How to Structure and Build Capacity for Action


Throughout a storied career of studying and practicing in the field of organizing, Marshall Ganz has developed one of the most renowned approaches to leadership and organizing.  In the third session of Resistance School, he explores how individuals can discover their ability to lead within teams.  Marshall then reviews types of leadership and organizing structures, painting a picture for a successful team dynamic.  Finally, the session ends with a comprehensive set of instructions for how individuals across the world can launch their own teams.

Leadership is the Interaction Between the Self, the Other, and Action.

The theory of leadership is best encapsulated by three questions posed by first century scholar, Rabbi Hillel.  First, ‘if I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ describes the self required in leadership.  Anyone hoping to lead must understand what they bring and the principles they hold dear, so that they can interpret oneself and one’s value to others in a group setting.  Secondly, ‘if I am for myself alone, what am I?’ describes the other.  We live in a world of relationships; our capacity to realize our own values and objectives is inextricably tied to the capacity of others to realize theirs.  Leadership is not just about the what, it is also about the who.  Finally, ‘if not now, when?’ describes action.  Very rarely can individuals truly understand how to perform something well until they actually begin doing it.  In other words, understanding tends to follow action, not precede it.  This often requires the courage to venture into the unknown and avoid the snare of over-preparation.

Leadership is About Questions, not Answers.

Many believe that a leader is the individual who already has all of the answers.  However, if everything in life was predictable, we would not require leadership.  In fact, leadership is often required in times of great ambiguity and change when no one has any answers.  It is in these circumstances that the creative skills of leadership are needed – the skills of asking the right questions and teaching others to do the same.  The domain of leadership lies not in one of certainty, but in one of uncertainty.

Leadership Requires the Use of the Head, the Hand, and the Heart.

Becoming an effective leader is a multifaceted challenge.  First of all, it challenges the hands, forcing individuals to ask if they have the necessary skills to deal with unforeseen circumstances and issues.  Next, it is a challenge to the head, as new problems require leaders to use existing resources in strategic and creative ways to deal with uncertainties.  Finally, it is a challenge of the heart, as leading others is ultimately about inspiration; can you help others find the courage, the hope to work together towards a common goal?

Leadership is Enabling Others to Achieve a Shared Purpose.

Leadership is not about not about being a diva – a star that shines so brightly that others benefit simply from getting close – it is about creating relationships among people that you enable them to discover (and ultimately achieve) a shared purpose.  After all, leadership is not a position: it is not a title or formal position.  We all know of people in positions of authority who exercise poor leadership and others who hold no position of authority but exercise leadership all the time – from a kitchen table, a work place, or a neighborhood store.  We should begin to think of leadership as a practice; it is a way of doing things based upon motivation that must be constantly exercised in order to be achieved.

Organizing is Another Form of Leadership.

Organizing is a particular form of leadership, concerned with asking questions that enables others to understand who to engage, the challenges those communities face, and the steps that must be taken in order turn their resources into powerful change.  However, organizing is not about providing a service to faithful clients.  It is about engaging communities and bringing them together as a constituency, enabling them to learn and grow.  It is only through a united constituency that people can stand together, define their goals, and find their voice to enact change.

Organizing is a Tradition Rooted in Different Histories.

Community organizing has a long tradition rooted in the histories of many peoples and cultures.  Organizing can be seen wherever people have tried to claim their humanity, challenged injustice, and joined together – from the story of the Exodus of the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt, to the Greeks and their transformation from king-based to self-governance, to the Irish resistance to British rule.  Whether it is in faith-based, civic, or popular traditions, community organizing is about repurposing stories from previous generations in order to discover meaning and create movements.  There is no better example of this than the Civil Rights Movement, where the black community in Alabama defined a narrative and enabled existing resources in order to create shared power.  Ultimately, the leadership training that this newfound sense of shared power required, is what today we think of as organizing.

Organizing Requires Stories of Self.

Shared storytelling is foundational to organizing.  We must develop the capacity to share with others the values that inspire us to undertake the work we are engaged in.  The most effective way to do this is through personal stories that draw others into specific moments of your past – moments where you experienced a challenge, a choice, and the consequences of that choice.  After all, groups come together around a shared recognition of ideals – ideals such as hope, courage, and connection that narratives have the capacity to access. 

Organizing Involves Five Leadership Practices.

A precondition to leading a team is acting in a structured and organized manner, thereby making a group’s source of power as effective as possible.  On the other hand, a disorganized team becomes divided and apathetic, causing members to react passively as opposed to taking initiative, thereby allowing power to crumble into inaction.  We need to move from disorganization to organization, “so that instead of apathy, there’s motivation. Instead of division, there’s a capacity to debate and act together. Instead of drift, there’s a purpose. Instead of reactiveness, there’s an initiative. And instead of inertia of inaction there is actually effective action toward change.”

