Embracing Your Inner Tempered Radical

While doing a bit of research on effective change agents, I came across an interview of Debra Meyerson who wrote Tempered Radicals How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work where she is quoted as saying the following:

Effective agents of change at the grassroots level know who they are and what they are trying to accomplish. Effective tempered radicals hold on to their deepest goals, which enables them to push through their fears and to choose their battles effectively.

This clarity enables a person to know when to let things go, when to really push, and what kinds of action to take. Clarity also enables someone to depersonalize a situation to avoid emotional, knee-jerk reactions. Clarity about what’s negotiable and nonnegotiable is really the most essential thing.

Clarity of purpose also gives tempered radicals a sense of patience and the ability to persist in what they are trying to do.

If that sounds familiar, it is because it should…. particularly if you are in any way engaged in the issues of sustainability that are faced.  It is a key trait that I have found in many who are inside corporate organizations pushing programs, as well as in the non-profit/ SE sector who are looking to build a new model for doing things.

A point made by this passage from The Responsibility Revolution about Wal-Mart’s attitude toward NGOs:

Not so long ago, Wal-Mart viewed NGOs with outright hostility, but learned painfully that it could not build a deep enough bunker to hide from them.  When the retailing giant finally conceded that it needed an environmental strategy, it turned to one of its most zealous critics for help. [..] Wheras NGOs were once outsiders who challenged the system, increasingly they act as insiders – a potent part of the system that they were trying to change.

Sounds great right?  That, once the passion has been rounded off by a bit of “business sense” and/ or the person has learned how to navigate the matrix, that progress can be made.   And it is interesting to note Wal-Mart is not the only one who is externally engaging (some would say actively engaging NGOs for assistant).  It is becoming so common that NGOs themselves have seen this as a business opportunity.  An opportunity that no long requires the use of banners.  Which, as can be see in Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, may be going too far.

That, by tempering “the radical”, the mission is being compromised.  That battles are being won, but the war is being lost.

Which leads me to a point that I feel is important.

Without a doubt, if one is going to be an activist or a change agent, one needs to understand the system enough to understand how best to change it. There is certainly a growing conversation, particularly since Copenhagen,  that many radicals have tempered themselves too much.That too many radicals have in fact grown tame as they have looked to engage leaders of industry, elected officials, and consumers into a process that (originally) was meant to benefit the masses.  So where Kingshorth’s comments are in my view entirely justified is that, as the “business mind” of NGOs is built, the risk of mission creep grows, and equally so, as the business model of the firm is altered to support the new mission of sustainability, support from the business side is lost as efforts end up little more than a canvas bag and posters printed on recycled paper.

But, as my wife is constantly telling me “you can only change the system from the inside”, and that is where the “tempered radical” ultimately can perform at their peak. Moving organizations from the inside that otherwise would not have moved without them.

They are not the Greenpeaces whose tempered radicals may be pulling them the other way, they are the tempered radicals that create programs that increase awareness and engagement in an effective way.  It may start with a single idea, or it may be an idea that is systemic, but for the tempered radical the goal should be forward progress.  Even in the face of resistence.


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