Thought leaders are often ahead of their time. They can find themselves ignored, overlooked, and even shunned. How do you overcome the naysayers?

Imagine if you knew that the world was coming to an end, but no one would listen.

I had the privilege of seeing the revival of the 1985 play, Normal Heart, at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco – a gut-wrenching exploration of the very beginnings of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The play is set in New York City in the early 1980s and follows the life of Ned Weeks (a fictionalized version of the playwright, Larry Kramer) who witnesses the dozens, hundreds, and eventually thousands of people in the gay community, including many of his own friends, who are dying of what was then a completely unknown disease.

Weeks is not the most loveable character – he is outspoken to the point of obnoxiousness, determined to the point of bullheadedness and aggressive to the point of combativeness – but his commitment to his cause is unshakeable. He spends every waking hour writing, speaking, fund-raising, event planning, and rallying others to action; he turns his home into a grassroots organizing office, demands that everyone he knows get involved and calls in every favor owed and un-owed, trying to awaken others to what is really going on.

Yet, despite his fervent and unflagging efforts to bring about change, he is stymied again and again and the rare, hard-fought wins, however important, are always overshadowed by the overwhelming losses – of both political battles and individual lives.

It would have been easy to get caught up in the drama unfolding on the stage – indeed, by part way through Act II, tears were streaming down my face and those of the other audience members around me – as more characters that we had begun to identify with and love, lost their lives to the disease. But what was instructive and part of a larger story for anyone advocating for a cause was watching Weeks’ ongoing struggle in the face of overwhelming odds – in the face of denial, obfuscation, fear, lies, homophobia, unending dead-ends and silence.

To be denied support was one thing, but it was clear that it was the silence that was so much worse.

No one in power would even admit that HIV/AIDS existed for many years, indeed it was 7 years after the first cases appeared before Ronald Reagan publicly mentioned the word AIDS and even today most countries refuse to recognize the devastation that has taken place and is on-going. The statistic that was projected on the wall at the end of the performance told the whole story – 35 million dead, 75 million infected from 1981 to 2012.

So, what lessons can we learn from Weeks’ experience watching otherwise well-intentioned people refusing to act? As we seek to gain traction for our ideas, funding for our projects, political support and the necessary resources to combat an intractable problem, what are some ideas to be gained from the few successes and many losses during the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that might inform our own efforts? Here are a few lessons I gleaned of what to do when no one is listening.

  • Align your own community (as much as possible) at the outset
  • Focus on building a community that will ACT, not just listen
  • Look for unlikely allies
  • Don’t assume everyone who is ‘just like you’ is on your side
  • Realize all voices have a place in fighting for a cause – even the disruptive ones
  • Warriors are good, generals are better 
  • Remember leaders (and heroes) need tough skins

Align your own community (as much as possible) at the outset

The infighting and fundamental disparity of views within the gay community on what to do and what message to espouse went on for years. Should they focus on caring for those already infected, or fight to get money and political support for their cause? Given that so many gay men were closeted, the latter path was fraught with enormous challenges (if someone was ‘outed’ they faced potential job loss, loss of benefits, loss of family support). Even in communities without these identifiable types of peril, disparate views among a community’s leadership or members can destroy the unity necessary to lead to action.

I know that when we co-founded the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, we faced a fundamental disagreement that threatened to take us off course. My co-founder had one direction in mind for the organization, and I had a completely different view. After several months of disagreement, our board sent the two of us out to dinner one night and told us not to come back until we had resolved our differences. Making it through that turning point successfully allowed us to scale our efforts with everyone on the same page.

What counts is the number you can persuade to ACT

One of Larry Kramer’s biggest challenges was that when HIV/AIDS broke out, there were no established groups within the gay community with the necessary numbers to get the attention of the Mayor. Without the ability to activate 4000 people to call the Mayor’s office in one week, it was all but impossible to get his support. While it is true that sometimes having established organizations already ‘owning’ the message can mean new ideas are more easily squashed, the reality is that with no one to stand with you, making real change (political or otherwise) is almost impossible.

Carly Fiorina, Carol Bartz and Jill Barrad all found that out when they were unceremoniously displaced from their jobs as CEO of HP, Yahoo! and Mattel, respectively. No matter who you are or how far you’ve risen, without the power of a community, you can fall (and become irrelevant) very quickly.