The difference between an organized and disorganized form of leadership is reflected by five key practices.  First, leadership involves telling stories to access sources of hope and courage based on shared values.  Second, it involves building relationships with intentionality in order to build collective capacity within a community. Third, leaders develop a structure within the team that enables shared decision making. Fourth, leadership involves devising strategy to move toward shared purpose.  Finally, leaders enable teams to take measurable action instead of acting from reaction.

The Four Models of Leadership Structure.

The four possible models of leadership offer insight into common pitfalls and potential solutions that teams regularly encounter. In the ‘dot’ model, a hard-working, centrally located leader singlehandedly guides all of the team members – who have taken on ‘helper’ roles rather than leadership roles.  In the ‘dot’ model, the leader tends to become quickly overwhelmed given the amount and intensity of work, while the rest of the team members remain disempowered.

A second model of leadership, a ‘dysfunctional’ model, often emerges as a counter reaction to the centralized power structure of the ‘dot’ model.  In the ‘dysfunctional’ model, a team resists formal structure and roles, hoping to avoid the consolidation of power into a single individual.  However, this often leads to disorganization and discouragement.  A third leadership model, termed the ‘island model,’ occurs when those within a leadership team interact with one another, yet are not connected to constituencies outside of the team, causing their decisions to be made in isolation.

Finally, the fourth leadership model, called the ‘snowflake’ or ‘collaborative’ leadership model, involves accountable individuals who are simultaneously building and leading their own teams.  As opposed to the ‘dot’ model, where the entire team is dependent on a singular center, the ‘snowflake’ model replaces a single center for several independent – yet interconnected – teams.  The ‘snowflake’ model allows movement to grow, disperses leadership amongst several individuals, and enables additional leadership development throughout the entire organization.

Organizing can Build an Effective Team.

When a team is effective, it has the potential to accomplish three distinct goals:  achieve the outcome that the team wants to bring about, build capacity within the group to ensure that the movement continues into the future, and help individuals learn, grow, and develop.  In order for a team to become effective and realize these goals it must meet three conditions.  First of all, the team must be bounded.  Individuals that belong to bounded teams distinctly know who is on the team and which members are responsible for making specific decisions.  Secondly, the team must be stable.  Stable teams meet regularly, respect everyone’s time, and inculcate a culture in which each member is fully committed to the team and to each other.  Finally, a team must be interdependent in order to be effective.  Interdependent teams are constructed in a way that makes each team member critical to the overall success of the group – individuals must rely on each other in order to succeed.  As a result, the team’s capacities, skills, orientations, and perspectives are all interdependent.

Tip:  Research suggests that the optimal number of people on a leadership team is 5-7. When more than 5-7 become involved it becomes difficult to make decisions. With less than 5-7, you may miss out on the diverse and creative benefits that larger groups offer. 

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Set a Clear Shared Purpose.

The first step in launching your leadership team involves defining a clear, challenging, and consequential purpose.  A shared purpose involves a “what,” “who,” and “how.”  The “what” is your goals and the change you are seeking to enact.  The “who” is the constituency that you are targeting.  The “how” is the actions or projects that your leadership team will participate in to realize your shared purpose.  Setting a clear shared purpose allows every team member to find their voice and lends individuals ownership of the process.  In order for every team member to be able to articulate your clear shared purpose, they needed to have engaged meaningfully in its conception.

Set Core Norms. 

Norms are a crucial component of any team, allowing members to forge a compact with each other.  These ground rules set clear expectations for self-governance and how the team will work together.  How will meetings be managed?  How will decisions, regular communications, and commitments be dealt with?  Time management is a key aspect of norm setting.  If a team member is late or misses a meeting, what will occur?

Tip:  Norms are only meaningful if there is a mechanism through which corrective action can be taken.  If a violation occurs, it should be addressed, recognized, and dealt with accordingly.  This is NOT akin to punishment.  Rather, it is an enforcement of accountability and a mechanism to ensure mutual respect amongst the team.

Set Defined Roles.

The next step in launching your leadership team is to set clear roles among each team members in a way that recognizes both the interdependence of task design and your specific team’s diversity of skills.  Role setting involves looking at the team’s desired outcomes, ensuring that all of the goals of the organization are being met.  However, roles cannot be assigned by a single leader; rather, members need to have ownership over each role and to self-identify specific roles/areas where they can emerge as leaders. 

Tip:  Well-balanced teams contain a diversity of identities, experiences, and opinions, ensuring that a multi-faceted approach is brought to the organization and that every role is filled with the best possible individual.

Develop a Team Identity.

The final step in launching your leadership team involves crafting a shared team identity.  Team identities can take on many different forms; however, it is recommended that you create a distinct team name and chant.  A team name attaches a sense of pride and creates buy-in from team members while a team chant harnesses an emotional component of fun, excitement, and celebration.

Tip:  Never underestimate the power of “heart” when forming your team.  Leaders often focus on the “head” and “hands” when launching a leadership team; however, emotional buy-in and support is often just as crucial.