One of the most paradigm-shifting concepts I teach in leadership is that leadership is a process of community. Most people come to understand the concept but it does not fit within the traditional American model of leadership.
The traditional model of leadership is that there is a single heroic person that large groups of people follow. Whatever that person says to do is what the followers do. It is the classic “find a parade and walk in front of it” model of leadership. While this model of leadership makes for good movies, when we deconstruct leadership, we will not find a hero at the heart of leadership. We will find community.
Our greatest leadership challenge today is confronting the reality that our communities have fallen apart and social connections exist mostly online. We do not know our neighbors. We eat fast food alone in our cars next to other people eating alone in their cars. We pay people to care for our children. We pay people to care for our elders. We pay people to cook our meals and mow our lawns. We pay people to educate our children until they are old enough for us to send them away where we pay other people for “higher education,” removing our students and their talents completely from our community.
Our communities are now collections of individuals structuring their lives in every way possible to avoid contact with other people. So what is the result of this in terms of leadership?
I consult with many people who have tried to start something for the social good and burn out because they are “doing all the work.” They are expected to be the hero. Why is this the most common model now?
Two reasons …
1. We perceive leadership as someone else’s responsibility.
We have culturally lost the concept that leadership is a collective effort. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not march for freedom and equality alone. He was the visionary voice for the collective effort of hundreds of thousands of people. He would have accomplished very little if he did everything alone.
But when our communities are not connecting, there is no substance within which social action can take place. It is like trying to turn on a lamp with no electricity. You can flip the switch all you want, but unless there is electricity flowing to the light, nothing will happen.
This is the very reason that our businesses, organizations, schools and government build hierarchical structures. They try to institutionalize and systematize a proxy for authentic leadership structures because we have lost civic engagement right along with our community connections. In short:
Hierarchies have become the organizational cast for the broken arm of community.
2. Our consumer culture tells us we can purchase the answer to any problem.
We have abdicated our responsibility to solve problems and we try to purchase our way out. My doctor is responsible for my health, not me. My nanny is responsible for my kids, not me. My local school is responsible for educating my child, not me. My favorite restaurant is responsible for my meals, not me.
This cultural practice is the reason why entrepreneurship has become the drumbeat of America. Create market solutions to social problems, which includes everything from acne to saving the environment. These two cultural views create the perfect storm that destroys the traditional model of leadership and highlights the greatest shortcomings of traditional leadership:
Leadership is powerless without community.
If everyone thinks leadership is someone else’s responsibility, there will be no leadership. If our culture tells us we can purchase the answer to any problem, we will look to purchase leadership. This is why corporate CEOs are paid such high salaries. It is a function of these two cultural constructs in America.
However, if we acknowledge the reality that leadership is powerless without community, our paradigm shifts to see that community is the heart of leadership. Our paradigm changes from asking “who is the leader?” to “who is leading next?”
This paradigm shift reveals several truths about leadership:
• Traditional “leaders” are really visionaries.
The “leader” or “hero” people perceive is not doing all the work. They are usually the person who has the clearest vision for a group’s actions. However, hierarchies tend to confuse visionaries with positional leaders and disempower communities in the process.
Leadership thrives where there are no clear answers. So, when trying to create social or organizational change, people will naturally have questions on where to go, what to do and why. They are not looking for someone with a fancy title to answer their questions, they are looking for someone to communicate a clear vision that can inform their actions. Today, organizations place the responsibility of communicating the vision of the organization in the mouth of the person with the fanciest title. So, you can see how we begin to equate leadership with people with fancy titles. And if you do not have a fancy title, you are not a leader. Hierarchical structures in organizations perpetuate the perception that leadership is someone else’s responsibility. However, if we see the visionary, not as the “leader,” but as one of many important pieces of a community-based leadership movement, we empower everyone in the community to contribute their “gifts” as a critical piece of the collective effort we call leadership.
• Leadership is an action, not a person.
When we see leadership as an action, it brings into sharp focus the problem with the concept that leadership is someone else’s responsibility. When leadership is an action, you are either doing something or you are not. There is no soul searching or personality assessment needed to figure out if you are a leader. Leadership has nothing to do with who you are and everything to do with what you do. As I like to tell my students, “leading is leading and sitting on your butt is sitting on your butt.”
• Leadership is a process of community.
When we get away from the idea that leadership is not a person but rather a collective action of community, we see that every person plays a critical role. It empowers everyone. It engages the minds and talents of everyone. It places the responsibility and accountability on everyone. The action that creates the positive change becomes the focus rather than the hero who is supposed to ride in on a white horse and save us all.
We have to change our paradigm if we want to see progress in our communities on any social issue. Want to solve something? Build a community of action that empowers people. Others will point to it and call it leadership. Why? Because leadership is a process of community. To co-opt a line from Vince Lombardi:
Community isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.
Originally posted January 13, 2012. Home page image Darwin Bell.