Leading social innovation is hard. It requires a level of grit and determination unparalleled in any other industry. And while there is an abundance of programs, courses, tools and other resources discussing how to do social innovation, these don’t provide a complete education.

I spent over 12 years as a practitioner living and working at the nexus of environmental degradation and economic poverty in Central America before completing my Masters in Social Innovation for Sustainable Development. And while I found the tools and theories I learnt during my Masters program to be useful, I also discovered a huge gap exists between understanding the theory and knowing how to put it into practice. My greatest learnings about leading social innovation I acquired from people working on the frontlines, who you will likely never hear about in the classroom. I consider them social innovation’s unsung heroes and believe their examples of making social change happen can be guidance for us all.

So to help us all get better at leading social innovation, here are 8 key attitudes and skills I learnt to help turn your Theory of Change into a Practice of Transformation.


1. No More Networking

If you have been in any professional or academic setting you will have heard that networking is essential to your career. Most of the time this manifests as gatherings and conferences where people make superficial small talk while trying to determine whether or not the person they are talking to is worth their time. It’s a highly transactional process fraught with unchecked power dynamics that is rarely pleasant for anyone involved.

To the social change leaders I know who are the best networkers, “networking” is not a verb but an outcome. Rather than “networking”, these leaders focus on building authentic relationships with the people they meet. As a result, their networks are  trust-based not transactional – making them ultimately more resilient but also more interesting.

When you build trust-based networks, you will find using your network becomes less about a power-play quid-pro-quo and more about learning into and drawing from a system you feel genuinely part of.


2. Listening is not a check box

One of the key skills that allows these leaders to build authentic relationships is their ability to listen deeply. This is another area where I see a big gap between theory and practice. Phrases such as bottom-up, grassroots or community-driven are common but rarely translate into practice. How many times have I watched someone spend just a few minutes listening to a given community’s problem before responding with “I know what they need”? Whenever I hear this, I want to stand up and shout “nothing about us without us” – a reminder that decisions should not be made without participation from those impacted.

Genuine listening is not about checking a box to say “we listened to the community”. It’s a generative process, in that it produces new thoughts, ideas or actions. Personally, I listen with the goal of having the speaker change my mind. Why? Because it means I’ve silenced my inner monologue for long enough to hear the other person and learn something new.

Listening deeply involves getting into the right frame of mind, knowing why you are listening and the value of what you are hearing. Give it a go and see what happens.


3. Leading from a Living Processes Paradigm

A willingness to learn something new and change your mind is indicative of another key trait – knowing how to lead from a living processes paradigm. Social innovation work occurs within dynamic systems that are interconnected to a web of other systems, constantly changing and often unpredictable. The impact of COVID-19 – a global health crisis – on all other factors of life around the world is a perfect demonstration of this.

Leading from a living processes paradigm requires a very different understanding from what we are taught, which is that the future can be predicted and controlled and we can set a strategic 5-yr vision to be planned and executed. Not in social change! Leaders need to focus on responsive processes and emergent strategies, cultivating the skills and strengths that enable them to successfully navigate unstable environments and still achieve results.

In addition to thinking about your strategic plan, think about your emergent response – how are you listening for and sensing changes in the systems around you that can inform your actions?


4. Cultivate Interpersonal and Cross-Cultural Agility

This ability to respond in-time shows another characteristic essential to social innovation – agility. One metaphor I use is the Samurai Warrior. Strong and powerful, Samurai Warriors were nevertheless incredibly agile – they could change direction and pivot rapidly in response to their surroundings. Successful social innovators must not only be nimble-minded in their thinking but also agile in their ability to move between diverse groups and cultures when leading social innovation. All too often I see examples of entrepreneurs interacting with their beneficiaries in ways that emphasize the distance and difference between them. I remember speaking with a wealthy businessman who had just been to visit a women’s artisanal cooperative. He proudly told me how he had arrived in this remote community in his helicopter dressed in his Armani suit to tell these women (many of whom lived at or below the poverty line) that as a fellow entrepreneur, he understood the difficulties they faced. I can only imagine how alienated and unseen those women must have felt.

A successful social innovator must be agile in a way that builds empathy and rapport: able to rest with ease in the dirt under the shade of a tree with the peasant farmers, then hold their own in a boardroom with high-powered executives.

Cultivate your interpersonal and cross-cultural agility by learning to be comfortable in different settings and with different people.


