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Community leadership: how can I uplift the voices of members while still expressing my own vision?

Photo by Daniel K Cheung

Three years ago I helped co-initiate a community called Wasan, bringing together network builders in philanthropy and non-profits. We had a first gathering in 2019 and we have been meeting in various constellations since then. Along the way we had several strategic conversations about the future of the group. Together with my co-hosts we would prepare and facilitate the conversations, make sure we include as many voices as possible and summarize and distribute what clarity is emerging. This seemed natural. I felt called to be a steward and serve the group. Yet I was quite startled when a member in a recent discussion turned the question on me and asked: but what do you want? I realized that in these years, trying to serve the group, I had spent very little time thinking about what motivates me personally.

It started with an opinion

I was startled, because, originally, I had started with a clear vision. Together with my co-initiator Hinnerk Hansen, our clarity became the seed from which this group grew. Yet along the way, I started to deprioritize my own opinion, and see my role less about speaking my clarity, and more about enabling others to speak theirs.

I see that tendency in other community weavers, too. The type of person that is attracted to community work tends to be giving, caring, listening. Many community weavers I know are great at uplifting others, but feel hesitant at speaking their own truths.

Overall, empowering the voices of others is, of course, a good thing. In our case, it turned the project from an initiative by a few individuals into a project co-created with a collective. It really created a sense of community.

Yet I think we are doing a great disservice to our groups if we don’t connect the work to our own motivations. My intuition is that simply acting out of service to others without tending to my own motivations can lead to individual burn out and collective confusion. Community leadership requires a delicate balancing act of uplifting others and being in touch with my own needs.

Not an easy balance to find

I truly believe in that balance, but find it hard, even scary to act upon. Healthy community leadership is not a command and control type of authority. Community leadership is relational, listening, caring. To speak my own truth in that environment feels risky: it comes at the cost of potential alienating fellow community members, of having an opinion different from theirs. I have to trust that speaking my truth, even when it’s against the collective consensus, serves the group (or, at the very least, serves me). That requires a deeper self-confidence and stability that isn’t easily gained by reading blog posts about leadership, but the results of much inner work.

This feels somewhat ironic. I imagine that leaders in traditional top-down organizations don’t struggle with expressing their own opinions. In fact, I imagine that traditionally it’s all about their opinions. Yet the other extreme, of only caring for the opinions of the collective isn’t sufficient either. Maybe this is yet another example of where the generative way lies in finding balance between these extremes.

How does this idea resonate with you?

What do you think of this idea of expressing your personal opinion as a community leader, even whilst trying to uplift the voices of others?

Some related thoughts:

Thank you

A big thank you to my collaborators, who have shaped this thinking on community leadership: Michel Bachmann, Erin Dixon, Sita Magnusson, Lana Jelenjev, Nettra Pan.

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Hi there, we are Together Institute, we exist to help people and organizations weave thriving communities. Here is where we share what we learn and think about. https://www.together-institute.org/

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Fabian Pfortmüller

Grüezi, Swiss community builder in Amsterdam, author of @CommunityCanvas, co-founder Together Institute, fabian@together-institute.org | together-institute.org

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