“Lean Back” for community development leadership

Asset Based Community Development is a growth industry. It has been around since the mid 1950’s but is now coming to the fore. Partly it is driven by economic necessity, as the state, both centrally and local begins to reduce due to economic retrenchment.  This is also combined with the understanding that local people are often best placed to develop local solutions to their challenges. As these local groups develop and begin to thrive we need to give some consideration to the challenges of leadership at both a micro and strategic level.

An individual community group might be small, perhaps even bijou! But can transform the quality of its community.  Together, in the West Midlands Combined Authority, the voluntary and community sector is estimated to be in excess of 20,000 organisations, with a combined spend of £1.4 billion and 31 million interventions with local people.  This is powerful stuff that has so far been under the radar of leadership support.

There is a dynamic American entrepreneur, Sheryl Sandberg, whose leadership book emphasised the predominant Wall Street culture of the time.  The title was “Lean in” and it reflected the aggressive, competitive have it all mentality of this successful woman.

When discussing the leadership topic at a recent conference, Cormac Russell (a faculty member of Asset Based Community Development based in Chicago and leading thinker on Community Development) suggested that the leadership style that should be considered is “Lean back,” to give a space for group members to take ownership. This is a challenge to both community development practitioners, group leaders and the professionals that link to support and fund them.

For the people who are often establishing their community group in a financially hostile environment the leaders often have to “lean in”, to challenge for funds and support and many are extremely charismatic attracting willing people who volunteer and become active parts of the group.  This strong sense of leadership clearly has many benefits particularly at the start of a community group’s existence.

However it can delay true progress. Some academics, for example Gilchrist and Taylor, have argued that Community Leaders are not always the best people to champion community interests, even though they may be hard working and highly articulate.  Their role and relative power may put them at the odds with the people they are representing.  They may have got caught up in (and addicted to) the politics of the local area, sitting on various committees, or being too partisan and reflecting narrow interests or favouring particular groups. It has to be acknowledged that this view is one of many.

The maturity of a community group can be seen when the leadership (group) reflects both the population concerned and its own values.  The style will be unique to each group but probably errs on the following values of democracy, egalitarianism, collaboration and inclusiveness.  This is some tall order, but increasingly we are seeing a new model of “lean back” leadership where power and responsibilities are distributed within the group.

To encourage this style of leadership and for our society to learn from it is challenging.  In particular it is a challenge to the local institutes such as the NHS and local authorities who are used to a commissioning model (so setting the agenda) rather than taking a facilitation and development role.  Cormac expanded up the lean back idea saying that creating space in this way is essential because the growth in community interest nearly always more to do with group development not leadership. Ultimately leaders need to relocate authority from the front of the room to the back!

Asset Based Community development groups should be applauded for their successes so far.  However they need the space to review their leadership development and the institutes that connect with them should be looking at finding ways to engage and coach rather than demand community development.

The author, Rob Legge, is an independent leadership coach and trainer based in the region. He can be contacted on rjlegge@hotmail.co.uk.  He is grateful to Ted Ryan of RnR Organisation that specialise in Community Development and project management for his wise comments.

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