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Leslie Crutchfield: “Break from Business as Usual”

Be ‘Leaderfull’. From the start, Black Lives Matter was committed to being a “leaderfull” movement — leading from the grassroots up and allowing people with lived experience of racism and police brutality to speak out and stand at the front of protest marches. This was a smart decision. I know from my research that the most […]

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Be ‘Leaderfull’. From the start, Black Lives Matter was committed to being a “leaderfull” movement — leading from the grassroots up and allowing people with lived experience of racism and police brutality to speak out and stand at the front of protest marches. This was a smart decision. I know from my research that the most successful modern social movements embrace this leadership approach, understanding that it is both effective and protective. Without a sole charismatic leader, the movement is less vulnerable to attack, such as the tragic assassinations of civil rights leaders in the 1960s, most notably the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The challenge, now that the movement for Black lives has the attention and the empathy of a majority of Americans will be to turn widespread social support into political will.


Aspart of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Leslie Crutchfield. Leslie is the Executive Director of Business for Impact at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. She also teaches courses there that focus on Nonprofit Leadership and Corporate Social Responsibility. Leslie came to Georgetown in 2015 to write her third book on social change, How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t, which explores social movements of the 21st century such as tobacco control, same-sex marriage equality, gun rights expansion, and more.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Iwas raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but my parents are from small towns in North Carolina so my family has distinctly southern roots. My father is an engineer and entrepreneur. He worked in the chemical and textiles industries and later spun out his own company. My mother is a homemaker and raised me and my two siblings while volunteering with the Junior League, our church and other community groups. As an educator and social entrepreneur who’s founded social enterprises and led nonprofits for my entire career, I believe my twin passions for business innovation and social impact are a marriage of my father’s entrepreneurial nature and my mother’s community service.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Jim Collin’s Good to Great has the most lasting impact personally and professionally. I was inspired by the way Collins compared pairs of companies competing in the same industry and discovered why one business wildly succeeded while the other did not. I used Collins’ books to train nonprofit leaders on how to create, manage and grow high-impact enterprises at Ashoka, the global venture fund for social entrepreneurs. It struck me that business management books were helpful, but the social sector needed its own studies of greatness. The goal business is to make a profit, whereas mission-driven nonprofits exist to make an impact. So I reached out to Jim Collins, and he generously helped adapt his research methodologies to social sector organizations for my first book, Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits with co-author Heather McLeod Grant. This put me on my current career path of researching, writing and teaching about social innovation and impact. I now lead Georgetown University’s Business for Impact at the McDonough School of Business, where I landed and wrote How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Other’s Don’t.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” I love this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s helped me when I’ve grappled with life-changing choices. I sometimes get stuck in limbo trying to decide between various options, weighing all sides when there is no single “right” solution. I’ve found that it’s better to make a good choice relatively quickly, rather than agonize over a perfect decision too late.

For instance, about five years ago I was weighing whether to take leave from FSG, the global social impact strategy consulting firm, to write How Change Happens. At the time, my kids were ages 3, 8 and 10, and my husband and I needed both our incomes. I really wanted to write the book, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to raise enough grant funding to support my research time, and I was also unsure about writing solo (my previous books had coauthors). So I waffled. Finally, I decided to take the leap, and concentrated on finding research support and thought partners. Then everything fell into place. I found a research fellowship at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business through Business for Impact, and friends and colleagues in philanthropy who had supported my previous research efforts stepped up again and helped find new sponsors, too. The universe conspired to make it happen. But first, I had to decide.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Different challenges call for different styles of leadership, but all great leaders share one common trait. Whether they head a business, nonprofit, or a social movement, the most successful leaders are “leaderfull.” They give power away, rather than hoard it. They realize that influence is gained when those around them — employees, members, volunteers, allies — are empowered to lead with autonomy and take responsibility for results. They lead from the bottom up.

Think of social movement leadership on a spectrum. To the far left end of the spectrum are “leaderless” movements — no single person is in charge and the chaotic collective appears to move of its own accord. And on the opposite end of the spectrum are “leader-led” movements — hierchical, top-down, with a CEO calling the shots from above. “Leaderfull” movements fall between these two extremes. They are led from the grassroots up, with local members taking action and calling shots within states, while networks of nationally-focused leaders help orchestrate and guide the movement to achieve collective goals.

