Together Institute
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Together Institute

Community leadership through role modeling?

In the 1950s, social psychologist Solomon Asch developed a series of foundational experiments around social conformity. One of the famous experiments takes place in an elevator and was featured in the 1962 tv show “Candid Camera”.

The main take away from the Asch experiments is about groupthink: How people want to be accepted by groups and go to great lengths to integrate, even if the demanded behavior goes against their personal values (or common sense). Asch’s theory developed the foundation for conformity psychology and has been influential in explaining why people end up participating in activities such as genocide or bullying.

While that is true, I have taken another lesson from this simple illustration: that when people come into a group setting, they look around themselves and they start copying the behaviors of everyone else around them. That this is how values, ideas, rituals and other implicit dimensions of the community are transmitted.

On the one hand this made me realize the limitations of the written medium: If we want the group to adhere to certain principles, values, norms, yes we can, and often should, write them down. But written words on a webpage don’t make them reality. Groups take on values by copying the behavior that someone with implicit or explicit authority role-models.

On the other hand I realized that, like in parenting, role-modeling is a key dimension of community leadership. If I want the group to embody certain values, I have to live those values myself.

For example:

  • The way a community leader treats people will influence how other members treat each other.
  • The values a community leader fights for will be the values the group takes seriously.
  • The values that a community leader violates or ignores will be values the group does not take seriously, either.
  • The rituals that a community leader practices will feel normal and will be more easily adopted by community members.

For me as a community weaver this means that what I do matters, but how I do it might matter even more. What do you think?

I’d love to hear what you think about the power of role modeling as part of community leadership — how does this resonate?

Thank you

Thank you to my collaborators who have been opening my eyes about the power of rolemodeling: Michel Bachmann, Erin Dixon, Sita Magnusson, Lana Jelenjev, Nettra Pan.

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