“Take me to your leader!”

cartoon by Nopolymon aka T. Coffin

I’ve had leadership on the mind this week, mainly due to spending some time writing a proposal for some work developing a youth leadership programme for young people involved in the Woodcraft Folk.

For some leadership is a dirty word. It’s too closely related to hierarchy. Indeed there’s a moment on many direct actions when the police first approach activists and invariably ask to speak to whoever’s in charge. Much of the direct action movement takes great delight in being able to answer that “no-one is in charge”. In principle this is one thing I love about the movement: it’s fiercely non-hierarchical opening up space for new models of leadership – co-operative models. Of course it doesn’t always live up to its own rhetoric (who does?), and the person who answers “no-one’s in charge” is often one of the more assertive (dare I say dominant) personalities in a group and as such carries much of the weight of the traditional leader.

But I digress…. so leadership is often embodied in an individual. We have a leader, or a small committee of leaders. They are expected to fulfil all of the functions of good leadership: to inspire; to provide clear direction; to resolve disputes; to set the ethical standards for the group or movement; to speak with confidence and authority; to have a deep understanding and analysis of the issues; to be able to make hard decisions and so on. So far so bad….

For community groups, leaders can be the death knell. However competent they are, the very model of leadership breeds problems, and we’re often expecting people to do it with no training and little experience. Let’s look at a few of the problems:

Leaders can disempower people – one look at our heroic leader and I’m left feeling deflated in that “I can never be like him (and it’s usually a him), so I won’t even try” way.

Leaders can create a gulf between those that lead and those at the bottom of a group or organisation. Others are left with no opportunity or motivation to develop skills and knowledge because much of the work is done by the leaders.

Leaders can undermine sustainability of groups. It doesn’t take a group long to settle into a dynamic of active leader and passive group. OK so the group might be a group of activists, who undertake a lot of activity, but in terms of the roles within the group they can be passive. That may work for many groups, but it’s totally dependent on the leader. And leaders have health problems to. Leaders move to new towns, cities or countries. Leaders get new demands on their time… there are lots of reasons why a group might lose its leader. For some groups that’s terminal. There’s no-one with the skills or experience to take over and the group wilts and dies.

Leaders can cause disharmony and fuel competition which can lead to factions within groups and unhealthy group dynamics. Perhaps there’s someone else who aspires to the leadership role. Perhaps there’s a disaffected minority that have been on the rough end of some of those hard choices or alienated by those ethical standards. Perhaps one person does all the TV and radio and becomes the only person the media wants to talk to.

So what’s the alternative? Collective leadership. Let’s disembody leadership. See it as a series of roles that need to be fulfilled for a group to be well led. Those roles all need to happen, but do they really need to be done by just one person? Or a small handful of people?

Well functioning groups know this already. They value the input of all members. They know what members have to offer (because they’ve had that conversation). They know what members want to learn, and encourage and support skillsharing. They make time for this process alongside their activism, indeed they see it as an essential foundation for their activism. They welcome diversity. They plan for the long-term – they see the life of the group as more than the task at hand and establish resilient and sustainable groups. Founder members have understood the need to give away the authority that founding conveys on them as quickly as possible. They’ve created a culture of equality, open communication, supportive peer feedback, shared responsibility and mutual inspiration. They make themselves redundant as quickly as possible.

We live in a culture in which leadership from above is the default setting. We all understand it, even if we’re not all comfortable with it. It’s easy for groups to fall into this model of leadership through an absence of action rather than deliberate choice. Making change to a more empowered and empowering approach is easier once you realise that it’s not only (not even?) a political or ideological decision. It can be a practical decision about both the long and short-term success of your group. Of course, stepping away from the culture of top-down leadership isn’t always easy. It’s easy to find support and ideas for what’s considered normal and right, less easy for the alternatives. And of course we have to fend of our own socialisation to accept the model as best.

However, you’re not alone. Folk like Rhizome exist. See our links and resources pages for more ideas. And if you’re doing it and making it work, share your success with us (and we’d happily hear about the challenges too).

And for the facilitators reading. How’s it read if we replace ‘leader’ with ‘facilitator’? Whether we like it or not we’re often cast in a leadership role by the groups we work with….

“Take me to your leader!” 2: some thoughts for organisations wanting to promote shared leadership.


7 thoughts on ““Take me to your leader!”

  1. Thanks,
    good post. But…. If we start calling people facilitators when they are still in “leadership” roles, don’t we risk devaluing the word facilitator, and having people say “oh, yeah, they CALL themselves a facilitator, but REALLY they’re a leader.” And the word gets hollowed out, like sustainability, resilience etc. What’s my counter-proposal? Not sure I have one. “convenor?” “leader-trying-to-dissolve-herself” Dunno. But posts like this, that lay out the problems with traditional leadership, will, hopefully, help. The other question is perhaps “what keeps people sticking around”. We had a situation in Manchester a couple of years back where there was some real momentum around a particular group/issue. I was stepping back from activism (or trying to), and I watched, heart-broken, as the momentum just went out of the group like air from a punctured balloon. For me (and obviously I could be wrong) it’s about having sensible doable tasks that lead to “victory” or what could be victory. And help people in the group feel that the group is going somewhere, that their existing skills are recognised and harnessed, and that their desires for new skills are recognised and considered important. For that to happen you need (IMHO), resources, experienced activists who care about ‘newbies’ (horrible term) and who can put the hours in. I wish that I’d known about John Adair’s Action-centred leadership at the time. OK, I am going to shut up now. yabber yabber yabber…

    • But…. If we start calling people facilitators when they are still in “leadership” roles, don’t we risk devaluing the word facilitator

      Yep, we risk exactly that, and I think facilitators need to be very wary of the role (or perceived role) they play in groups ie: that it doesn’t become or become seen as a power role. However I do think that good leadership in groups is like good facilitation – it’s about bringing the best out of the group without allowing power to settle in the hands of any one individual or small cabal of individuals. It’s accessible to all, democratic, empowering, inspiring and co-operative

      All the more reason for facilitators to:
      (1) be clear about the role whenever we interact with a group
      (2) explore and, if necessary, challenge assumptions about the role early in their engagement with a group
      (3) be sincere in saying that without a mandate from the group we can’t facilitate, and to renegotiate that mandate at regular intervals to ensure that we’re still there with the permission of those we try to ‘serve’ (don’t get me wrong, I think it is a service role, but am aware of the potential for mock-humility in such statements)

  2. Pingback: Links: Of leaders, co-ordinated punishment and clicktivism «

  3. Sounds like an exciting project – am glad that they’re thinking about a proper training program. It’s been frustrating to see some of the bigger NGOs reduce their youth work – it’s where so many people like me have come from!

    Our experience with UK Youth Climate Coalition training might be useful if you want to talk any of the ideas through – happy to be a critical friend if that’s of value.


  4. Pingback: Link Loving 15.02.11 « Casper ter Kuile

  5. Pingback: “Take me to your leader!” 2 | rhizome: participation|activism|consensus

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