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The Rise of Social Leadership

By Oliver DeMille

It’s been decades since Peter Drucker predicted that non-profit organizations would be America’s biggest growth sector, and his foresight has proven accurate.

However, he didn’t foretell one of the leadership trend of our time: Social Leadership.

Political leadership has been a central part of life for centuries, business leadership has caught our imagination for 60 years, and a mountain of self-help books have created classics on success, management, and leadership.

Nevertheless, leadership ideas and methods always seemed to be missing something. The lack was subtle, to be sure; and in an era of predominantly private interest, it went mostly unnoticed.

Yet deep-thinking students of capitalism have long realized that without a sense of caring, service and benevolence, free markets turn on themselves.

Classical economist J.B. Say coined the term entrepreneur to describe those who put unprofitable resources to profitable use; but without an underlying societal ethic of benevolence, capitalistic nations weaken from within and fail to overcome their biggest challenges.

Social Leadership is the creation and growth of businesses with the main objective of solving society’s biggest challenges—from better education to feeding the hungry and from empowering the poor to promoting more freedom.

Instead of seeking profit as their central goal, social leaders see needs in society and set out to fill them. Staying profitable is a means rather than an end in this process, and uplifting society is the true bottom line.

Historically, this has been the realm of non-profit and government institutions, but entrepreneurs have found that marshaling resources to overcoming society’s biggest challenges is often more effective when the profit motive is combined with altruism.

Famous social leaders include Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Robert K. Greenleaf and Buckminster Fuller, among others. Recent international examples are the micro-lending movement which brought Muhammad Yunus the Nobel Prize and the establishment of schools in Muslim countries as described by Greg Mortensen in Three Cups of Tea.

In the United States, several educational institutions have proven to be “chicken-wire Harvards,” as Daniel Coyle called them: Schools from kindergarten through doctoral levels which deliver high quality of education for those who typically can’t afford elite institutions. Many of these schools also deliver a profit for owners and investors.

Likewise, innovative approaches to homelessness, hunger, crime, teen pregnancy and other societal challenges have been dealt with by social leaders. 

Such approaches are often delivered on a small scale and get little press. Marva Collins revolutionized inner-city Chicago schools with a social leader approach.

In downtown Salt Lake City, one doctor runs a full-time clinic that treats hundreds of needy patients each week for free. A first-grade student in Canada raised the money to build 461 wells in 16 African countries.

On the other end of the scale, the drive for quality promoted by social leaders like Steve Jobs made Apple effective in societal change (while also netting a sizable profit). As early Apple leader Guy Kawasaki put it,

“The best reason to start an organization is to make meaning—to create a product or service to make the world a better place.”

Such an approach is promoted by business authors from Jim Ferrell to Steve Farber. Warren Bennis noted that this was a central goal of many successful corporate leaders. 

Our society needs more social leaders. In their absence, government institutions and private corporate philanthropic projects try to solve society’s biggest problems—and in the process, profitable resources are too often rendered unprofitable.

In less civic-minded eras and nations, such problems are ignored until they proliferate and become unmanageable. Social leaders eruditely foresee and develop alternatives to both of these less effective paths. 

Social leadership combines the best abilities and tendencies of genuine political and business leaders, with a dose of Tocqueville-style benevolence which leavens capitalism and makes democracy flourish.

Social leadership is a growing catalyst of many disruptive innovators that help improve societies and nations.

In Greek mythology, the gods punished King Sisyphus by cursing him to roll a boulder up a hill, watch it roll back down, and to repeat this process throughout eternity.  

Too often this coincides with the history of government and societal attempts to overcome our greatest social challenges—from poverty to drug abuse, suicide to divorce, growing private and public debt, etc.

Our day is no exception. Faith in government and corporations is weak, and greater social leadership is called for. 

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables famously described some of the social problems in his day, but offered few clear solutions. He wrote, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

Through history we have given our rights to kings, rulers, churches and governments in the hopes that they would take care of our problems. So far all have proven inefficient and insufficient.

A new vision of leadership is becoming a reality as more people turn inward for strength and a greater sense of personal mission.

We turn our gaze from podiums and power centers and toward our own communities, resources, and abilities.  

This exemplifies the double entendre in the phrase social leadership: the new leadership is about common people living uncommon lives of service and contribution, and solving social problems.

It is lived by rank-and-file citizens who embrace their responsibility to fix our society’s ills. It is lived by many in business leadership who make a difference.

These are the new social leaders.

Every productive person contributes to the health of society. But much of this is incidental rather than intentional. A social leader deliberately commits his time, talents and resources, and strives to improve the world by creating value for others.

Social leaders work in all arenas of society—they can be wealthy executives, successful entrepreneurs, devoted volunteers or donors, or part-time city council members.

A social leader is born when one ponders such questions as, “What can I do that will have the most positive impact on society? What is the highest and best use of my talents and passions? How will the world be better because of my preparation, education, life, and contribution?”

Social leadership seeks to improve society. Some common, and uncommon, people do this through voluntary sacrifice; others by building profitable organizations that tackle major societal challenges; and still others by getting involved in corporate or political governance.

Social leadership is impacting traditional leadership. Ken Blanchard writes,

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”

Few businesses effectively grow without promoting something bigger than profitability.  The test of social leadership is which comes first in a leader’s priorities: profit or purpose?

This requires more than trendy mission-writing retreats, however. Social leadership occurs where the mission is more than a statement, where it is genuinely and organically intertwined with the intrinsic organizational will. 

If the heart of a capitalistic society is self-centered, it lacks the moral fiber to succeed in the face of inevitable challenges—only a bona fide munificence empowers it with the strength to overcome whatever it faces.

At their core, all successful organizations truly care about people, and all great leadership is social leadership.
Progress is often enacted by an army of common people, rather than by a handful of aristocrats, politicians, or experts.

Social leadership is an idea whose time has come.  The economic meltdown has strengthened our case.

Indeed, we may have reached a point in history where the future of leadership depends on the success of social leaders.


Oliver DeMille is the founder and former president of George Wythe University, a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd Online.

He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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