Heroism & Distribution in Community Leadership

A reflection from Ned Younger, Deputy Director at Koreo

In our early work on the Community Leadership Academy in 2019, we articulated an ambition for the programme that it might support the better understanding, development and distribution of community leadership capacity around the country.

Although the programme has always been designed as an offer to individuals to support their own development, there has been an equally consistent expectation that an individual participant’s personal growth would have a broader influence on the people they work with and the wider community they are working for.

As a result, what it means to distribute leadership in communities has been an ongoing concern for us as we designed, delivered and evaluated the programme in partnership with Local Trust and our learning partners. To what extent are the people we are working with working differently as a result of their involvement in the CLA? But also how are other people benefiting and to what extent is broader capacity being developed that can support community-led change?

Distributed leadership has been one of the central concerns of leadership and management theory this century, driven by a host of factors including an interest in flatter organisational structures, growing scepticism of authority, and technology which both enables and in some cases demands new approaches to governance and organisation.

In this, the messy work of leading in communities and social movements clearly has something to offer a leadership literature that nonetheless mostly ignores it in favour of a near pathological focus on the corporate. This blind spot means community leaders end up in the unenviable position of being served up leadership models from organisational life which don’t apply to the work they do, but which continue to dominate the understanding of what ‘good’ leadership looks like. This might be part of the reason that people working in communities are so resistant to the ‘community leader’ label, understanding it as referring to a form of heroic leadership that celebrates the individual over the collective.

Throughout the design of the CLA, heroic leadership provided a useful shorthand for the kind of leadership that the project sought to avoid and deconstruct, and was in sharp contrast to the more distributed vision of leadership that the project was keen to support and develop.

That distributed vision fairly quickly came up against the stories and experiences people brought to the programme, which were consistently defined by not only the demonstration of, but also the need for, a type of heroic leadership in community work.

One of my defining memories of the early days of the pandemic were the short introductory calls I had with people joining the programme across February and March 2020. Against the backdrop of lockdowns and scrambled responses to pressing local need(s), it became clear that charismatic, heroic leadership played an essential role in many of the Big Local stories, and that a good/bad binary wasn’t going to be particularly helpful.

That ‘heroism’ often provided the burst of energy and/or ambition necessary to make things happen in communities that lacked established social infrastructure, or the persistence to drive through provision or change in the context of indifferent public services. That energy was often spurred on by a combination of pressure, frustration, opportunity and lived expertise, and which unlocked an activist or entrepreneurial energy which had to that point been fairly dormant.

The people who had demonstrated this form of leadership tended to take the position of Chair in the Big Local ‘partnerships’ (essentially a board of trustees), which meant they played a formal leadership role and often assumed a lot of the responsibility for the success of the projects they were working on.

Importantly, whatever led to them taking on that role, a consistent story emerged about getting stuck in both the role of leader, with the mindset of someone who can’t hand anything over for fear of it not happening. That meant that by the time we met them they were by and large exhausted, isolated, and in some cases in or emerging from prolonged conflict. To use the metaphor which resonated broadly, they’d been on the dancefloor too long and needed some time on the balcony

None of that meant that their initial mode of action wasn’t effective or helpful, or that without them a network of distributed leadership would have emerged to fill the vacuum. The challenge wasn’t necessarily the heroism, it was when and how to shift away from heroism and towards something which more sustainably spread responsibility and built the broader capacity for leadership and action.

As a result, the challenge became about how to create the conditions that enabled people to transition out of heroic mode and create the space and structure for other people to step into the opportunity they may have created. What perspective needed to shift, what invitation needed to be offered and how, and how could the transition or even ending be facilitated sensitively.

All of this has helped us to reflect on the needed for a nuanced understanding of heroic and distributed leadership, on the value of seeing leadership through contextual time-bound roles rather than through styles, and on the importance of creating the necessary invitations to reflect and change practice rather than tilling the same field over and over.

You can find the full CLA evaluation and report on the Local Trust website.



Practices Notes on the Community Leadership Academy

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