A Modern Hero For Complex Times. Leadership Lessons From Grassroots Leaders

Almost in direct response to the Geldof demand to ‘feed the world’ Adam Smith launched from scratch the organisation, The Real Junk Food Project. In five short years it has intercepted 5,000 tonnes of food, creating 11.9 million meals. His organisation is multi-award winning, and growing by the day, encouraging hundreds of people to start up a TRJFP cafes, projects and now Social supermarkets, genuinely helping to feed the world, change behaviours and save otherwise wasted food. In 2014, just a year after he had set up TRJFP he was voted one of the most influential men in the world by AskMen.

My immediate impressions of Adam were of an engaging, intelligent and dynamic individual. Based in Wakefield it could be said that Adam personifies the Northern Powerhouse as he is one of the most extraordinary and hugely effective individuals I have ever met. With true-grit drive and overwhelming energy if his spirit were to be bottled, the UK could now be trailblazing its way in the world, taking the lead and inspiring others to achieve more with less.

Start small, start somewhere
Like all grassroot hero journeys it started from very small beginnings with razor-clear vision, and led with lion-like determination and ferocity of intent. His ideas were not shaped in a committee meetings, or conference hall, nor planned around a brief, or budget and despite clear vision accompanied by no detailed plan about how it would be achieved, just determination that it should be achieved.

Adam trained as a chef, and it was whilst working on a farm in Australia that he saw first-hand the vast amounts of food going to waste, and discovered the new concept cafes that used food that would otherwise go to waste. The absurdity of the waste, the evidence of growing need and the inspiration of the recycling cafes, formed the idea for TRJFP . The simple truth was that people weren’t going hungry because there wasn’t enough food, there is plenty, it is simply a matter of distribution ( politics, greed and consumerism gone mad).

By definition grassroots heroes have to work with whatever resources are available to them, and find a way to make the most of these. This makes them incredibly agile resourceful, and highly effective engagers, and Adam is the perfect example of this. The concept of TRJFP conceived, Adam sent out 5000 emails to various organisations and individuals who he felt would be interested in his vision; his journey began after receiving just two replies.

His first of the ‘Pay as you feel’ cafes was launched in 2013 in Armley Leeds, and has fed over 10 thousand people and saved over 20 tonnes of food going to waste.

The power of a connecting purpose
Adams leadership is raw and unfettered by the need to gain wide ranging consensus and approval – he rightly considers his purpose to be more important than the bureaucracy that tries to contain it. He is bold, frustrated and utterly single minded, and crucially lacks the forever hungry ego that would probably have prevented his vision being so widely realised had it existed. His drive and determination can present challenges, as authorities struggle to manage and address his unorthodox ‘can do, will do ‘ attitude, but so far he and his team have overcome tough barriers and challenges and are experiencing global expansion at a rate most conventional companies would love to emulate.

When asked what has captured the imagination of the thousands of people now involved with his project his reply, like many of the grassroots leaders, is “ There’s nothing complex about it” . A clear straightforward proposition, that people can quickly connect to and that Adam provides a compelling, accessible way to deliver and inspiration to do so.

Seek out hidden potential
In the world of grassroots leadership we often refer to the ‘hidden potential’ that lies within our organisations and communities. Its bizarre to think that, on paper, Adam would probably not qualify for his own job, infact, had he had to apply for it within a conventional process, he would have been very unlikely to have even had an interview. His considerable talent, and leadership skills would have been hidden from C.V. view, left undetected by our myopic view of ‘value’.

Similarly there are many who work with Adam who would in all probability have failed the C.V. test too. People who, lacking the conventional career paths or qualifications, but galvanized by Adam’s purpose and drive have risen to play a vital and impressive part in the extraordinary growth of TRJFP.

Adams grassroots leadership has successfully brought together and inspired an eclectic group of people from a myriad of backgrounds and experience, driven by same clear goal, to create a highly motivated, effective organisation able to achieve outcomes most traditional top down organisations would love to boast.

Light-touch leadership – How so few achieve so much, with so little
When everyone is bound by the same compulsion to deliver there is far less need for control and command leadership. The weight of investment then becomes in creating best conditions for people to work and engage.

With Grassroots leadership the lack of resource necessitates a high level of ingenuity, agility and creativity that ignites with clear purpose and light touch leadership. Time and again Grassroots leaders demonstrate the power of small beginnings in achieving real change, and innovation. Leadership that works with reality, rather invests all energies in trying to control it. When people are inspired, feel part of something where they are valued and involved, they don’t need ‘controlling’, just guiding and supporting. In these circumstances people are capable of so much more.

This light touch leadership is beautifully illustrated by Adam. He only has one rule for his team to work to, and he insists this is all the ‘control’ needed to bring out the best in the people who work for him. This one rule is pinned up on the wall in his office, and manages to provide the guiding light necessary to steer this phenomenal organisation forward..

“#Be Kind.”

Leaders of the world take note.