Creating Leaders for Social Change

An interview with Paul Shoemaker on creating change committed to unity.

Posted Feb 01, 2021

Right now our country is facing much disunity, on top of all the hardships created by the pandemic. How can we create positive change that lasts? In this interview, Paul Shoemaker shares insights from his book, Taking Charge of Change, demonstrating from an individual, team, and organizational level how to effect true social change.

Paul Shoemaker, used with permission
Source: Paul Shoemaker, used with permission

Paul Shoemaker is the Founding President of Social Venture Partners International—a global network of thousands of social innovators, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and business and community leaders who support social change agents in over 40 cities and 8 countries. With insights from over 17 years of this unique vantage point, as well as a decade prior at Microsoft and Nestlé and 5 years as a cross-sector consultant, he is a global thought leader and consultant on activating social change agents and increasing impact.  

Jamie Aten: Why did you set out to write your book?

Paul Shoemaker: I started by researching effective social change to identify what enabled certain organizations or initiatives to achieve great success on social issues while others floundered. I’d been inspired by Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great, so I began by applying a similar model of research and questioning, only in my case centered on civic issues and social change. I studied leading organizations, did loads of qualitative interviews, compiled spreadsheets, and too many Venn diagrams.

I began noticing that the stellar cases were led by people who approached leadership very intentionally. And they happen to possess some strikingly similar traits. Five key traits. And even though I looked for some other “secret sauce”—like a specific organizational structure or a certain solution being applied—I kept coming back to the realization that the most important factor was this emerging type of leadership that is uniquely poised to meet the challenges we’re facing in America today. The decade ahead poses radically different challenges than even a generation ago, including near-critical levels of inequity, silos, division, and resource scarcity.  

I didn’t set out to write a leadership book. This wasn’t what I planned to write—it was the book in the end I had to write. 

JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?

PS: I hope they do a few things. As an individual, I hope that they’ll look at the 5 Traits of Rebuilders and say, “Well, I’m good at A and B, but I’ve got to build this muscle for C.” We’re putting some free resources and links on my website, for each of the 5 Traits and I’ll also personally make available podcast episodes, seminars, and online content that helps a person dive deeper on each trait. In short, I hope readers will take advantage of a menu of mediums, content, and services on each of these 5 leadership muscles they can strengthen. So I hope this book introduces a purposefulness about how change agents approach leadership.

In terms of teams, I’d love it if team leaders and groups asked themselves, which of these qualities and skill sets are we strong in—versus which are we missing or do we need to build together? How do we help each other see what we’re powerful at—or be a role model for a certain trait? And how do we enable and accelerate each other’s development as leaders?

And I hope that organizations and companies are intentionally thinking about what kind of leaders and traits exist up and down their organization. Asking, how are we making sure powerful leadership that is attuned to the needs of the 2020s is distributed, vertically and horizontally, across our org chart? Not just bolted on or in some separate department.

JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently?

PS: The target audience is socially-conscious and civically-active leaders that are 1) already starting to redefine the leader they need to be for an unequal, siloed America, and 2) hungry for inspiration, stories, and direction. So it's not for everyone, but I don't want people to use a narrow definition of leadership. One of the keys to our future is different kinds of leaders that show up in different ways, not just CxO's at the top of a Fortune 500 company. 

Another lesson is having a "generosity mindset." When we are less connected and more siloed and isolated, and our ability to come together is harder today than it perhaps ever has been, the openness and expansiveness of a generosity mindset become vital. Whatever the social, economic or health disparities at hand, it is going to require a range of people and perspectives and philosophies. The ability to be the leader that creates a commitment to unity and looks for what you can commonly share while respecting each other’s differences, is pivotal. The mindset to leave room for multiple identities at just about all costs is paramount.

JA: Anything else you would like to share?

PS: America is at a looming inflection point. COVID has brought us even more abruptly to a massive-reset moment, for America and for leadership. Like all change, our times are not only cause for uncertainty, but present opportunities for new leaders to step forward. Leaders need to be ready for this century, not the year 2000 version, but for the 2020s and beyond. The previous 20 years might as well have been equivalent to a century full of change we are still trying to catch up to. 

Massive upheavals like 2020 can also be a moment for undoing and expelling old ways of thinking and working and being. This is where the rebuilders come in, as powerful forces for a new kind of connection and leadership. For a future that otherwise risks fast-becoming less and less equal and more and more siloed along economic, political, and health lines. To be blunt, there are heroes and villains to be made in the years ahead.

If we can bring forward truly new and better leaders, then this period of time we are in will turn out to be a moment not just of division and inequity in the near-term, but of progress towards stronger, better communities and companies over the long-term.