Powerful organising leaders: who are they and what do they actually do?

This blog is compiled from Citizens UK national training, Industrial Areas Foundation national training, the Citizens UK Diaspora Team and the Faith in Action ‘Role of a Powerful Clergy Leader’

By Daniel Mackintosh

I have had a number of conversations with institutional leaders, who, after joining organising training, understand that leaders have relational meetings with others and they are meant to build campaigns, but are unsure what they are meant to do on a day-to-day basis? This quick blog is to lay out a few ideas about who leaders are, and then expands on the role, skills and habits of powerful organising leaders.

Who is a leader in broad based organising?

An organising leader is ‘a person with followers who can turn them out because they are in relationship with them’. Fancy education or important sounding title makes no difference – if people can’t turn others out, they are not a leader.

Below are a few qualities of organising leaders – either that they have already, or, that they actively cultivate. Leaders are angry: leaders feel the grief of specific people in their lives and have a hunger to build a more just world as a result. This is not impotent rage, nor anger turned inwards. It is anger, cooled and channelled, into long-term, deep, motivation for change. Leaders have humour, which gives them perspective and the humility to laugh at themselves. Organising for change is hard work, and there are many setbacks. Without humour, it can all feel a little overwhelming and joyless.  As the quote falsely attributed to the great feminist anarchist Emma Goldman says: ‘if I can’t dance, I don’t want to join your revolution’. Humour also reminds us that the world will continue to turn without us, and allows us to connect with others. A third is a risk-taker: without taking calculated risks, society will never change. Taking risks is a reminder that life is short, we are impermanent, and our only opportunity is to shake-up the status quo. A fourth: curiosity. Questioning is the work of public life: why are things like this? What could we change like if we organised? And how can we be respectfully curious of one another. A fifth: an appetite for power. Leaders understand how power works in their community, have an appetite for building relational people power so that it is shared more equally, and that they can build enough of it to achieve a more just world. And finally, crucially, organising leaders are relational, aiming to build trusting relationships with followers, peers and people in power. Primarily, this is done through effective relational meetings, respectfully seeking out what other people care about, so that leaders can work more effectively together. While this list is not exhaustive, it gives a flavour of the kind of people drawn to organising.

Types of organising leaders

Here is a simplistic breakdown of different types of leaders, based on their experience and skill (here is a table if helpful leadership dev table – big fontsnowflake-model).

Potential leaders have attended a local action, are keen to build relationships, are angry about injustice, wants to develop themselves and has thought about their public story of self.

Tertiary leaders, who are learning about organising, can normally turn out between 5-10 people, have done some organising training and has been involved in an action. They have also had a few relational meetings within their organisation and understands that relationships are at the core of organising. Tertiary leaders normally care about a specific issue, understand the importance of negotiation and compromise and can spot winnable and worthwhile issues. They have offered informal support or encouragement to other leaders and understand why they never do for others what they can do for themselves (the iron rule). Finally, they have attended storytelling training and can tell a good organising story.

Secondary leaders are practicing the art of organising. They can turn out 10-20 leaders; have done higher level organising training; played a significant role in a campaign/win and they are nurturing the leadership development of another person. They are intentionally having relational meetings with people within and beyond their organisation and taken part in a negotiation with decision-makers. These leaders have told their story as part of a public action. Secondary leaders often care about organising in their institution.

Primary leaders are excelling in the craft. They can turn out 20-50 leaders; teach organising to others in their institution because they have invested heavily in their own organising development and they take regular internal and external action. They have strong relationships with decision-makers and power-players in their community and can teach about the importance of building intentional relationships. Primary leaders have built a core team within their organisation, have also a significant organising win; can run teams and negotiations with power-holders and they are coaching/developing 4-7 other leaders. They have very effective relational meetings, are able to coach others on their relational meetings and have told their public story in the midst of a high-pressure action. Finally, Primary leaders also care about building the power of the alliance in their area, rather than just focussing on their institution or a particular issue.

And finally, veteran leaders. These leaders can turn out 50+ leaders and have developed a natural habit of action and reflection. They have built a strong set of relationships internally, locally and regionally with powerful decision-makers. Veterans lead on national campaigns and significant actions. They deliver organising training and are actively involved in the development of 8+ other leaders, while nurturing a range of organising teams. Veterans can tell a range of organising stories in a range of contexts. Finally, veterans care about building the power of organising on a regional/national scale.

The role of a powerful organising primary/veteran leader in Broad Based Organising

Primary and veteran leaders have a different role to secondary/tertiary leaders and organisers. They are bridges that build organisational power, drawing on their institution’s ‘soul force’/mission, which comes from their secular or faith tradition, to push back against the dominant culture of individualism and consumerism and build towards a relational culture of solidarity.

These leaders have an internal and external role to play.

Internally – within their organisation and their sector/denomination – these leaders build deep relationships with the people in their institution, knowing their struggles and stories. They shape the institution’s core values and orientation to justice issues and fortify their organisation’s leaders to push back against fear, powerlessness and frustration. They lead where they need to, but primarily focus on the development of other people’s confidence and organising skills, helping people to grow around their strengths, rather than trying to shore up their weaknesses. Within their sector/denomination, they organise ‘sideways’ to engage colleagues and ‘upwards’ to engage seniors to join campaigns. They also provide pastoral care to leaders who experience stress, fatigue, fear and joy in the work. And finally, and absolutely critically, they secure the funding for their institution’s participation in the alliance.

Externally, these leaders recruit other leaders and institutions to join the broad-based alliance. They articulate a compelling moral frame for organising and exercise public leadership by sharing their public story, rooted in a healthy, broad self-interest. They engage key power players in the broader community (elected officials, businesses, institutional leaders) and create disciplined, respectful public confrontations with existing power structure. And finally, they help to raise money for the broader alliance’s organising efforts.

To fulfil this role, powerful primary/veteran leaders build the following skills and habits over time. The key habit is that of having regular and effective relational meetings – at least 3-5 per week. Primary/veteran leaders organise their congregation, peers and superiors, while framing and amplifying organising in a moral narrative. They participate in building a pluralistic culture inside a broad-based organisation where everyone feels respected, so that it is firmly anti-racist, anti-misogynist and anti-homophobic, and ensure everyone can participate safely. These leaders build their capacity to hold power relationships, confronting power-holders when needed. They seek tension as a creative force in public life. They are able to do an effective power-analysis and develop effective strategies to win on campaigns, while accompanying and supporting the development of other institutional leaders.

So, given the above, what then is the role of the organiser?

Organisers are trainers and coaches. We work mainly with primary/veteran leaders to identify their strengths/weaknesses and respectfully agitate these leaders to take action on the things they care about. They encourage primary leaders to focus on building a relational internal culture and developing leaders in their organisations. Organisers can be helpful to primary leaders seeking to change institutional dynamics because outsiders can ask innocent questions or say what they cannot. Organisers lead on training and strategy and create ‘formation opportunities’ where primary/veteran leaders can strengthen their knowledge and skills through public action. In action, which includes relational meetings, training, team meetings and actions with power holders, organisers support these leaders to leverage their strengths, develop others, build their strategic capacity and create accountability around the alliance’s patterns of behaviour. Finally, organisers support leaders to debrief actions and distil organising learning lessons.

If all of this sounds like a big ask, it is. But organising is an art, a practice, a muscle, that develops by putting it into action. And organisers are specifically there to slowly, thoughtfully and respectfully, support leader’s development over time.


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