or service is envisioned to have. Excessive funds for misaligned intentions will cause the enterprise to lose its purpose. Investments are meant to build the effort, not kill it.

  1. Design thinking: a tool, a mindset, a strategy

It is important to realize that doing good is not about dumping aid or huge donations; it is about knowing what the targeted beneficiaries truly need. Efforts need to be invested to understand the societal issue in its context and prototypes or ideas need to be validated by users. Solutions invented from an ivory tower for the poor in Africa, as seen in the case of PlayPumps, barely worked out. Beyond taking design thinking as a tool, it will also be important to inject elements of it into the strategy of the enterprise.

  1. Only scale if you can handle the growth and if it serves your purpose

It is always enticing to grow an enterprise upon initial success, in hope of extending its reach. However, growing beyond one’s means can be detrimental. There exists greater risks of either increasing management complexity or losin control when an organization increases in size. This is especially so if appropriate resources are not deployed. Many NGOs in Southeast Asia remain small their size enables them to be more involved in community engagement than if they were to be engulfed by management responsibilities. Hence, it is important to only scale if you can handle the growth and if it serves your purpose.

  1. Never let personal ego get in the way of doing good

“Empire building” is often mentioned in mergers & acquisitions literature as a reason why companies scale up inorganically, and it is often linked to the management team’s pride and ego. But as a societal leader, not only does one have to properly evaluate any growth desires, but there may come a time where one will have to prioritize societal good before personal pride, ego and ownership. That was the case for Mr Anshu Gupta of GOONJ (Delhi), when he invited people to replicate GOONJ’s model and join as collaborators. It is critical to recognize the separation between the idea and the person. For the idea to reach its maximum potential, it sometimes has to be placed on the table for mass adoption. Therefore, it is important to never let personal ego get in the way of doing good.

  1. Always be willing to admit one’s mistakes and move forward.

Societal leaders must have the courage to admit any mistakes and/or failures, and to correct them and move forward. There is always fear that funding will stop or shame will come to the name if mistakes are made public (Vandendriessche, 2012). But as a bigger society, we cannot progress as well, if we are deprived of learning points from others. Just as what PlayPumps did – they may have gotten many aspects wrong, but they took courage and gave away itheir entire inventory to Water for People before shutting down.

  1. Empower communities rather than practise blind aid dumping

Last of all, empower the community. As mentioned above, doing good is not about blind aid dumping. To create sustainable value and impact, one great way is to let the people own it and be empowered by it. Gawad Kalinga, a community development model in Philippines turned into a successful nation-building movement through empowering the residents to become stewards of their own communities and having programs devised to foster stronger ties within the respective communities. As Dambisa Moyo puts it, “a short-term efficacious intervention may have few discernible, sustainable long-term benefits.” Hence, always seek to empower communities rather than practice blind aid dumping.

This article is written by Zenith Chua, a fourth year student at Singapore Management University’s School of Business. The article summarises her insights gained from two modules she attended, “Foundations of Societal Leadership” and “Social Innovation: Tools for Social Change”.


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