5. Get Up Close and Personal

The ability to be agile and pivot rapidly when circumstances change comes in large part because of the proximity these leaders have to the issues they are working to address. If you aren’t “local” to the community or demographic you are trying to serve, you need to find a way to get close and show them that you are committed. Bryan Stevenson, a social justice leader from the U.S., talks about this as the importance of ‘getting proximate’ to deepen understanding. As Stevenson explains it: “there is no path to justice that is comfortable and convenient. We will not create justice until we’re willing to position ourselves in uncomfortable places and be a witness.”

How can you get proximate to deepen your understanding of the issue you are trying to solve, and demonstrate to those that you are trying to help that you are committed for the long run?


6. I’ve Got The Power

Surprisingly, power dynamics in social innovation is one area that isn’t often discussed (at least on the academic side). But it is deeply understood in practice. This is largely because individuals and communities that are the beneficiaries of social innovation’s positive intents (e.g. vulnerable or marginalized groups) tend to have less power and as a consequence, their experience of power differences are a daily reality.

Conversely, power is often invisible to those that carry it. As social innovators or social entrepreneurs it is important to recognize that in many situations when leading social innovation we will have more power than the groups we aim to work with. Highly impactful social change leaders are accurately aware of power dynamics and the privileges they carry. Rather than deny them, they leverage them intentionally to help bring about the changes they seek.

Be mindful of your own power and privileges and think about how you can use them responsibly to lift up and empower those you are working with. 


7. High EQs, Not Just IQs

Understanding power dynamics is something successful change leaders understand because they score well not just on IQ but also on EQ. Having a high level of emotional intelligence is essential not just for the reasons already mentioned but because leading social change is emotionally challenging. In Schopenhauer’s words: “First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” People and systems are reluctant to change and if you’re doing it right, you will be met with resistance and opposition.

Social change leaders work in highly volatile, unpredictable and at-times conflictive environments. These kinds of high-stress environments trigger the body’s in-built defense mechanisms and if not managed, pre-programmed fight-or-flight responses take over. Effective leaders learn to understand their emotions and practice ways to stay calm and compassionate in the face of challenges.                                    

Find places to share your ideas and get used to rejections. Each time you do, practice responding with curiosity (what might I learn?) and gratitude: you’re building your emotional resilience. 


8. Theory of Change – DRAFT Version

The theory side of social innovation emphasises the importance of developing a Theory of Change and other maps and templates before putting things into practice. These are important, but I have seen many would-be social innovators paralysed in trying to get everything perfect before they start. In my experience it is impossible to innovate from a steady-state. In other words, you need to get out and give it a go. One of the practices that I have adopted is to view everything I do as a pilot – even expanding and scaling. In doing this, I am reminded of the importance of working in iterative cycles that involve a constant process of reflection, learning and adjustment rather than operating from linear cause-and-effect thinking.

Take whatever idea you’re working on and run a series of rapid prototypes. Stop, reflect and be curious about what you are learning. Then go back to the drawing board – you’ll likely come up with new ideas and better prototypes for next time.

Using these lessons will help you develop a balance between theory and practice and ensure that when you are leading social innovation, your work is grounded in inclusive and transformative principles. As with any new skills, learning them takes time. Approach them with curiosity and an open-mind, and you are well on your way to becoming a transformative social innovation leader.

I am a socially-driven entrepreneur, systems thinker and sustainability leader with almost 20 years working in the field. I hold a Masters in Social Innovation for Sustainable Development, and bring over a decade of experience as a practitioner living and working at the nexus of environmental degradation and economic poverty in Central America.

I am the coFounder of a UNESCO award-winning organization – SERES – where I currently serve as a Board Member and Senior Advisor. An internationally recognized facilitator and trainer, I have worked with communities and organizations in Africa, Australia, Europe, North America and Latin America.

I bring an engineer’s love for solving problems, a pioneering spirit and an entrepreneurial mindset to everything I do, along with a deep and unwavering commitment to justice and equality for people and the Planet. If you enjoy the insights and information found here, be sure to look for my upcoming book Weave: Lessons in Social Innovation from a Backstrap Loom. Available Jan 2021.

This article was written in collaboration with the Social Innovation Academy – the first fully online management training programme focusing exclusively on social innovation. Subscribe to our newsletter, join our private LinkedIn group, become one of our friends or follow us on social media (LinkedInTwitter and Facebook). We welcome all requests for collaboration here.



The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsi­ble for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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