Often our vision of leadership is that of a single drum major leading the parade. What if we turned this on it head, and saw leadership as a function of a community that develops people and creates a context where leadership can occur?
Over the last several months I have been studying how communities and individuals become more ethical or moral. This has given me the opportunity to interview people who have been a part of the transformation of communities and organizations. For each of these people, their transformation and leadership was not an individual process. Rather, it occurred through relationships and communities that created a context for their leadership and transformation to develop and occur. This has led me to wonder if we need to turn the concept of leadership upside down, from a focus on individuals to communities.
Instead of focusing on their own initiative, these leaders talked about people who opened them up to seeing the world differently. One man went from being a leader for the coal lobby to being a leader in reducing emissions from coal plants. He described how it was a chance meeting with scientist who took the time to go with him through the arguments about climate change that changed how he saw the issues and the direction of his work. Another told about how a Bishop who took the risk of giving him an opportunity and resources to be in a partnership of religious leaders from around the world together to address poverty. Other interviewees pointed out that their accomplishments were not based on what they did, but were the result of being on a team that “together could take on anything.” Instead of being drum majors leading a crowd of followers, these people instead described their leadership as embedded in networks of relationships that made their leadership possible.
These people have also described how communities and cultures can block leadership. Some of these people that I have interviewed have been major players within the fossil fuel and mining industries. They talked about how issues such as climate change or ethical extraction of resources can be addressed, but that the aversion to risk and potential failures within corporate culture prevent leadership from occurring. One person described this culture this way: “If I do nothing then I am not creating the opportunity to be judged, for people to say I made a mistake. The consequences for people who make transformative changes can be huge . . . if there is a flicker of a sense of failure, then they will crash, they will be pushed out, condemned. They will lose . . . their job, stature, respect.” The result is that issues that involve significant change are simply avoided. In my own experience in churches, I have seen how tendencies to treat developing leaders as threats to established officials, or to cut finances first for developing leaders and protect the old guard. Communities can prevent entire generations of leadership from developing.
So what if we turned leadership partially on its head? What if we saw leadership not just as a function of individuals or even partnerships, but rather as a function of a community? What if we saw leadership as something that happens because there are communities that develop individuals; that embrace risk (including the failures that come along with it); communities that together will not only seek out new visions, but also put resources into exploring those visions together? What if we as churches reclaimed our mission of being communities, not led by great leaders, but rather whose life together creates leadership not only for the church, but for the broader society around it?