“The size of any movement isn’t determined by the heroes of the movement, but by the heromakers.”
One of my favorite leadership authors and speakers is John Maxwell. He once told the story about a fisherman out on a pond early on a Saturday morning. He looked across the pond and saw something peculiar. A young boy was having an exceptional day catching fish, both large and small. But the young man would throw the larger fish back in the pond and only keep the smaller fish.
Curious, the man walked around the pond to the young man to ask him about not keeping the larger fish. The young man looked at him and said, “I would keep them, but I only have a ten-inch frying pan.”
The frying pan limited his capacity to cook, which in turn had limited his capacity to fish.
I have discovered this principle at work in my work as a grassroots organizer—someone who equips and galvanizes men and women to transform the world around them.
In most organizations, people tend to focus on those who we see rather than understanding the importance of the “frying pans” at home. But I have seen just the opposite. The men and women who operate behind the scene are just as important as those who lead out front.
In other words, the capacity of heromakers always impacts the effectiveness of heroes.
The size of any movement isn’t determined by the heroes of the movement, but by the heromakers.
Just ask Martin Luther King, Jr. Many in our country know him as the man who led our nation through the Civil Rights Movement and toward greater equality for Black men and women in our country.
But there is no Martin Luther King, Jr. without Bayard Rustin. Rustin served in a role as a behind-the-scenes organizer and strategist for the movement. Using his organizing experience, Rustin played an indispensable role in organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1964.
Without Rustin’s organizing, we may not have heard about King’s Dream.
We could say the same thing about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice in our country. Marshall led the team of lawyers who helped argue the famous Brown vs. Board of Education case that led to the desegregation of schools here in the United States.
But there would be no Thurgood Marshall without Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston served as dean of Marshall’s alma mater, Howard University School of Law, and consistently pushed Marshall toward becoming a “social engineer”—a lawyer who works to build the society and culture around him.
Marshall gleaned his strategy and approach to his legal work from Houston, a man who served behind the scenes to develop one of the greatest jurists in American history.
I have seen so many contemporary examples of this over the past several years. None more evident than the men and women who worked recently on my wife’s political campaign. For some context, my wife, who was recently featured on the Heromakers Podcast, ran for local office here in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the midst of a pandemic.
While my wife served as the candidate and face for the campaign, it was the men and women who supported her behind the scenes who helped the campaign grow both in capacity and scope.
To use Maxwell’s earlier analogy, the support of these unsung heromakers helped my wife keep all the “fish” she was able to catch, both large and small. Because she knew that she had a team of men and women who had to capacity to make a great “meal” and run an excellent campaign.
I learned three lessons during this campaign season that I think would encourage anyone who is interested in grassroots movements and becoming a heromaker:
First, successful grassroots movements are always bottom-up.
One of the key markers of my wife’s campaign was the lack of special interests, large donors, or big-name recognition. Rather, everyday people and nominal gifts served as the fuel for the movement.
Top-down movements often have shaky foundations upon which they stand. They operate based on the hero’s capacity rather than the capacity of those surrounding that person. True, grassroots movements have a foundation that is supported by masses rather than the shoulder of one.
Second, successful grassroots movements are always infused with the aroma of humility.
Have you ever walked into a Bath & Body Works store? As soon as you walk in the store, the fragrances hit you. But if you are sensitive enough to your favorite fragrance, you’ll identify it in the midst of others.
The same is true of the fragrance of grassroots movements. Humility is a key identifying marker of the best grassroots movements. No one needs name recognition. The work serves as the banners and standard each person lifts high. There are many characteristics of grassroots, heromaking movements, but the key identifier is humility.
Finally, successful grassroots movements are always determined more by the heromakers’ capacity and not the hero’s own capacity.
The old adage is true: Many hands make light work. Grassroots movements are decentralized and diffused in a way that increases the organization’s capacity. Decision-making is collaborative, dynamic, and team wins are celebrated more than individual accolades.
If you’re considering any grassroots effort, as you stand on the banks of the pond of social good, make sure you have a large enough frying pan at home so you’re not throwing any fish back.
In other words, make sure you identify and put in place heromakers as the bedrock of your movement. And you’ll soon learn that you’ll have great success and an impactful movement.
“Humility is a key identifying marker of the best grassroots movements. No one needs name recognition.”
John C. Richards Jr. is a discipleship leader, lawyer, and racial reconciliation advocate. He consults regularly with churches on leadership, small groups ministry, and curriculum development. John earned his M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary and his Juris Doctorate from Howard University School of Law.