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Definitions of Community Leadership

"Effective community leadership" is increasingly recognized as an important contributor to sustainable community development. Most commonly, "leadership" is a term that is used to describe the person who sits at the top of an organization, group or other body. It implies a sense of control, a hierarchical power structure, and it carries with it a range of emotive notions.

In the context of this article, leadership is in many ways the wrong word simply because of the preconceptions that come with it.

"Community leadership" is by necessity a specific form and subspecies of the larger concept of leadership, but it may not be recognized as leadership by those using common structures as their basis – it is usually local, representing a micro- or meta- community of common interest, and it is most commonly based in generosity, humanity and compassion rather than in power structures or hegemony.

In the same way that long-term studies of healthy, sustainable communities show us common factors, similar studies show us common factors in good community leaders as well. To be an effective community leader in a modern sustainable community requires a diversity of qualities that have identifiable indicators:

Effective community leadership seeks to build on and generate stores of social capital. Social capital is the network of relationships among the individuals and groups that comprise a community. This is the foundation that communities are based on – the friendships between individuals, as well as the relationships that individuals build with the groups and resources that meet their needs and that they have common goals with.

To effect a healthy combination of individuals and resources, community leaders need a sound knowledge of both people and available resources in order to act as creative problem-solvers, helping each individual find the niche and the resources that best meet their needs and goals. By facilitating healthy, long-term relationships where each individual’s personal needs are met, community leaders provide the backbone for a stable community.

As well as being sensitive to individual goals and needs, community leaders need to be responsive to the needs of the community as a whole. This is most effective when they share in the community’s short-term goals, community values and long-term vision. This sharing often can extend to leadership itself, challenging the traditional model of "leaders" and "followers". Such a lead-and-be-led partnership avoids paternalism and encourages the strong self-esteem in community members that generates and releases individual capabilities and the skills for nurturing community ideals.

A community leader should be capable of making the whole greater than its parts. In simpler terms, a good leader encourages and assists members of the community to greater things than they can accomplish on their own. In this way, also, community leaders provide a legacy by encouraging the leadership of the next generation within the community.

A good leader encourages and values the varied expertise among individuals in the community, ensuring that "community leadership" remains even when the initiating leader has departed. The leader guides the process of sustainable community development by sharing knowledge, empowering others, and nurturing the unique leadership potential in everyone.

Commitment combined with vision.
Community leadership involves commitment, but commitment is ineffective unless it is combined with specific objectives and a long-term vision. Such objectives and vision must be community-centered rather than self-centered in order to generate a shared vision among the individuals in the community. Shared vision, balanced with pragmatic objectives and combined with inclusive practices, generates and maintains essential commitment throughout the community as a whole. A good leader not only shares the long-term vision for the community, but also is capable of inspiring others to engage in that vision, and to actively work toward the short-term goals necessary to bring that vision about.

Trust is a major indicator of effective community leadership. This type of essential trust develops when leaders – by their attitudes, approaches and actions – indicate that they recognize the responsibility owed to people as well as to output, tasks or goals.

The leaders people trust are those they feel are open, honest, and (most importantly) prepared to listen to them and take them seriously. Good community leadership involves partnering with others, drawing in different perspectives and minority views, and opening up discussions about how we can take action together. Community members are unlikely to open up to, or share their deepest feelings or concerns with a leader who does not listen well, who they feel is not concerned about their issues, or who they perceive as threatening, judgmental, or dictatorial.

In a nutshell, effective community leaders are social entrepreneurs – leaders who inspire people to become involved, who find innovative ways of utilizing community strengths, and who give others the confidence to develop their skills and potentials.

Since all communities are unique, community leadership will always need to be redefined to suit different situations. Always, though, the ultimate test of an effective community leader is in the opinions and empowerment of their followers, and in the long-term results of their involvement and activities.


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By Sana Karine (Zanetta Wilson), copyright 2004.
For more information, please email homecircle@mindspring.com.