Why Effective Transatlantic Leaders Grow Social Capital Across Divides as a Constant Practice
The American Red Cross faced a social capital challenge during the October 2016 North Carolina floods; undocumented residents impacted by the floods were afraid to come forward for assistance due to their legal status. To achieve its mission, American Red Cross needed to find paths to reach this community and rapidly build trust. Because the organization had already done important internal work to diversify its staff and leadership in order to have the widest reach across America, it was able to deploy a team member from Los Angeles who had the inroads to reach these flood victims with sensitivity and using Spanish, and was thus able to successfully provide relief services. With the same logic and commitment, American Red Cross is stepping up its work to diversify its critically important volunteer workforce beyond the traditional profile of volunteer to a far broader workforce reflective of the diverse constituencies it serves.
Across the Atlantic, Brussels had a similar social capital challenge to solve. Dismantling terrorist networks would require the trust and support of communities in which dangerous actors had embedded themselves. This social capital had not yet been developed and stereotyping complicated communication. The first reaction of some in political leadership was to further stereotype and push away residents of these communities. However, fundamental to growing social capital is mutual respect and trust, as each person in the equation brings value. Long term solutions to community isolation would require connections of trust with community leaders, in order to access the most comprehensive information and innovative, locally-based solutions to social, economic, and political concerns. Bridge builders with the ability to communicate effectively both with government institutions and local community leaders would prove essential in this process. Though overdue, work is being accelerated in the wake of crisis, including honest dialogue, investment in underserved areas, and the hiring of diverse personnel as first responders. There is still much to be co-created and learned.
Around the globe, these stories are constantly being repeated, and government and NGO leaders must work in a steady and ever questioning way to ensure that they are building the social capital that will be required to address crises, as well as to limit crises in the first place through more equitable and inclusive policymaking. Whether it is elite-focused staff at an embassy overseas who lack the social capital to correctly predict political upheaval, or city leaders who fail to recognize the depth of dysfunctionality in a police force and how patience is wearing thin, missing key information is closely linked to a lack of social capital. Comprehensive information flow, effective coalition building, mutual assistance, and innovative problem solving all require social capital across divides.
With so much at stake, what steps can leaders to take to ensure that not only their teams but also their network of connections reflects society as a whole? How can leaders most effectively work to bring the uncommon actors to the table, and in this way be sure to share information, build trust and coalitions? The GMF team began an exploration of best practices for this work at BUILD 2016 in its workshop “Leading Change From Street to C Suite.” Vision and buy-in at the strategic level are of course essential. Decisions may flow from here, such as a decision to invest in a community organizer who is empowered to bring forward in the C-Suite the voices of communities that could otherwise be overlooked. Team members may be incentivized to explore new avenues for expanding their own social capital, from reaching out to diverse networks, to walking new and serendipitous paths through the city, to forming youth advisory teams. The key takeaway in order to avoid highly costly mistakes and meet mission goals is for transatlantic leaders to build social capital across divides as a constant practice.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.