Riding the “Movement” Wave

Movements and Institutions.

It’s trendy to criticize institutions. Decaying behemoths that cater to the elites of a bygone cause are easy targets. Across the political and religious landscape, many prefer to associate with “movements” that eschew the traditional establishment in favor of an idealized future. Yet a nagging reality remains: any movement that does not institutionalize will not have lasting impact.

In politics, movement is in; institution is out. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has referred to Trump’s popularity in the current Republican race for the White House as a “movement.” Bernie Sanders’ “movement” has also resulted in his unlikely surge among disaffected voters.

Institutions get backhanded in the religious world as well. For example, I just read another Christian leadership author who repeats the predictable mantra that movements are preferable over institutions. Although the vast majority of his book’s endorsements are from institutional leaders, the author pontificates that movements prioritize innovation and spontaneity while institutions focus on control that “quenches the Spirit.”

We get the message: movements are good; institutions are bad.

This negative reaction is understandable toward organizational entities that morph over time into managed monuments. But let’s not drink the anti-institution Kool-Aid® just yet. For it is noteworthy that Occupy Wall Street was a movement, but you can’t live for long in a park.

Tim Keller, noted leader and author, gave a concise overview comparing movements and institutions:

  • Movements are informal. Institutions are formal and complex.
  • Movements are united around common goals. Institutions are united around rules.
  • Movements usually work for change. Institutions create stability and permanence.
  • Movements are led from grass roots. Institutions are organized top-down.
  • Movements function through fluid relationships. Institutions have clear job descriptions.
  • Movements expect personal sacrifice. Institutions focus on personal benefits.1

Robust societies need both movements and institutions. Movements introduce new ideas and leverage hope. But movements that don’t institutionalize end up wearing people out and losing momentum. All people have a bias for eventual stability; they cannot change every week or live perpetually with no salary. So movements have to organize or fade away.

But all institutions must have movement dynamics, or they too will wither and die.

Avoiding Institutionalism

Here are five tips for leaders to avoid institutionalism:

  • Challenge people and processes.
  • Communicate constantly a compelling purpose.
  • Encourage and empower followers to act.
  • Connect to other partners and networks.
  • Reproduce yourself.

Sanders and Trump are riding the “movement” wave. But waves are short-lived; only movements that institutionalize – and institutions with movement characteristics – have staying power.

1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqHQjN9fuv4

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