Mobilizing A Movement: Greta Thunberg

19-03-05 Greta Thunberg
It would be hard to find many people who do not recognize the face of Greta Thunberg. After all, for the moment, she is the face of the climate change movement.

She began her personal contribution to the movement by standing outside the Swedish parliament building in August 2018 holding her “school strike for climate” sign. Her weekly Friday strike has now spread across the world and includes thousands of students and adults.

Soon after, Greta found herself speaking at the UN Climate Change Conference. She then lectured and schooled her mostly male elders at Davos and she now has a Wikipedia page.

Think about it. Greta is 16-years-old with Asperger’s.

She started a movement.

She is famous.

She is hell bent on leading global change starting with Sweden.

Greta has little authority to initiate this movement, but she did; we know she is committed, and that she has courage and grit. But will this be enough to achieve the goal she has set: will it bring Sweden in line with the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2C?

From my perspective, Greta is showing us the limits of authority. What is required to lead and possibly the dangers of being seduced by people? She is walking the high wire of leading without authority. I hold her in high regard.

I wonder how it will turn out. But what I really wonder is how Greta is taking care of herself while she makes this journey.

My work with people who have chosen to lead social change projects has taught me a few lessons. I would like to share some of them with you and Greta.

  • Find partners and go together: Social change is not solo work and there are few quick wins. It will be a long and demanding trek. Relationships are primary and everything else, including the mission, is derivative. Learn to thicken relationships.
  • Focus on those in the middle: People will sort themselves into one of three groups as they learn about your social change cause:
    1. True believers: These are the people who are already with you. Take care of them, train them up, and set them to work. Stay connected and keep them informed. They will travel well.
    2. Deniers: People in this group will self-identify themselves early. That’s useful. It enables you to move on quickly, conserve resources and sustain your spirit. But don’t argue with them. It’s an endless loop and they are more practiced at looping than you.
    3. The Middles: This is the largest swath of people. You will need a significant share of these people to move from the middle and join you if your movement is to succeed. But these people tend to be distracted. Oh, they know something about your movement. After all, they are informed. But they are also busy, occupied, and likely committed to other movements. You are now in a negotiation with them about time, money, and energy.

My experience has taught me that most social change agents approach this group with the logic of their mission, facts, figures, and a dose of guilt. This approach makes some sense, but it often produces resistance. Many of us miss the subtle message of resistance; these people are not resisting your logic. They understand the need. Your movement makes sense to them. But social change always demands a change of head and heart. If you miss the heart, people will not follow. Your stories need to mix logic/head and emotion/heart.


Taking on the wicked problems of social change is energizing in the beginning. Then the beginning comes to an end and the long work begins. Burnout is a plausible scenario for social change leaders. Self-care is the antidote, but, as the name suggests, it must be self-administered. Design a practice that helps you pace your emotional and mental energy. Take care of your body. Stay away from your phone and social media on a regular basis. Have friends who are not working in social change, practice some kind of art, exercise, develop your sense of humor. You will surely need it. Give work back to others.

Eleven years ago, I backed into helping leaders in NGOs, social impact organizations, and foundations. Now, I spend all my time facing forward. My partnership with Dennis Vergne and Matt Barnaby to form ImpactBasis is to teach what we have learned. What we really do is produce a gathering point to build capacity and community.

We have learned some useful things we can pass on. It’s our job.

I also want Greta to know I am with her. She has captured my head and my heart. But I also want her to take care of herself. We need a Whole Greta if we are to reach 2C.

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