The most effective movement leaders share power, authority and limelight. This is very hard to do — it involves letting go of ego, and putting cause and mission ahead of personal or organizational power. It’s a key reason many movements fail — they implode from internal power struggles as often as they succumb to powerful opposition.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

The key word here is preparation. Before any big meeting or presentation, my team starts preparing weeks in advance. We schedule planning meetings and at least two practice sessions to tweak agendas, slides and align around goals. That way we’re not editing our presentation at the 11th hour and forgetting important items or making unforced errors. Then the morning of the event, I visualize the entire presentation in my mind, and plan out the opening lines and last lines word for word. Then the rest flows.

When trying to make big decisions, I like to consult with a wide variety of colleagues and personal advisors, and sketch out scenarios with decision trees. But what I ultimately find most helpful is to step away and meditate on the problem, usually while walking in the woods or while driving. I allow my mind to wander and this affords the chance to look at the problem in new ways, and often inspiration strikes. I find that almost no problem is impossible to resolve if you give it some time and space to breathe. It’s like cooking a stew. It only comes together with time.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

The racial reckoning we are experiencing in the United States and globally did not happen by chance. While George Floyd’s death in police custody and the ensuing demonstrations sparked by Black Lives Matter led to this tipping point, it was not simply one single act of police violence that made this moment so pivotal.

The Black Lives Matter movement launched in 2013 in protest of the acquittal of George Zimmerman who killed Trayvon Martin. Behind the scenes, Black Lives Matter advocates have since been working at local and state levels to protest and reform policies that govern how police are trained and communities of color are policed, working through at least 40 chapters across the United States. Meanwhile established civil rights organizations including NAACP, ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and dozens more have continued to litigate, agitate and advocate for disenfranchised communities, joining with newer criminal justice system reform groups.

Admittedly some aspects of this moment are different. The COVID-19 pandemic has put millions in America out of a job and millions more are working from home, so many have time to process and respond in real time to George Floyd’s death. But it’s the combined effect of all of the other videos documenting racial violence — coupled with countless other unrecorded incidents — that built to this moment of reckoning.

Which snowflake breaks the branch? Not just the last one, but all of them combined.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

In this moment of racial reckoning one of the first things my team at Business for Impact did was to try to deepen our understanding of the problem by sharing with each other our individual lived experiences with race and racism. Our group of 20 staff and consultants is racially and ethnically diverse, with African Americans, Caucasians, Vietnamese, Korean American, Persian members, and more. Some of us came to the United States as immigrants, the rest of us were born here.

We created time and a space away from the busyness of daily work to talk on ZOOM and share our stories. We learned that members of our team have had extremely varied experiences, including being victims of racial hate, ostracized for “stealing” jobs, teased for ethnic facial features, beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action policies, witnesses to racism in our extended families, being falsely accused of racism, and much more. Our discussion was at times painful, and sometimes shameful. Ultimately, it was transcendent. By filtering our divergent life experiences through the lens of race, it cemented our sense of common humanity. It also quickened our resolve to find ways to fight racism and advance racial justice, both individually and together as colleagues.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Executive team diversity is important because it’s the right thing to do, and also because it’s also the smart thing to do. Equity and fairness in any organization starts at the top, and cascades down. Whether the organization is a FORTUNE 500 company, a nonprofit or a government agency, it serves multiple stakeholders — customers, clients, members or beneficiaries; shareholders, investors, donors; employees, contractors, suppliers, and volunteers; as well as the communities where offices and other facilities operate. Responsible organizations attempt to balance the needs of all of these diverse constituencies, which are almost always diverse racial and ethnically. Representation at the highest levels allows for those voices to be represented when policies are set and strategic decisions are made.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

Step 1. Change hearts as well as policies.

Racism is a social norm, a cultural attitude, a personal opinion. It cannot be legislated or regulated. But it can be changed.

The fight for same-sex marriage equality offers a powerful example. In that movement, reformers deliberately set out to first understand where most people in America stood on LGBTQ marriage. National polls in the 2000s showed that while a handful of respondents were adamantly opposed to gay marriage, whether for ideological, religious or other reasons, the vast majority did not have a strong opinion. They weren’t for it or against it. Many said they didn’t understand why gay people wanted to marry. So, the Freedom to Marry campaign and its allies set out to convince this silent, if confused, majority of “persuadable” people to support their cause through widespread social media campaigns and targeted efforts to change the attitudes of influential individuals. Dismantling deeply-rooted social and cultural norms is more challenging than changing laws or regulations. But it is possible.

Step 2. Have a National strategy AND a federal strategy.

