09/24/2013 11:03 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

How-To Instantly Unleash Your Competitive Edge

Social entrepreneurs are regularly (albeit erroneously) revered and romanticized as pioneering visionaries - tenaciously overcoming groupthink, rallying followers to the cause and single-handedly building their social enterprises. The word superhero comes to mind.

In juxtaposition, collaboration, cooperation, community solidarity, teamwork, respect for diversity and playing nicely with others are promoted as core values and skills. In sexist lore, these so-called "softer" workplace attributes are more naturally, or perhaps culturally, expected from female change agents.

This dichotomous messaging about human capital in the world of social change is going to make your first social justice job much harder.

Your first change-maker job is merging, marrying and melding these seemingly disparate ways of "doing social change." Your first change-maker job is you.

For change agents, the bogus paradigm is rigidity. Rigidity by roles. Rigidity by rules. Rigidity by organizational structure. Rigidity of thought.
  • Empower yourself by asking for help. Learned helplessness can be unlearned. "If you're shy and retiring and won't ask people for help, you just can't get out of your own little circle," warns John Anner, Executive Director of the East Meets West Foundation.
  • Learn to constructively communicate your insecurity. "I absolutely [feel insecure] at times. I've tried to bluff my way, and it didn't work out so well. Just say you don't know," admits Patrick Gleeson, former CEO of Meyer Family Enterprises.
  • Overcome resignation and despair by building coalitions. In tough work environments, "seek out the coworkers who can support you in that situation," advises Kari Hayden, Founder and Principal of m.o. Partners.

A tip on getting free instruction: If you don't ask for it, you disenfranchise others from helping you. Empower every one of your colleagues (above, below and to the side of you on the org chart) to become your allies, teachers, mentors and coaches.

Two catalytic phrases to get started: (Beforehand) how would you handle this? (Afterwards) any thoughts on how I can improve next time this situation arises? And, if you want to build lifelong allies, pretend to listen and be sure to say thanks even if you don't mean it.

Paul Rogat Loeb in Soul of a Citizen writes, "By retreating, we don't escape from the world so much as submit to it. We conspire in our own defeat."

We know what retreat in the public square looks like. Much more corrosive to your social change career is retreat from the private responsibility of self-improvement. You and your cause deserve better.