4/19/2009

Humility in Leadership

To what extent do participants in joint activi...Image via Wikipedia

What does it mean to be a "community leader"? Community leaders, generally, are not elected. Often they come into their positions by simply being among the first to act in their community to bring attention to a problem. Perhaps they are the first to assemble a group of friends or like-minded people to create a grassroots movement.

But one thing all community leaders must keep in mind is that they are not the community. It is tempting, especially with younger people, to confuse community with self. The praise and attention heaped upon those who serves as community organizers can be heady. Those acting on behalf of their community must continually fight against the urge to put self above the needs of the community as a whole. What might be good for one may not be good for all.

Many times people step into these roles thinking that being an activist is sort of being a party organizer with a cause. Rallies, protests, and other public events are easy. You find a place to hold it, you promote it, and that's pretty much it. When I say easy, I mean that there is usually very little need for political skill, political knowledge or self awareness.

But, organizing parties is not community organizing. Community organizing requires that there be clearly defined goals. It is not enough to say "We'll make our community safe!" you must define how you will make it safe. What steps will you take to make it safe?

Let's take the case of a fledgling movement in a smaller city. Rallying to the generic cause of "equality" the usual round of rallies are out of the way. But what is the next step? More rallies? Yes, in many cases that is as far as they get. Rally, rally, rally, rally... always calling for change but rarely doing anything to bring about that change. Why? Rallies are easy. Politics are hard.

In these cases, without clearly defined goals and a clear plan about how to achieve those goals, the community will tend to go into reaction mode. They will seek any reason to hold a rally in order to keep up the energy of the community.

When that is combined with a community leader or organizer who sees himself or herself as the symbol of the community rather than the servent of that community, the movement cannot mature. The leader will tend to act in a manner to keep his/her name in the press. Without a clear goal and game plan, the leaders are free to pursue any path no matter how sensational because there is no expectation of real momentum on real issues. Playing on the victim mentality the movement will eventually derail without achieving any real change and quite possibly destroying opportunities for advancement for some time in the future.

So, what about the small city who wants to make the community "safe"? What could they do to actually achieve a more secure city for their community?

First, define why they feel "unsafe." Are there incidents of bullying or harassment? If so, are there already laws that cover these? If so, why aren't the police investigating? If not, what can be done to pass laws to protect those segments of the community?

Second, work with the governmental agencies involved to bring about the changes necessary. This is where most newly minted "community leaders" begin to falter. They may be great at playing victim and organizing a protest or rally, but often they're very ill-equipped to handle the give and take of politics. In many cases, they will intentionally either shy away from such matters or think they can negotiate from behind a bullhorn and while demonizing those they need to sway.

There is a place for protests and rallies. When things reach an impasse they can often break it free by putting pressure on people to act. However, they should be the last resort, not the first. Resorting to a protest march or rally for every perceived slight shows a lack of maturity and a decided lack of political skill. To be an effective community leader one must have a sense of strategy and tactics. The rally, the media, the private negotiation, and the formal political process are all weapons in the activists arsenal. They must be chosen carefully and in a timely manner. Each should be assessed for it maximum effect on the ultimate goal.

For example, using the protest before the officials whose action you need are even aware of a problem is useless. Accusing those officials of misconduct in the media, or some sort of bigotry before you have sat down with them to even learn their positions can destroy the process before it begins. Eschewing a formal political process in favor of a rally means your goal will never see the light of day. Holding a negotiation with officials and simultaneously broadcasting your doubts about their ability or desire to act responsibly will make it difficult for them to take you seriously or work with you in good faith.

The aresenal of the activist is powerful and it must be wielded by someone of sufficient maturity and self-restraint to put the needs of the community ahead of their personal desire for praise or fame. A real community leader must be prepared to take lumps from all sides and remain steadfast in their work toward the goals of their community. They must be willing to say "no" to those in the community who would misuse one of the weapons in the arsenal.

Throwing a good party is easy, being a community leader is not. If you don't have these traits in spades, perhaps the title "community leader" is not for you:
  • Self-Control
  • Wisdom
  • Restraint
  • Humility
  • Compassion
  • Political Knowledge and Skill
  • Fortitude
  • Self-Esteem
  • Strong Personal Support System
  • Sober and Moderate personality
As Harvey Milk noted in his recorded will: "Everything I have done has been with an eye on the gay movement." If anything a community leader does has more to do with his/her personal feelings, a personal gripe, a personal slight, or a personal desire for fame... then that leader has betrayed his community by putting his/her needs ahead of others.
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