The American myth of leadership is about heroes and heroines, acting alone, facing down the odds and single handedly wringing change from the masses, John Wayne or Clint Eastwood style.
It never works like that.
Change is a systemic event, meaning that even if it appears to be the force of one person, the time was ripe, the place was receptive and the idea had matured into contemporary relevance. Any big change is the product of a lot of small, almost undetectable changes.
NSL is intent on changing the system. That is why it asks of its Fellows that they add to the momentum of change on the ground through their Project For Change. It does not matter how big or small, what matters is that the NSL fellow experiences agency, and enrolls in leadership as service.
NSL asks candidates- take a look around you. What needs are unmet? Who is invisible? Who is left out? Who is considered beyond hope, or the scope of the normal array of supplies and services? Who needs you to listen to them? Serve them? Respond to what they offer.
Once the candidate assesses where there is a chance to make a difference, then NSL says, Go ahead and test it out. Don’t wait to develop a whole business plan- no, get out there in the field and test it.
See if there is a need. See if there is something you can offer. See if there is a story you can create as prologue, to bring to Washington DC to be part of your story. In other words, we want Fellows to be activists at home in order to become more compelling advocates in DC.
The political game here often degenerates into a talk fest where a Member who insists on harsh drug laws is an addict himself, or the Member who opposes gay marriage is gay himself. The leader has to live the values he preaches. He has to be an actor, not the audience to the action. And leadership is about following. Who is following you?
When NSL is accepting candidates, we tell them that we will only select you if we feel we are selecting so much more than you. Its fine if the program changes you, but that is not enough. The point of our program is, -Who else will be changed? “who else will stand to benefit from what you learn? If we select you, we aim to change 100.
Some programs become victims of their own success. Like some Ivy League college that students get admitted to, they might think- i got into Harvard, what else do I have to do to prove my success? NSL is not like that. It does not matter what you have done prior to NSL, the program expects that you will do more, or do something different in your quest to be on the program.