The most successful movements of the 21st Century focused on state and local policy reform, and only later attempted more sweeping federal changes. This worked for anti-smoking crusaders, gun rights proponents, and gay marriage advocates alike over the past two decades, even though these different causes appealed to opposing political parties. Advocates and allies for Black lives should focus their firepower on state and local policy reform now, while they have the nation’s attention — and empathy — they can generate the momentum needed to achieve nationwide changes in the future. But if, instead, the movement pushes for sweeping federal changes too soon, they could squander this historic opportunity.

Step 3. Data doesn’t matter, emotions do.

People respond to events with their reptile brains, it’s primal and subconscious. But even the most well-intentioned advocates rely too often on statistics, and try to use data and numbers to argue for their cause. For instance, people in America knew as early as 1964 that smoking was dangerous to your health — that’s when the US Surgeon General first warned about cigarettes, but it took more than several decades of non-smoker’s rights and tobacco control advocacy and innovative Truth social norm change campaigns to prevent youth smoking and cut adult smoking rates to their current historic lows. It wasn’t because the data wasn’t available or known. It was the way advocates and people with lived experience of smoking-related diseases shared their stories that change happens.

In this moment of racial reckoning, the more leaders can create places for people to share their personal stories with race and racism, the more understanding and empathy will grow. CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations, churches and more can promote the sharing of stories to build affinity for causes.

Step 4. Break from Business as Usual.

Business can be a vector for change, not just a donor to causes or a target of activist ire. And whether by choice or by default, companies today are becoming more involved with social movements, with seemingly every corporate CEO now speaking out against racism. Companies can play roles in social movements that are much more complex and far-reaching than self-promotional advertisements or corporate statements promising racial solidarity. Corporate leaders who want to demonstrate support with Black Lives Matter can start by reforming internal policies around hiring, retention, promotion, and pay equity, and also reviewing their supply chain through a lens of diversity and inclusion, among other ways to take meaningful action against racism.

Step 5. Be ‘Leaderfull’.

From the start, Black Lives Matter was committed to being a “leaderfull” movement — leading from the grassroots up and allowing people with lived experience of racism and police brutality to speak out and stand at the front of protest marches. This was a smart decision. I know from my research that the most successful modern social movements embrace this leadership approach, understanding that it is both effective and protective. Without a sole charismatic leader, the movement is less vulnerable to attack, such as the tragic assassinations of civil rights leaders in the 1960s, most notably the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The challenge, now that the movement for Black lives has the attention and the empathy of a majority of Americans will be to turn widespread social support into political will.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Yes, I am optimistic because I know that change is possible. Consider that in the 21st Century, some incredibly divergent changes have happened. The movement for same-sex marriage equality has made LGBTQ marriage the law of the land. Smoking rates are down to 15 percent nationally for adults and under 6 percent for young people, whereas just a generation ago they were much higher. And just like cigarettes used to be, now guns are everywhere — openly carried in all but a few U.S. states, freely stockpiled, and purchased without a background check if there is more than a three day delay. Depending on which side of political, religious and cultural aisles one stands, these changes are either abhorrent, welcomed, or both. But one thing is undeniable: These changes did not happen by chance. They are the result of deliberate actions tightly organized social movement leaders who set out to reduce the number of people in Americans that smoke, who they marry, and how buy and use guns, and more.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. First, because he seems like a fascinating, funny, and unusually candid leader who’s had some incredible lived experiences prior to his ascent to the helm of one of the world’s largest philanthropies. And second, because Ford Foundation has historically been one of the key institutional supporter of civil rights causes, and now has the potential to either propel the movement for Black lives and racial justice forward — or not.

In his June 2020, Walker announced an unprecedented plan for Ford to go above the 5 percent payout policy (private foundations are required to give away at least 5 percent off their endowment annually, although that regulation is meant to be a floor, not a ceiling) and Ford will give away an additional 1 billion dollars for COVID-19 relief and social justice support. I would be curious to hear how Walker and the Ford Foundation board intend to spend that additional billion. And I would want to share with him how other institutional foundations played pivotal roles in supporting successful movements, not by spreading it around to every cause but instead by strategically and intentionally investing in advocacy and social norm change campaigns. Most notably, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) put three-quarters of a billion dollars into tobacco control in the 1990s, The biggest chunk — 250 million dollars — went to the Smokeless States coalition, and another chunk established The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids as a national advocacy group that helped coordinate the movement through a big tent coalition that included major health charities and other allied advocacy groups. I’d want to share lessons from what I’ve learned in studying other modern successful movements, and talk with Walker about those approaches might be leveraged to advance racial justice in America.

How can our readers follow you online?

HowChangeHappens.com

Business for Impact

Email: [email protected]

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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