It’s an interesting time for leadership.
National polls show that trust in our organizations, our government, and our leaders is at an all-time low. Our traditional leadership models are broken and the headlines give us a daily dose of unilateral decision-making, in-fighting, opaque deal-making, abuse of authority, and leaders consolidating wealth and power.
Many organizations see the impact of this decline of trust — and are investing in addressing it. I see this in the community-building work we do helping organizations engage constituents and change their cultures. Instead of top-down, command and control approaches, they are using community structures to address complex challenges, which empower individuals, generate high engagement, build trust, and increase innovation.
Building trust, however, requires ceding control. Community-based leadership doesn’t use structural power to exert authority over people, but instead, engages people in the process and by doing so, gives them a stake in the solution. This type of leadership inspires and energizes people to co-create the future together and critically shifts their mindset from risk-avoidance to opportunity-seeking.
And for the first time, a Presidential candidate seems to have fully embraced it.
While pundits have pointed to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign ground game and her detailed policy initiatives for her steady rise in the polls, there’s another force at work. She is intentionally working to build trust and engagement — and writing a playbook for how a campaign can do that. And it’s built through community.
In my work with online communities, we highlight the importance of aligning strategy, tactics, and operations. Without a good strategy, no one pays attention. Without good tactics, no one engages. And without good operations, the costs and risks are untenable.
The Warren campaign strategy starts with her policy-first approach. Her prolific plans are more than most voters will ever try to absorb, but they address issues at the root of our current anxiety, anger, and distrust. Rather than running on the energy of fear and identity politics, she is providing alternatives that address core stressors and inspire people to be part of the solution. She has effectively harnessed the essence of a community strategy — one that energizes people around a shared purpose and engages them to build shared value and impact.
This policy-first approach provides content, but on its own, it is insufficient to build trust. People know that what is offered now is unlikely to translate directly into policy. Strategically, it is Senator Warren’s approach to open the conversation, not close it.
Tactically, the Warren campaign uses a variety of programs that engage thousands in her campaign, like shuffling hundreds of people through photo lines at every stop, surprising and delighting small donors with direct phone calls, and spending time with unexpected audiences. This is all wrapped in an accessible, engaging, enthusiastic, and warm tone. She rarely wears suits and her social media accounts regularly share images of her doing prosaic daily activities, like washing her dog or meeting donors. She has demonstrated that she is open and willing to engage people where they are. It humanizes her academic profile and makes her accessible and relatable. If she can balance complex policy ideas AND connect authentically, she can provide a refreshing antidote to over-produced political advertising designed to trigger our deepest fears.
Other candidates — Dean, Obama, Sanders, and Trump — have had elements of what the Warren camp has put together. But I’d suggest Warren is the first national candidate to pull all these community elements together into an effective operational approach — a critical component of ensuring it scales without getting out of control.
The goal of her operational approach is inclusivity. The first word on her website is ‘we’. She’s taken over 40,000 selfies, many of them at town halls in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee — states that are rarely visited by presidential candidates, let alone by Democratic ones. There are over 20,000 people in her online community. She has over one million donations to her campaign. A LOT of people are involved and in a lot of different ways — and her campaign has created a playbook that allows them to do this intentionally and efficiently.
The model turns traditional approaches on their head. Why not wine and dine 500 people instead of taking selfies with 50,000? Because money is just a means — engagement at scale is the goal. Individual engagement is a leading indicator of commitment, and showing up to vote is what matters in the end. Because behavior is socially normalized, the more people Senator Warren engages, the more people become engaged, driving a positive and reinforcing feedback loop — a snowball effect. And because we are most likely to behave like the people we know, she needs a huge community of people also willing to show their friends their commitment. By taking 40,000 selfies she can easily reach 4 million people on their social feeds. By taking 40,000 selfies she is making it more likely that those 40,000 people will continue to pay attention to and share her messages. That 40,000 then can quickly double to 80,000 and double again to 160,000 and on and on — it’s an exponential rather than linear impact. By doing this, she is empowering individuals to lead themselves, creating an energized and decentralized network that will be able to reach people that she never could with traditional approaches.
Whether it works, in the long run, remains to be seen, but if it does, the Warren approach will be a model for future campaigns — and leaders.
And that’s something we desperately need — even though it often doesn’t look like what we expect.