How to Develop Leadership in 2 Simple Steps (Part 2)

Step 2: Take action.

Shel Trapp, my organizing mentor, used to say, “Talking doesn’t cook the rice.” Once you’ve had the conversation about hopes, dreams, and vision, it’s essential to put it into action. Otherwise, organizers are no different from politicians who make pretty promises of a better tomorrow which they never deliver. Action is the lifeblood of an organization.

The action that supports leadership development can be divided into two categories: actions to follow-up on decisions made (such as connecting newer members with mentors, providing training opportunities, etc.) and collective direct action that confronts powerful decision -makers face-to-face. Since the first is pretty straight forward, let’s focus how to move into direct action. There can be a tendency to get analysis paralysis—a never-ending desire for just a little more information or clarity before taking action. This often has its roots in fear of action. Sometimes that fear comes from members, and sometimes that fear comes from the organizer not wanting to make a mistake. Organizers need to create a safe space in which members can voice those fears and decide collectively what they want to do about them. Frontline communities face very real threats and taking action is not without consequences. The purpose of talking about it is not to dismiss those fears but rather to integrate thoughtful responses to them into the action strategy.

There’s a simple question for combating analysis paralysis: “What will we do if…?” As a group, we can make a list of our concerns and then brainstorm answers to this question for each one:

What will we do if…

  • the police come?
  • neighbors get angry with us?
  • nobody’s home when visit?
  • they say “yes” to our demands but then don’t follow through?
  • they refuse to open the door?
  • they refuse to engage with us and just shout?
  • they make threats?

After brainstorming possible responses, we role-play though the direct action a bunch of times, practicing the different scenarios. I believe that storytelling is the most powerful tool in an organizer’s toolbox, but it is closely followed by the role-play. Role-playing difficult scenarios builds confidence in ourselves and each other, clarifies the action plan thus reducing fear of the unknown, develops the quick-thinking reflex, helps us to be nimble, and builds community as we learn together. We can never foresee every possibility but we can imagine a lot of them, and the more we are prepared for, the more mental energy we’ll have to make decisions around an unexpected development.

These two steps are a continuous cycle: talk-vision-scheme-plan, take action, evaluate and decide next steps, carry them out. Repeat.

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