Look for unlikely allies

One of the successes of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was the willingness of the lesbian community to give their unstinting support to the gay men fighting and dying of the disease, despite the fact that in the past the two groups had not been easy allies. Today, thirty years later, the gay community in San Francisco is hosting a ‘Brothers for Sisters’ event to say thank you, which goes with the corollary to this point – it’s never too late to say thank you to those willing to stand by your side against all odds.

Don’t assume everyone who is ‘just like you’ is on your side

Because someone was gay did not guarantee they would align with Kramer’s efforts, just as Hilary Clinton could not assume that every woman would support her run for Presidency. Membership in a group – particularly one that you are born into (like being a woman or being gay) – does not confer alignment on that group’s issues. Wooing begins at home.

All voices have a place in fighting for a cause – even the disruptive ones

Normal Heart is a play about playwright Larry Kramer and his fight for recognition, funding and resources to stem the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but it could just as easily have been the story of any person crusading for a cause – Rachel Carson’s efforts to stop the use of DDT; Nikola Tesla’s fight for the adoption of AC over DC power; Elon Musk’s advocacy of the possibility of space travel to Mars. Every one of these ‘crusaders’ followed a different path and advocated in a completely different way, (some with soft voices and persuasive books and others with big wallets or dozens of patents), and yet each had an important impact in moving their cause forward. Sometimes it takes 5 or 50 or 500 different voices, all advocating for the same change in a different way, before it happens. If you are leading a cause, embrace every one of them.

Warriors are good, generals are better

As we left the theater, each member of the audience received a letter from the playwright in which he attempted to update, engage and energize all of us to join the cause to raise the funding and build the political will to discover a cure for HIV/AIDS. In that letter, he says, “Please know that there is no one in charge of this plague. This is a war for which there is no general and for which there has never been a general. How can you win a war with no one in charge?”

Thinking back over the last 30 years, he’s absolutely right. There is no one leader who has epitomized the HIV/AIDS fight. While people have heard of Rachel Carson, Nikola Tesla and Elon Musk, who has heard of Larry Kramer, or Paul Popham or Rodger McFarlane, three of the key activists from this fight? Perhaps an epidemic that has claimed 35 million dead (including Paul and Rodger) is just too big, or has gone on too long for one person to be the ‘general.’ Or maybe it’s time for one of our billionaire philanthropists (Bill Gates?) or global statesmen (Bill Clinton?) to claim this as their cause celebre and step into the role of general.

Leaders (and heroes) need tough skins

Perhaps the saddest part of Larry Kramer’s story was the backlash he faced from inside his own community for his activism. When no one else was willing to write about gay men dying, he put pen to paper; when no one else was willing to organize, he established the first gay/AIDS non-profit in his living room; when no one else was willing to speak out, he went on TV and radio to rail about what was happening and to call for change.

To his surprise, others accused him of being an alarmist, of being too political, too radical, and too confrontational. He was accused of seeking the spotlight and using the cause of gay men dying to build his own celebrity. And when his letter-writing campaigns, picketing and acts of civil disobedience finally did begin to pay off, he was unceremoniously expelled from his own organization and forced to the sidelines.

Communities do not always appreciate their heroes and another word for ‘celebrity’ could be ‘target’. I recall my own experience in 2001, when my efforts to move the needle for women’s entrepreneurship led me to cover stories in prestigious magazines and invitations to speak at top universities. Rather than applaud my success, I faced my own backlash among the members of the organization I had co-founded and led for 8 years – people who were not happy that I was getting the limelight and they weren’t. Given the time, energy, and devotion I had given to this cause, the sniping from my own community was not only disheartening; it was downright shocking to me. But it has also served me well in counseling others who have since faced similar reactions.

Normal Heart is more than a play about Larry Kramer, it is far more than a play about AIDS, it is a play about passion and despair, hope and tragedy, fear and death. It is also a play about leadership of a cause and its lessons are worth learning. Please go see it when it comes to a theater near you. It might make you cry, it will certainly make you think.

And perhaps, with 35 million dead, and 75 million infected, like me you’ll realize there’s no time to waste – the sky really is falling and it’s time to do more than just listen – it’s time to ACT.