The Changemaker’s Compass: Reflections on Leading Without a Map

May 22, 2024  • Samantha Cherry & Madeline Bragg

Today’s world presents urgent and unprecedented challenges. The rapid pace of change—in markets, technology, culture and politics—and a growingly interconnected society creates new demands on leaders to step up. But the truth is, there is no single solution that will drive the world toward a better tomorrow. Where can one start the journey of changemaking when there is no road map? And how do you keep going when the world’s problems seem increasingly intractable? 

At Mastercard’s 2024 Global Inclusive Growth Summit, the Aspen Institute’s Dar Vanderbeck (Vice President, Aspen Global Leadership Network) explored these questions with three leaders: Ashley Bell (Civil Society Fellow), Sonal Shah (Henry Crown Fellow), and Max Lesko, who have all had incredible careers in changemaking.

Their insights offer valuable lessons for leaders seeking to sustain a life of impact. Here are three pieces of advice on staying resilient when you’re leading without a map: 

1. Call in your allies.

Before co-founding the National Black Bank Foundation and the $250 million Black Bank Fund—both efforts aimed at closing the racial wealth gap in the U.S.—Ashley Bell found his way to impact through public service. 

In 2018, he was called to lead as a White House policy advisor for entrepreneurship and innovation and a regional administrator for the Small Business Administration (SBA) in the Trump administration, a role that led him to face what he now recalls as the greatest challenge of his career: stewarding small business owners and entrepreneurs, and their economic futures, through the COVID-19 pandemic. He reflects:

“Those unprecedented times had everyone resorting to a ‘save myself first’ mentality. It was hard coming from and representing a marginalized community and trying to figure out, well, who’s going to save the rest of us? And that moment is when I really had to rely on decades of friends to say, ‘If it’s not us, this is not going to happen. And I can’t do this by myself.’”

In order to deliver resources from the SBA to business owners all over America, he called on a strong network of allies. What resulted was a series of virtual town halls that aimed to teach more than 250,000 entrepreneurs and local leaders how to apply for forgivable SBA loans and the Paycheck Protection Program, both of which became lifelines to business owners and non-profits, especially for those in marginalized communities. 

His pension for allyship is something Ashley brought into his work with the National Black Bank Fund and Foundation as he created unexpected partnerships between Black-owned banks and major sports franchises. His ability to mobilize support and foster collaboration underscores the significance of building strong relationships and cultivating a sense of solidarity within communities.

2. Learn when to say “no.” 

Sonal Shah, CEO of the Texas Tribune, is no stranger to a career pivot. Her resume boasts leadership roles from Google to Georgetown University and from Goldman Sachs to the White House. Her biggest learning from all these transitions: the importance of saying no. 

As Sonal was getting ready to leave her post at the White House in 2011, she was presented with a plethora of career-changing opportunities. For many, this transition is a time to dig in and “level up.” But Sonal took a different path:  

“I knew I needed to take time off, but the fear I needed to let go of was the fear of irrelevance. Every time I said no to a job offer at that time, I had to let go of that fear all over again.”

She chose to prioritize reflection and pause before making her next move, confronting the fear of irrelevance and the pressure to conform to societal expectations around the path to “success.” Holding tight to the notion that she didn’t have to say “yes” to every opportunity gave her the freedom to make a fully informed decision about her next move and take on that next role with complete confidence.

From tech to finance to government to academia, Sonal’s journey is testament to the resilience, strength, and impact potential that comes from aligning one’s actions with their values, especially when answering the question: what’s next? 

3. Embrace connection and belonging.

Amid the tumultuous landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic, Max Lesko found himself grappling with the demands of his role as Chief of Staff at the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General. As the pandemic swept across the nation, Max confronted the pressing question of how to rely on others amidst chaos. 

In his quest for answers, he discovered the invaluable role of connection and belonging during times of crisis. Potential solutions can come from anywhere. Max shared that in order to solve complex problems, you need to see everyone and everything–friends, strangers, the natural world around you–as inherently valuable.

“How do you make sure you feel belonging in the world around you? How do you make sure you feel loved and that you can give love and that you can receive love? That sense of belonging and that you are worthy to somebody else, irrespective of a decision you make at work, irrespective of how relevant you feel, that is one of the most grounding forces.”

One is able to lead better if they feel a sense of community and belonging. Now, in his role as Chief Strategy Officer, Max has centered the value of social connection as a human health imperative within the Surgeon General’s office. Check out the Surgeon General’s recent report on the power of social connection to transform whole health and well-being here

Through the lived experiences of these changemakers, we learn that prioritizing community and reflection is not just a luxury, but a necessity to cultivate meaningful impact. Explore more conversations on leadership and building a more inclusive economy from the Global Inclusive Growth Summit stage here

About the Aspen Global Leadership Network

The Aspen Global Leadership Network (AGLN) is a growing, worldwide community of nearly 4,000 high-integrity, entrepreneurial leaders from over 60 countries who share a commitment to values-based leadership and to using their creativity, energy and resources to tackle the foremost societal challenges of our times. Because of their demonstrated accomplishment and abilities, they have been selected to join one of 13 geographic or sector-specific AGLN Fellowships around the world. Fellows convene annually at the AGLN’s flagship event, the Resnick Aspen Action Forum. For more information, visit aspeninstitute.org/agln.