Marshall Ganz Quotes and Wisdom


Inspiring quotes from Marshall Ganz, an expert in leadership, organizing, and narrative, collated by the Commons Social Change Library. He is currently a lecturer at Harvard University.

Leadership and Organizing

Where can we find the courage to act in spite of fear? Trying to eliminate that which we react to fearfully is a fool’s errand because it locates the source of our fear outside ourselves, rather than within our own hearts.

Practicing leadership – enabling others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty – requires engaging the heart, the head, and the hands: motivation, strategy, and action.

Leadership in organizing is rooted in three questions articulated by the first century Jerusalem sage, Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who am I? When I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? – Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers)

Organizing is a practice of leadership whereby we define leadership as enabling others to achieve shared purpose under conditions of uncertainty.

Organized collective action challenging the status quo—a social movement— requires leadership that goes far beyond a stereotypical charismatic public persona with whom it is often identified. Unable to rely on established bureaucratic structures for coordination, evaluation, and action, such action depends on voluntary participation, shared commitments, and ongoing motivation. Movements must mobilize under risky conditions not only because well-resourced oppositions often resist their efforts, but also because the undertaking itself is fraught with uncertainty about how—and whether—it can happen in the first place.

Mobilizing others to achieve purpose under conditions of uncertainty— what leaders do—challenges the hands, the head, and the heart.

How do you invest in developing leadership but not in creating dependency of that leadership upon you?


Hope is the belief in the probability of the possible rather than the necessity of the probable.

There’s a real sweet spot between challenge and hope – leaders make pathways that keep both firmly in view.

Young people have an almost biological destiny to be hopeful.

Participating in a social action not only often involves a rearticulation of one’s story of self, us, and now, but marks an entry into a world of uncertainty so daunting that access to sources of hope is essential.

There’s a real sweet spot between challenge and hope – leaders make pathways that keep both firmly in view.

The Power of Story

A story is like a poem. It moves not by how long it is, nor how eloquent or complicated. It moves by offering an experience or moment through which we grasp the feeling or insight the poet communicates.

Well-told stories help turn moments of great crises into moments of new beginnings.

When we tell our own story, we teach the values that our choices reveal, not as abstract principles, but as our lived experience. We reveal the kind of person we are to the extent that we let others identify with us.

Public narrative is a leadership practice of translating values into action. It is based on the fact that values are experienced emotionally. As such, they are sources of ends worthy of action and the capacity for action

Storytelling is how we interact with each other about values; how we share experiences with each other, counsel each other, comfort each other, and inspire each other to action.

When we tell a story we enable the listener to enter its time and place with us, see what we see, hear what we hear, feel what we feel.

A story communicates fear, hope, and anxiety, and because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts. That’s the power of story.

Stories teach us how to act in the “right” way. They are not simply examples and illustrations. When they are well told, we experience the point, and we feel hope. It is that experience, not the words as such, that can move us to action. Because sometimes that is the point – we have to act.

Narrative allows us to communicate the values that motivate the choices that we make. Narrative is not talking “about” values; rather narrative embodies and communicates values. And it is through the shared experience of our values that we can engage with others, motivate one another to act, and find the courage to take risks, explore possibility and face the challenges we must face.

Public narrative is woven from three elements: a story of why I have been called, a story of self; a story of why we have been called, a story of us; and a story of the urgent challenge on which we are called to act, a story of now. This articulation of the relationship of self, other, and action is also at the core of our moral traditions. As Rabbi Hillel, the 1st Century Jerusalem sage put it, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?”

Through public narrative leaders – and participants – can move to action by mobilizing sources of motivation, constructing new shared individual and collective identities, and finding the courage to act.

Leadership, especially leadership on behalf of social change, often requires telling a new public story, or adapting an old one: a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now.

Narrative is not talking “about” values; rather narrative embodies and communicates values.

Stories teach. We’ve all heard the ending – “and that is the moral of the story.” Have you ever been at a party where someone starts telling a story and they go on…and on…and on…? Someone may say (or want to say), “Get to the point!” We deploy stories to make a point, and to evoke a response.

