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Community leadership: is member enthusiasm more important than strategy?

Photo by Nikola Jovanovic

I’m currently in India and recently sat in on a meeting of a local community that comes together to transform their city. At the gathering one of the community members excitedly suggested a new idea that she was motivated to run. From an outside perspective, it seemed like an odd idea to me. At the very least it seemed off-strategy. The person who currently leads the community patiently listened to her idea and encouraged her to go for it.

This made me think about how people’s energy to create things, their intrinsic motivation and excitement, is such a precious resource in community life, it drives everything. And it also made me wonder if people’s excitement is more important than following alignment, strategy and plans. It is through people’s individual energy after all that things happen in groups. In most cases that’s more important than how good or bad the idea is, is it?

Enthusiasm as a guide for decision making

In any case, even though this enthusiasm is so crucial, we don’t pay enough attention to it. We make plans based on strategies, because that is how we make decisions in most parts of our lives. If I told my boss at a corporate that I didn’t want to go with the shared objectives, but would rather go for what excites me, I would be laughed at. If your organization exists to drive a specific, clearly defined outcome, you need to be focused and people will get their energy from their salaries, not from their intrinsic motivation.

Yet communities are fundamentally different. While they are inept at driving a singular outcome, they are a great way for people to bring in their gifts and transform ourselves and the world around us, often in unexpected, emergent ways. Plus, most communities are driven by unpaid volunteer engagement, so intrinsic energy is often not only the best fuel, but the only one, too.

What’s becoming clear to me is that paying attention to people’s energy in the group should be integral to any decision making. In addition to asking strategic questions such as ‘where do we go from here’ we should routinely ask ‘what are people excited about and how can I support them to make their ideas happen?’

Another thing I have realized is that many community leaders — myself included — forget their own motivations and needs. But most of us are still driven by intrinsic motivation (and many of us burn out because that energy isn’t infinite). So I’m learning to ask myself the question: What gives me energy? What do I really want to do?

Case study The Borderland

If you’re interested to dig deeper, I recommend this case study of the Borderland, written by my friend Brooks. Borderland is a regional gathering in Scandinavia inspired by Burning Man and their key ingredient for success is “enthusiasm”. Some highlights:

  • “While enthusiasm is Borderland’s main ingredient, our true secret ingredient is the poetic vision, ambiguous statements and flowery language that inspire people and allow them to galvanise their dreams and inspirations.”
  • They built a platform called Dreams — think of a community-internal Kickstarter — where people can list their project ideas and get funded by other members. “We operate using Dream grants as a significant part of our budget. Dream grants are pots of money to turn a certain vision into reality. In our drive to decentralise we built a platform to allow everyone to participate in the process of allocating the money.”
  • Re Dream grants: “This came with tons of difficulty as it can cause a lot of friction when a dream is not supported by the community. Enthusiasm and inspiration can be a double edged-sword. We reacted by creating a culture where conflicts are met with vision and poetry that can generate growth instead of draining energy.”

Does energy and motivation always trump strategy, consistency and alignment?

Probably not. There are some instances where ideas violate the group’s principles and safety. As the Borderland case outlines, ideas can also be a source of conflict. But outcomes in communities are hard to predict. Maybe that Indian community member’s idea will turn out to be life-giving. Maybe not. Maybe it will inspire other members to bring in their ideas. Maybe not. There is only one way to find out.

How does this resonate with you?

Thanks for reading. We write these posts to learn from and be in conversation with our peers. What do you think about this idea of paying more attention to members’ energy as a guiding principle?

This post was created in community and is part of a bigger project.

We met as part of the Community Canvas project in 2018 and have been running learning journeys for community weavers since. Now we are working on a next version of a community framework. This post is part of it. The learning journeys were developed by Michel Bachmann and Fabian Pfortmüller, guided with the support of Erin Dixon and Sita Magnusson and shaped by the conversations with many community weavers. Sign up here if you’d like to be notified when we launch the new framework.

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Fabian Pfortmüller

Grüezi, Swiss community builder in Amsterdam, author of @CommunityCanvas, co-founder Together Institute, |

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