Max Smith, co-director of the Community Organising Fellowship, outlines his thoughts on the practice of leadership for community organisers, and what it’s like to practice leadership during uncertain times created by the pandemic.
The Community Organising Fellowship is Australia’s most intensive training program for community campaigners and organisers.
If you’re a community organiser or someone who has been asked to step into leadership, you’ve probably asked yourself one or two of the following questions:
- What is leadership?
- What is the role of a leader?
- What does a leader do?
- What kind of qualities does a leader possess?
Before I attempt to answer some of these questions, I want to acknowledge that leadership can take many forms across cultures and communities. There is no one right way to be a leader. I also want to acknowledge First Nations communities as the original organisers. Many of the tools and frameworks I have learnt for understanding community organising and leadership are really borrowed and repackaged from First Nations’ cultures and presented with a white lens. I will share some tools and tips for leadership I’ve learnt in my community organising training and practice, but it’s worth keeping in mind that they are just that. These tools and tips are only useful insofar as we are committed to the work of real justice for everyone.
When I think about leadership in the context of community organising work, I think first about three rules I was taught as a young organiser:
- Organisers organise organisers.
- This tongue twister reminds me my job is to develop the leadership, skills, capacity, and confidence of others so that they can, in turn, organise others to do the same. Our power comes from organised leadership, and we need to build it.
- Organisers organise themselves out of a job.
- My role as an organiser is not to be a figurehead who leads from the front. My job is to make myself redundant by empowering more people to do it.
- Organisers don’t do for others what others can do for themselves.
- This is the golden rule. The ironclad rule. If someone else can do a job (even half as good), you must empower them to do it. There’s no point having an organiser doing all the things.
Often there are a lot of barriers to following these key rules. These can include: time, overwork, team culture, planning and intention, structure, strategy, and a lack of strong relationships. However, there will never be a perfect time to organise. This work is hard. So, for me, a core part of leadership as a community organiser is how we accept and deal with whatever barriers we face to navigate a path beyond them.
Leadership is about accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty – Marshall Ganz
I draw on Marshall Ganz’s definition of leadership. The key aspects of this definition for me are:
- Leadership begins with the choice to accept responsibility.
- Leaders are those who help us navigate uncertainty (together).
- True leaders never work alone.
- Leaders create conditions that empower others to achieve their purposes.
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns, restrictions, economic and social impacts, represents a big source of uncertainty in our lives and communities. And that’s probably a massive understatement. The practice of leadership is absolutely complicated by lockdowns and reduced face-to-face interaction. Almost everything has moved online. So how do we practice effective leadership under these circumstances?
I’ve found the following core practices of leadership to be most useful at this time:
- relationship building,
- cultivating effective team structures and cultures of community care,
- coaching, and;
My reflections on leadership have led me to make more time for relational meetings, check-ins and peer coaching sessions. I’ve also spent time revisiting team norms and principles to ensure our group culture is healthy, happy, collective, and effective.
Organising is based on building relationships. Every relational interaction is an opportunity to learn, both about the other person, and about ourselves. Relationships are the bonds that create committed organisers, powerful leaders and lifelong movement-builders!
While nothing compares to a face-to-face interaction, I’ve spent much more time through lockdown prioritising relationships over the phone and via Zoom. It can sometimes be tempting to communicate via messaging apps and tools like Slack, but nothing can ever replace picking up the old dog and bone (the mobile phone). When we experience conflict or are dealing with big challenges, no amount of online messaging will help us navigate a pathway out of conflict and into action. Because when we’re isolated from each other, maybe feeling lonely or sad, we need real interaction and conversations.
Building healthy groups
The pandemic also provides us with a prompt to evaluate the health of our groups and teams. In our campaigning and organising it can be challenging to keep group members inspired and motivated enough to keep showing up and doing the necessary work, especially when things get hard and we become disconnected or isolated from one another. But if we can ensure folks’ experience of group life is a positive one, our groups will be more able to navigate uncertainty together and achieve purpose. Of course, solid and supportive relationships are the building blocks of healthy and effective groups.
Another part of effective group health is ensuring your group is psychologically and culturally safe, so everyone’s basic needs are met. One way we do this in the Community Organising Fellowship is through the creation of shared norms and principles that we agree to adhere to, so expectations and boundaries for our work together are clear. It also helps to have a clear set of processes for how to norm-correct when those expectations and boundaries aren’t met (as inevitably does happen).
Some of the other key elements of strong and healthy groups include setting clear goals, plans, and roles, so everyone is on the same page and working together; regularly checking in and reflecting on our shared motivations and purpose, so we can stay connected to them; and monitoring, evaluating, debriefing, and celebrating our impact, so we can see our work makes a difference and stay true to our motivations.
Coaching is one leadership tool I’ve used a lot in this pandemic to navigate uncertainty and empower myself and others to achieve purpose. Coaching is a skill and process that enables people to identify their own power and resources and find creative solutions to the challenges we face. Good coaching is about actively listening, observing and asking open-ended questions that help people to reflect on, diagnose and analyse problems, and then generate ideas, options and new pathways for action. Coaching is premised on the idea that people are resourceful and have their own inner strength, knowledge, and skills to overcome any obstacles and uncertainties.
Coaching has been so valuable for me during this pandemic, helping me find hope and pathways for action when I was feeling down under the weight of big challenges and bereft of ideas. The 2021 graduates of the Community Organising Fellowship have also reported this as one of the most valuable things they learnt and practiced this year. Coaches are a gift! It’s pretty fun being a coach for someone too. The biggest challenge is often finding the discipline to only ask questions and not make “queggestions” (suggestions framed as a question even though they really are suggestions), as these can be an impediment to empowerment.
The previous three leadership practices all rely on good listening. In fact, the biggest leadership prompt COVID has posed for me is to take the time to listen. Through listening we can identify the issues that are widely and deeply felt in our community, and learn about the motivations, skills and experiences of those we seek to work with. Listening and asking questions sounds so simple, but it really is a great leadership development tool. Listening also builds trust and deepens relationships so we can act together. After all, empowering people to access their own inner resources, relationships, and achieve purpose is what it’s all about!
Organising leadership is all about accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose under conditions of uncertainty. The pandemic has certainly brought more uncertainty to our lives. This uncertainty represents a call to leadership and collective action. While the pandemic has disrupted some of the organising and leadership practices we are used to, it also prompts us to develop other leadership practices and find new ways to navigate uncertainty and achieve purpose. I’ve shared the leadership practices I’ve especially practiced and developed during this time, but there are many more.
For a deeper dive, consider applying for the Community Organising Fellowship. The Fellowship is a 6-month journey of connecting, learning, and skills development, which includes a strong grounding in leadership practices that I’ve only touched on here. You get to learn with peers working on a wide range of social and environmental justice issues, forming the close bonds we know support people in their organising and campaigning work for the long term. Applications for the 2022 cohort are open until 15 October.