America's Best Leaders: Q&A with Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka
Who is the leader past or present who has most inspired you?
Gandhi. First, because he showed the world (e.g., our civil rights movement) that change comes faster and far more permanently by helping people understand when their behavior contradicts what an empathic response would dictate. This empathic response is the necessary foundation of ethics today (when rules alone are not enough). The empires and institutions based on compulsion and inequality have one after another withered when faced with Gandhi's simple approach of truth speaking quietly to conscience.
I also admire Gandhi for giving this profoundly transformative revolution practical legs. Tirelessly, over decades, he built giant and grass-roots social and political movements that had the enormous internal and deeply democratic strength to transform fear and violence with courage and love institutions that, in turn, influenced entire societies to follow this demanding, disciplined path.
I was deeply stirred while a student by experiencing Gandhi's approach at work at the grass roots both during civil rights work here and in rural India. And then later seeing its power for good in the Amazon and elsewhere through my work for Ashoka. This summer, I watched with admiration as eBay's first president, Jeff Skoll, arranged to have Sir Ben Kingsley's classic film, Gandhi, translated into Arabic and shown with encouragement from the Palestinian leadership on the West Bank and Gaza.
Warren Bennis, the noted leadership scholar and chairman of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard, says, "Everybody agrees that there is less leadership today than there used to be." Do you agree? Why or why not? In which area of life do you see the greatest need for leadership today?
I disagree very strongly.
For decades, whenever the old institutions perished, all across the world, there has been an escalating multiplication of people becoming change makers. Starting small businesses, experimenting with new ways to do things on the farms different from their parents, and founding more and more citizen groups.
The change in the social half of the world's operations is most dramatic. While business became ever more entrepreneurial and competitive from 1700 onward, the social half, fed by tax revenues, had no need to go through this transformation. Every year the sector fell further behind. Hence, the relative squalor gap of the citizen sector of a generation ago dismal productivity, salaries, and esteem.
This all changed around 1980. The gap had become intolerable, and in a historically very short 25-year period the citizen sector went through the same structural revolution that took business 300 years. As it became entrepreneurial, it began quickly to close the productivity gapcutting it in half roughly every 10 to 12 years.
As a result, resources have been flooding into our sector. We've been generating jobs at 2.5 to three times as fast as the rest of society. The U.S. more than doubled the number of IRS-recognized charities in a decade. Brazil grew from somewhere between 500 and 3,600 citizen groups in 1980 to an estimated more than 1 million by the year 2000. There are similar statistics from every continent.