Guest post from Nathaniel Houghton, the President & Founder of the Congo Leadership Initiative. CLI develops the next generation of leaders to be catalysts for peace and prosperity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Something interesting happened to me last month: I felt like giving up. This is interesting because over the last five years, it has almost never happened. So in it’s interestingness, this feeling was also alarming. I paid attention.
More details: this feeling occurred on a Monday (which… of course), CLI was wrapping up a disappointing quarter, I was personally broke, I felt like I had little support, and all of the funding that looked like it was going to come in by July still hadn’t found its way into our bank account. Being a “risk taker” and “having the courage” to start an organization and “going it alone” to “change the world” all sounds good, but if it was easy, everyone would do it.
Part of what was interesting to me is that I did not feel scared. Instead, I felt weak. Every time I attempted to take on a task, a voice in my head reminded me that I might be arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Nobody likes doing that, but especially not social entrepreneurs; we want to be moving icebergs out of the way. In short, I was disempowered.
This was a big problem, but it all seemed like an issue of my personal motivation. I assumed that it was something that I needed to deal with so that I could get back to my job. And as a part of that job, I had been doing quite a bit of thinking about scale. Scale is quickly becoming, or is already, social change’s bugaboo. I think we’re starting to realize that the ideas aren’t all that hard to come by and that you don’t need a law degree to establish a company or organization. Pulling off a successful pilot program isn’t exactly easy, but it’s not all that difficult either. Growing an organization, and doing it well, is the real challenge. But why is scale so hard?
Like most big problems, there are a lot of reasons: lack of capital, lack of training, lack of a market… the list goes on. But ultimately, scale is hard because of aggregated disempowerment. As an individual or team, realizing that you’ve worked harder than you ever have in your entire life and still lacking capital, training, or a market is sort of like being in the middle of a marathon and suddenly losing your legs. Empowerment is the fuel that drives scale, and I was experiencing at a personal level what was challenging CLI organizationally.
Ultimately, overcoming the challenge of scale will require significant grit. However, I think we can all do a better job of understanding the importance of empowerment as we attempt to scale. I’m feeling better about myself and about CLI, but to move the needle and make progress against the challenges of developing our world, we’ll need to train all social entrepreneurs to believe in themselves - even when things get really hard. Regardless of title or position, that’s something we can all contribute to.