Top-down leadership is healthy for early-stage communities

But it’s equally important not to get stuck there…

Communities are fragile at the beginning — Photo by Nikola Jovanovic on Unsplash

We had a virtual meet-up with our group of community builders last week to discuss how we can improve future versions of the group. As part of that conversation we brainstormed different ideas how we can start distributing leadership and bring in more people to co-create the group with us. In our breakout group, Emily Bokar expressed a thought that has been resonating a lot with me: distributing leadership and co-creating is important for the evolution of a community. But in communities that haven’t been around for a long time, some top-down leadership is important and actually crucial for survival and long-term prospering.

Why does top-down leadership matter at the beginning?

  • Early-stage groups need consistency, rhythm, reliability, stability. Top-down leadership (aka a few people who can decide without having to consult the whole group) can provide that much more easily.
  • The analogies that come to mind is that a community in it early moments is like a young plant or a young child: fragile, vulnerable and needs protection and nurturing. As the child grows up, it becomes more self confident, develops its own consciousness and wants to shape its own life. I think groups go through a similar maturity evolution.
  • The Me to We shift: At the beginning, people just show up as individuals. And they are looking for direction — who will provide those directions? Who will tell them what this group is about, what the norms and values are that this group represents, how they are expected to show up? What are the ways of being involved and what are the experiences?
  • Young groups have a hard time making any decisions — someone has to take leadership to put collaborative decision making processes in place.
  • I can imagine groups without leadership to emerge, but I think they have to be super mindful of the situation and intentional of how they do everything in the group, and it only works with small groups.

But don’t get attached to power in the long-term…

While strong leadership is needed at the beginning, it shouldn’t get attached to its position of power and influence. Because if it will stay a top-down, centralized community, there is only so far the group can go. In order to scale and mature, it will need to decentralize and distribute power and responsibilities.

For me this matters, because it informs the evolving nature of community leadership:

  • At the beginning, it’s important to be a steady, clear, strong, visionary leader.
  • Then it all becomes about empowering others, enabling them, supporting them.
  • And step by step start sharing power.

That is a very untraditional and anti-climatic leadership approach and I imagine not what is taught at business schools across the globe. But maybe this applies to more than just community leadership? Curious what you think!

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Together Institute

Hi there, we are Together Institute, we exist to help people and organizations build more meaningful communities. Here is where we share what we learn and think about.

Thanks to Sascha Mombartz

Fabian Pfortmüller

Written by

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

Together Institute

Hi there, we are Together Institute, we exist to help people and organizations build more meaningful communities. Here is where we share what we learn and think about.

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