Leadership as a Structure: What Drives the Success of Influential Leaders in Advocacy?


The lines between influencers and leaders are increasingly blurred – a phenomenon that has been accentuated by digitalization. In pre-social times the word leader represented people with charisma and resilience, who could impact or motivate communities through their influence. Leaders still use their influence to lead people, whereas influencers try to lead just via their influence.  Building on this new kind of influence over communities is paramount to the success of advocacy cases. The new generation of leaders who make use of influencer tactics facilitated by technology have a better chance at successfully advocating for public interest issues.

Falling into the trap of influencers

Today’s leaders have to be present both in real life and digital spaces. There is a real risk for leaders to fall into the trap of being just influencers on digital platforms. Real-life values and missions need to also be incorporated into these virtual spaces.

Influencers act upon commissions that they receive, creating communication products and content whose aim is to sway the communities they hold influence over, for a short-term effect. They are therefore an instrument that is utilized to advocate for specific issues of concern. Although these influencers have the power to attract public attention, their belief systems do not always reflect the interest of the community they have power over. This is a difference from leaders, who attempt to inspire their constituents while building on widely accepted public values.

Nowadays, leaders are behaving more and more just like influencers in their efforts to make people follow them. Such leaders exert individual power without strengthening the role of institutions and the system they operate in.

There is a real risk that development actors go for low-hanging fruit by joining efforts with such leaders whose sole agenda is for personal and not public gain. By utilizing the same actors repeatedly for advocacy efforts, development actors also run into the trap of elite capture and social exclusion.

Answering these burning issues has become an integral focus of advocacy efforts and knowledge-sharing resources. The Western Balkans Regional Advocacy Network is building on a regional outlook to develop solutions for the above-mentioned traps.

Adea, age 9, drew a picture showing how she imagines a leader who is able to influence.

Western Balkans Regional Advocacy Network: A broker for solutions

For more than two decades, Helvetas Eastern Europe has played a key role in the implementation of numerous development projects across the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe. Helvetas’ thematic interventions, such as vocational programs, market system development and governance studies, have all utilized the essential element of advocacy. These years of accumulated knowledge and experience served as a driver for creating the Regional Advocacy Network.

The network gathers like-minded individuals to discuss solutions that other projects have successfully applied and to engage in consistent knowledge sharing. Through regular virtual and in-person exchanges, participants have learned and discussed the best practices and challenge issues pertinent to their country-specific situation. The network regularly uses the Helvetas Advocacy Toolbox as a frame to present advocacy interventions.

Solving burning issues

Identify the nucleus of power. At the beginning of any advocacy effort, a proper context analysis is applied to help participants understand the political, economic, social and institutional context in which the actors operate and that they must navigate. This analysis involves identifying key actors – people that we call influencers. Helvetas has designed a Political Economy Analyzation Toolbox to help practitioners understand the context they operate in.

Link the nucleus of power into “Leadership as a Structure.” Leadership as a Structure is a network of influential actors working within political, administrative and civil society institutions. The power exercised by members of Leadership as a Structure is limited to their sphere of influence. A good leader enables the networking of power nuclei and steers them. Leadership as a Structure yields influence in many ways. It acts as a team that owns the problem and solution, voices it out through different channels and stands for its own idea. It is able to build consensus beyond political affiliation. The members of a leadership structure are capable of building compromise without competing between themselves. They also play different roles in an orchestrated action. Finally, all members take responsibility and are committed to making a change through advocacy.

Learn more about Leadership as a Structure

To learn more about leadership as a structure, contact the Helvetas EEU Regional Advocacy Network at AdvocacyWesternBalkans@helvetas.org.