The moral of a successful story is emotionally experienced understanding, not only conceptual understanding, and a lesson of the heart, not only the head.

Story of Self

Telling one’s story of self is a way to share the values that define who you are — not as abstract principles, but as lived experience. We construct stories of self around choice points – moments when we faced a challenge, made a choice, experienced an outcome, and learned a moral.

A story of self communicates who I am – my values, my experience, why I do what I do. A story of us communicates who we are – our shared values, our shared experience, and why we do what we do. And a story of now transforms the present into a moment of challenge, hope, and choice.

In the early days of the women’s movement, people participated in “consciousness raising” group conversations which mediated changes in their stories of self, who they were, as a woman. Stories of pain could be shared, but so could stories of hope.

Social movements are often the “crucibles” within which participants learn to tell new stories of self as we interact with other participants.

Stories of self can be challenging because participation in social change is often prompted by a “prophetic” combination of criticality and hope. In personal terms this means that most participants have stories both of the world’s pain and the world’s hope. And if we haven’t talked about our stories of pain very much, it can take a while to learn to manage it.

Our cultures are repositories of stories. Stories about challenges we have faced, how we stood up to them, and how we survived are woven into the fabric of our political culture, faith traditions, etc.

Some of us may think our personal stories don’t matter, that others won’t care, or that we should talk about ourselves so much. On the contrary, if we do public work we have a responsibility to give a public account of ourselves – where we came from, why we do what we do, and where we think we’re going. In a role of public leadership, we really don’t have a choice about telling our story of self. If we don’t author our story, others will – and they may tell our story in ways that we may not like.

People come thinking that they have a deficit and they are coming to a training to acquire assets they don’t have; they leave realizing they have within their life experience what they need to be able to make an impact in the world.

When we tell our own story, we teach the values that our choices reveal, not as abstract principals, but as our lived experience. We reveal the kind of person we are to the extent that we let others identify with us.

Story and Movements

Movements have narratives. They tell stories, because they are not just about rearranging economics and politics. They also rearrange meaning. And they’re not just about redistributing the goods. They’re about figuring out what is good.

Storytelling may be what most distinguishes social movements from interest groups.

Social movements have expressive, instrumental and organizational dimensions — story, strategy and structure. In their expressive mode they begin to tell a new story that gives voice to moral claims at the heart of a movement: demands for dignity abused, injury unrecognized, hurt unhealed, justice denied.

Social movements are often the “crucibles” within which participants learn to tell new stories of self as we interact with other participants.

The capacity of a social movement for effective action depends largely on the depth, breadth, and quality of leadership able to turn opportunity to purpose.


So the power question requires asking: First, who holds resources to effect the change we want, whether it’s changing a law, policy, practice, language? Second, what resources do our people have, whether it’s time, commitment, money, courage to go to jail, discipline? Third, how can we combine our resources to influence what those in power need, whether it’s business as usual, getting elected, staying out of court, keeping a reputation or just minimizing cost?

In the end, we cannot hope to change the deep power inequalities that increasingly divide our country unless we recognize the need to change all of them for all of us.

The civil rights movement opened a lot of doors. But it left so much undone. It expanded the opportunities for so-called “qualified” people of color to enter the power structure, but failed to reconfigure the power structure itself.

Dialogue becomes possible only under conditions of equal power. It is hard for unequals to have a dialogue. In a posture of inequality, the one with the power sets the terms. The one without power is expected to accept the terms.

The first step toward creating a dialogue may be to shout and speak the truth. Then comes the strategic question: can we build the power we need to create the conditions in which real dialogue can occur? And that’s when movements have to be resourceful enough to find new sources of power. Substituting dialogue for equality is a sham and winds up being a play-act. Power, as it is, is never ceded willingly.

The fact of the matter is, when resisting change becomes more “costly” than accepting change, change happens.

Challenging the status quo takes commitment, courage, imagination, and, above all, dedication to learning.

The challenge of the heart is one of motivation, of urgent need to act, and of hope for success, and the courage to risk it.

When we consider action in the face of uncertainty, we have to ask ourselves three questions: why must we act, how can we act, and what must we learn to do.