How To Become A Leader
Take sane cogent risk.
I’ve had people treat me as a leader on the issue of my documentary, American Circumcision, despite having never directly sought the role. I have no official organization or title. I just do the work with the skills I have in the areas I where think I can contribute.
There are others who want a leadership role but haven’t achieved one despite directly seeking it. Some have even tried to tear me down out of jealousy. It didn’t make sense to me why people treated me as a leader when I never sought the role, while others who clearly wanted it were unsuccessful until a mentor told me:
“The leadership of any movement defaults to those who take the most sane cogent risk.”
This single phrase shows the entire method by which someone can become a leader in any movement. The phrase is true across movements and will apply no matter what issue you are working on. If you want to become a leader, this is the way. Take sane cogent risk.
No amount of infighting or jealousy will make someone a leader. Only taking sane cogent risks will. To become a leader, all three aspects of “sane,” “cogent,” and “risk” must be present.
Let’s break each down:
If you want to leader, you must risk something.
I’m starting with risk because this is what is most often absent from would-be leaders. Everyone wants to benefits of leadership. No one wants the risks.
If you are a leader, people will attack you. They will write hit pieces on you. They will say things that are not true. The other side will be mean. They might come after you. This isn’t even a risk. Opposition is a given. Only get involved in activism if you are prepared for conflict.
Even if there is no opposition, there is a possibility that any action you take might not succeed. Starting a business, making a film, writing a book, filing a lawsuit, building an organization, holding a protest, speaking publicly, or any activity associated with social change involves an element of risk.
If you are a leader, people expect you to take risks. No one wants to follow someone who doesn’t have “skin in the game.” Even if you discover a strategy that is totally risk-free, other activists take a risk by following you. They won’t risk following you unless you lead them by risking first.
That includes risking your reputation. Writing under a screen name or working behind the scenes reduces your risk. For many people, this is the right choice. However, the leadership of a movement must be public and willing to risk their names on an issue if they want others to do the same.
Excuses like “I don’t want to get involved,” “I might lose my job” or “people might attack me” might be entirely reasonable for someone given their situation. They just aren’t the words of a leader. If you want to lead, you must take risks.
If you want to be a leader, ask what you are willing to risk for that role. Your time? Your money? Your reputation? These risks can take many forms. They must be sane and cogent. But there must be some element of risk.
Actions taken must be sane.
“Sane” is defined by the standards of the movement. While the other side might look “insane” to you, the leaders are selected by those within their movement, not their opposition or outsiders. No movement builds success without some sane leadership.
By definition, any risk has a chance of failure, but it also has a chance of success. Sane ventures are those that have a possibility of working. Those leading them are aware of what their project will require and have a realistic plan to bring it to fruition. Their projects are closer to a business plan than a lottery ticket.
All of the normal actions activists engage in can be “sane” or “insane” depending on the planning, expectations, and aims of their project. For example, holding an event at a baby fair with the aim of educating local parents is a sane reasonable goal. Standing alone by yourself with a sign and yelling at people with the aim of changing the entire United States legal system is not a sane expectation.
Much of what separates “sane” and “insane” actions is how realistic the plan behind those actions is. Changing the entire country could be a reasonable goal if the resources backing that action are large enough. Changing your local neighborhood could be an unreasonable goal if you haven’t met your neighbors.
The sanity of a goal depends on the person making it. Filing a lawsuit will be a more sane goal for someone who has a lawyer or the resources to hire good lawyers than someone with no legal experience representing themselves. While anyone can pursue any goal, a sane leader will be aware of their likelihood of success and plan accordingly.
The leaders of a movement that are considered “controversial” are those doing something that looks a little crazy. Not a lot crazy. Just enough that there is debate over whether or not their actions will work. If some see them as “crazy” and others see a method to their madness, they will be described as “controversial.”
“Controversial” leaders can be seen as more sane by demonstrating that their actions have a realistic chance of success. The best way to do this is to actually succeed.
For most movements, breaking the law disqualifies someone from leadership. While there is a massive risk in breaking the law, it is not sane or cogent. Harming others is insane. If you want to lead, always obey the law.
Make your work compelling.
Cogent means compelling, persuasive, effective, logical, etc. When writing this article, I almost switched this word to “effective,” but the aspects of this definition that include “persuasive” or “compelling” are important. Leaders must not just accomplish, but ensure their accomplishments are understood.
Cogent ideas are those that make sense to others. For someone to be a leader in a movement, their work must be recognized as important by that movement. Even if someone is doing important work, they will not be recognized as a leader until the movement understands the value of their work.
Good activism can be boring and tedious. One of the most effective activists I met spent dozens of hours each week pouring over case law and filing legal complaints. He was virtually unknown in his movement, outside the leadership. His work was important, but not compelling, so he never achieved a leadership role. (Thankfully, some in leadership positions recognized his value and supported him.)
Note that what makes a project cogent is different than the importance of the issue. Cogent has to do with the logic of the project. While an issue might be very important, to be cogent, your work must address that issue in a well-thought-out and effective way.
It is possible a project has a strong logic behind it that isn’t recognized by others. Many activists don’t know how to communicate the value of their work, just like artists who don’t know how to sell their art, and many founders who don’t know how to market their own product. If you’re in this category, you must find an ally who can champion your work or learn to sell it yourself.
That said, it requires an immense amount of humility and self-awareness for leaders to see when their actions are not cogent. Bad decisions are often made due to sentimentality, ego, or trauma. Being able to step back and look at a plan objectively is an important leadership skill that will help others trust your decisions.
Leadership will always involve an element of persuasion. By definition, a leader is someone who can persuade others to follow them. What you do must not only be effective, realistic, and assume some risk, but compelling enough that others want to join you.
The word “defaults” is important in this phrase “The leadership of any movement defaults to those who take the most sane cogent risk.”
We are not talking about leaders chosen for a specific purpose. Someone might become a leader in a movement because they become the head of an organization or are chosen to run a specific project. In these cases, leadership doesn’t “default” to them, but is explicitly given due to a role or job title.
Often those running a movement are not those that the base follows. If someone is given an important job title but risks nothing, behaves insanely, or doesn’t produce compelling work, they won’t be the person a movement turns to for leadership. If someone has no title but takes sane cogent risks that pay off, they will be seen as a leader regardless.
Movements will feel an absence of leadership when those in positions of power in a movement cease to take sane cogent risks. Movements will feel leaderful when there are many people taking sane cogent risks, even if those people do not have explicit titles or organizations.
You can treat the phrase “sane cogent risk” as a checklist for leadership. If someone wants to lead but is not recognized as a leader, they are likely deficient in one of these categories. All three are required. If you can identify which requires more focus and change it, the changes of leadership increase.
Some questions to ask include:
What am I risking?
Is that risk personal or professional
What am I willing to risk?
Is this a sane risk?
What are the chances this risk pays off?
What is the logic behind that risk?
How would this plan actually address the issue?
How can I communicate that logic to others?
I share this because I want more leaders. Anyone doing the work knows that is a challenge. The more of us doing it, the easier it gets. We want more leaders. If you want to be lead, take sane cogent risk.