03/31/2016 07:14 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2017

How to Seize Power (for a Good Cause)

Students ask me all the time how to seize power. Some put it that candidly. So many young people yearn for civic engagement. They are anything but apathetic. Their aspiration is greater than themselves. It summons support.

Regardless of their background, I am confident they can take charge. If they want -- and whether they truly wish for it is another matter -- almost all of them who would like to become a leader can become a leader. By that, I mean a leader who enjoys followers.

I am talking here about primarily leadership in volunteer roles. But the principles generalize. The skill sets that prepare an individual to run a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple are related to, if not the exact same as, those to head a corporation or professional services firm. While we expect that anyone who oversees an institution with an identity and mission does thankless tasks because they believe in the intrinsic value of what they are doing, the ability to administer will serve them instrumentally also: we are able to perceive from their extracurricular activities who is likely to be the exceptional manager during the day.

I have been appointed to governmental roles, federal and local; served on non-profit boards, including for two different colleges; and worked for pay as an executive. In many of those contexts, I then have been nominated to be an officer or re-appointed. I share that not to tout my credentials. It is just the opposite, as perceptions often are from reality. I am not charismatic. Any observer ought to believe if that guy can do it, she can too.

My secret can be shared openly. I have followed Woody Allen's advice. The comedian turned intellectual filmmaker once remarked that half of success in life is simply showing up. I would add that the other half is nothing more than showing up again.

Power is about staying power. I was told, starting out half a lifetime ago, that if I went to three meetings in a row of a non-profit, I would find myself on its board; if I went to three board meetings in a row, I would be tapped for chair; and I could stay chair until someone else made the mistake of compiling such a good attendance record.

Truth is, most of us, myself included, are loathe to show up. We have other things to do, priorities that are not preposterous. We care about our families, for example. It is natural that when we arrive back home after a long day, we want to settle in. We don't want to head out for a town hall if the agenda does not list an item directly affecting us, immediately, visibly, significantly. Inertia is as normal as it is overwhelming.

Yet that is the best moment for us to appear, when we have nothing directly to be gained or lost. What we are valuing is our participation in the hurly burly of the public square. That establishes our credibility and it generates goodwill. In any democratic organization, and even most clubs choose who will supervise proceedings through some form of voting, it is crucial to reach out and build bridges. That is especially true for social justice causes.

The challenge is to repeat the act. We sit through enough meetings, and we become frustrated by our peers. One poorly organized event, a single inane squabble, and it's enough for ordinary folks to declare they have better things to do, whether silently or aloud.

Showing up includes doing so behind the scenes. No newcomer is invited to stride up to the stage as a presidential nominee, even for a local charity. They have prepared for that moment. There are documents to draft, emails to send, phone calls to make, and tremendous follow up that remains invisible unless there has been a disaster. That's the concept of paying one's dues.

Exercising power well confirms it is a process, not an outcome. To show up again and again is to commit to membership in a community, to see the responsibilities of belonging.

To avoid misunderstanding, I should state that technical knowledge is a pre-requisite. People ignorant of substance cannot lead. But the possession of expertise by itself is not sufficient. In my experience anyway, there are many more people who have technical knowledge who continue to wonder why they are not leaders, then persons who are leaders who wonder why they lack technical knowledge. Even the combination of technical knowledge and the desire to lead is not enough; the crucial factor is the realization that one must show up, repeatedly.

I am assuming what I should not, that the aspiring leader is dedicated to a cause which is progressive; they are not pursuing their own self-interest or promoting a campaign of oppression. I suppose, however, that my suggestions could be used for any purpose. I do not admire anyone who would use their position to advance their own ambitions, instead of the needs of a community, but I respect that there are associations dedicated to visions that I would regard as nightmares.

That leads to the most important caveat. Leaders have different ideals as well as different styles. But they have in common that they worked to achieve their success. Leaders last because they are always there.