Community Leadership

Social Entrepreneur: Leaders who inspire people to take risks, who find clever ways of using abandoned assets, who give others the confidence to develop their skills and potential.

Botsman and Latham, 2001

Effective community leadership is increasingly recognised in Australia as elsewhere, as an important contributor to local social development. The leadership approach is based on a premise that individual development enhances community capacity. This is accomplished through training that equips people with the tools and understanding of the decision making process and allows their views to be expressed and incorporated into future development and planning. The acquisition of new skills also enhances effectiveness in addressing issues affecting their communities. It should also strengthen the community’s capacity to identify opportunities and address crises in innovative ways.

Leadership is a diffuse concept and therefore difficult to define. It is an emotive term with associations such as “vision”, “commitment”, “eloquence” and “inspiration”. However the concept can be negative as well as positive and thus be associated with overweening ego or a desire for hegemony. As it involves authority or control there is the possibility for abuse of power. Leaders have been insane, egocentric, authoritarian or charismatic; and at times, because leadership is decidedly situational, these qualities have produced efficient leaders. Leadership is also difficult to define as it is frequently equated with the simpler concepts of management or facilitation where the emphasis is on either styles of leadership or (ostensibly) neutral manipulation [ Sorenson & Epps, 1996:114-115; Palmer, 1997:1 & 2; Falk, 1999].

Community leadership is a specific form of the general concept of leadership. It is frequently based in place and so is local, although it can also represent a community of common interest, purpose or practice. It can be individual or group leadership, voluntary or paid. In many localities it is provided by a combination of local volunteers, business and government and is best served by what is called “place management”, ie. a combination within a region of Government resources, professional and business skills and the energies of the local community [Sorenson & Epps, 1996:115-117; Osborne & Gaebler, 1993].

To be an effective community leader in a modern Western society such as Australia requires a diversity of qualities that have identifiable indicators. Effective community leadership seeks to build on and generate stores of social capital [ Falk, 1999]. In this case, the leader acts as the social entrepreneur, using resources in new ways to maximise productivity [ Osborne and Gaebler, 1993]. Social entrepreneurs push “the circle of trust and community activity outwards” [ Botsman and Latham, 2001]. Support is thus generated from within a community for its own members. As women have frequently been community leaders, community leadership has not been as gendered a concept as national leadership has been [ Weeks, 2001; Centre for Leadership for Women, 2001]. Some research, however, questions the wholesale application of this model and indicates that different classes respond differently to such methods [Giddens, 1998].

Such social capital as a community possesses, however, needs to be combined with other resources. To effect such a combination, leaders need a sound knowledge of both people and resources and so act as creative problem-solvers. Governments can become facilitators of this process by providing financial support and advice [Botsman & Latham, 2001:15 & chap. 12; McRae-McMahon, 2001:109-116; Falk, 1999].

Community leaders need to be responsive to community needs. This is most effective when they share in the local community: its goals, values and vision. This sharing can extend to leadership itself, challenging the traditional model of “leaders” and “followers” [ Sorenson & Epps, 1996: 118]. Such a partnership avoids paternalism and encourages self-esteem which generates and releases capabilities and skills [Botsman & Latham, 1996: chap. 8].

A leader should be capable of making the whole greater than its parts; ie. members of the community are assisted to act in a manner other than they could have on their own. In this way, also, the leader provides a legacy as the investment has been made in encouraging people potential. If a leader has the good sense to encourage, value and utilise the varied expertise in the group, then “community leadership” remains even when the initiating leader has departed. Mentoring and delegation are essential components of this process. The leader guides the process of sustainable community development by empowering others and giving decision-making to the community [Lawless, 1997; Maser, 1999; Moore & Feldt, 1993].

Leadership involves commitment, usually emotional commitment, whether that is anger or passion. Commitment is ineffective unless it is combined with specific objectives or a more general vision. Such objectives or vision should be community-centred not self-centred. It is possible to control through other emotions such as coercion or fear, but these techniques are only effective in unusual circumstances and are antipathetic to effective community leadership. Shared vision, balanced with pragmatic objectives and combined with inclusive practices, generates and maintains essential commitment [Stubblefield, 1993; Abraham, 1994; Sorrenson & Epps, 1996].

Trust is a further major indicator of effective leadership. Such trust has a number of sources, some of which relate to practices already discussed. It may, perhaps, come from the personal integrity of a leader, from his/her hard work or from previous engagement with the community. An important outcome of such engagement should be the willingness and ability to listen and recognise that no one has a monopoly of truth. Trust may develop when leaders through their attitudes, approaches and actions indicate that they recognise that responsibility is owed to people as well as output/ task/ production [Sorenson & Epps, 1996; Palmer, 1997; Falk, 1999; Kirkpatrick & Bell, 1998].

Vision, collaborative planning and collaborative partnerships are the essence of effective community leadership. It must be recognised that, although it can be learnt, community leadership is not a science. There is no one set of practices that ensure effective leadership. Community leadership needs to be and will continue to need to be redefined to suit different situations. It is certainly not a static concept.

December 2001.

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