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The Accidental Leader in Social Movements

adapted from and essay I first wrote January 2009.

Social movements.

They are born out of inspiration, passion, unity, perseverance and determination. Whether or not you believe in the mission or objectives of some of the prominent movements in history, it is still inspiring to learn about. When many gather for one cause, and fight for it because they truly believe, it is impressive.

Sometimes, looking at a social movement and what was necessary in order to achieve the goals of the movement, it can be impressive to the point of being overwhelming. For instance, the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar during September of 2007 was a great example of uniting for a cause, in the face of violence and persecution. Some protesters had to be concerned about the livelihood of their families or had to hide themselves or seek asylum in countries, because to profess that they did not support the military junta governing Myanmar was to become a target.

I often wonder — what makes individuals stand up for a cause that they know will have such serious consequences? Are the individuals unique? Do they have some quality beyond the will to stand up for what they believe until change has come?

Maybe fear of consequence feeds into our inaction today — because to stand up means to sacrifice comfort and sometimes safety. Maybe the right issue has not come along yet that we are willing to give our all for. Because there is nothing separating us from those Buddhist monks in the Saffron Revolution except finding the will and motivation to see our goals and beliefs through.

In fact, as I look at movements in our history, we often see leaders that were either the less obvious, seemingly less qualified, or even less willing to be that catalyst for change.

For instance, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a central figure in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. when he was a young, little known preacher in the SCLC. He was not as prominent in Montgomery as other preachers like Fred Shuttlesworth, nor was he as active in the movement. He did not ask or submit his name to lead the boycott, but he was selected because of his relative anonymity in Montgomery, because it was assumed he was less known by the whites there and would be less prone to backlash.

Rosa Parks was not the first African-American to be asked to give up her seat and refuse. Before it happened to her, it happened to Mary Louise Smith. The Negro establishment however chose Rosa Park's refusal and arrest as the better catalyzing moment.

Growing up, I remember stories in the Bible rely heavily on teachings where the leader of a people is not the one with the most obvious leadership resume — leaders like Moses, King David, and Noah. A recurring theme in leadership is that it doesn't take the flashiest, smartest, most powerful or strongest person to motivate entire populaces, but simply the motivation and faith that you can accomplish what you set out to do.

What this tells me is that leadership and action are not reserved for a "certain" type of person. We do not refrain from action because we are naturally incapable, but because we convince ourselves it is insurmountable.

Despite grand goals and huge obstacles, the leaders above and those who were inspired to follow believed they had the power to bring about change. They were not superhuman. They had no genetic mutation for altering their capacity to suffer or their capacity to act. They instead tapped in to passion, inspiration, determination, and perseverance.

So if you see a cause or problem in the world today and you are still on the sideline, remember these accidental leaders of social movements. They didn't have any special advantage or skill in pursuing change. They all just believed fervently in their capacity to create it.


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