Desperately Seeking Leadership: Finding Fierce Community


Since posting “The Lie of Balance” I’ve spoken with so many of you who have provided feedback, encouragement, and asked questions about the things I said. I am thrilled that what I had to say resonated with so many, and even more thrilled that people commented with their own additions, addendums, and counterpoints. I experienced minimal trolling, which is nice, though someone did call me “Whitey” and told me to shut up. BAHA!

While perhaps my troll was right, I don’t intend to shut up. Rather, I hope I can continue a conversation with you. Often this kind of thing raises more questions than it answers, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. I do, however, seek truth, in all of my imperfect glory. Long live the chaos in my head and unanswerable questions!

Which leads me to a popular question asked by readers of my previous post:

How does one fiercely seek community?

I encouraged you to seek a community of individuals who will support and challenge you in a way that encourages outward and inward growth, in a way that does not harden us. Obviously, a lot more needs to be said.

Community is a weird word, one that has taken on so many new connotations as we are driven digital. I did a few quick experiments around “community” and related keywords and results were interesting.

On one hand, terms like “community development” still belong to a seemingly more academic/specialized professional group of people. I’ve been in the company of these people, who are inspiring, hard-working, intelligent and passionate. In my experience, they are also fairly insular. I have the utmost respect for these individuals. But how could I (little old me) even begin to conceptualize community the way they do?

On the other hand, if you ask the interwebs “how to build community”, the results direct you to articles that speak to building a community for yourself, with you at the centre as the leader of a tribe. These are sometimes written by individuals who have massive tribes of their own.

Do this to be “likeable.” Follow these steps to build a following. Grow your brand, grow your community.

Don’t get me wrong – I get this. I do this with nonprofits. How to encourage listening in an attention economy is what these organisations struggle with every day. This is how our world works and for many of the organisations I work with, this is increasingly difficult.

But the deeper problem with this is clear to me: somewhere between the very gifted and specialized Community Developers and those who want to lead a tribe of 1+, are literally millions of people who don’t know where to begin.

They are desperately seeking community and leadership, in those around them and in themselves.

Community, Unfolded

I love words, so much so that I got a degree in Medieval English. Beyond learning to swear in a dead language, this gave me the hunger to look deeper at the roots of words we use every day to see how far we’ve strayed from their original meanings.

Community. From Latin communitas, meaning public spirit, a sense and willingness to serve. From communisCom – together, Uni – one: Together (we are) one.

Some linguists have traced this word further to Proto-Indo-European (which is by some considered to be the common ancestor of modern languages) Kowoini/Emeyeto change

Something really interesting begins to unfold as we dig into the roots of community: when we come together as one, things change.

The fierce community I speak of is one that is striving for positive change, because it is in the nature of community to create change.

How do we begin to reconcile the difference between this profoundly beautiful image of coming together for change with the currently mass-marketed concept of tribes centred on individuals?

The answer, I think, lies in another word we may need to redefine.

The L Word

On any given day there are seemingly hundreds of new articles available on leadership. And the reason is obvious: things are broken, and we need great people to step up and fix everything. Special people. People like you and me.

There are a few issues with this kind of thinking:

1) Saying everyone is special is the same as saying no one is special

As I flip through many articles on leadership and community building, I notice that many of them are saying that becoming a leader directly tied to success: this is the kind of success that will bring me to the top of a ladder, having made it, with a tribe surrounding me. Strive to be a leader of your own tribe.

What would the world look like if we all actually took this advice and attempted to be this kind of leader?

I believe the idea of leadership we’re being sold is too inward-focused. I’m not saying that all leaders are selfish bastards. I’m saying that truly leading is an activity that springs from a willingness to reach beyond ourselves and serve those around us in a way that propels us to positive change.

True leaders are rooted closely to that image of community as change.

And yes, anyone can do that. We’re all capable. Just probably not willing. But let’s set aside the idea that leadership is a means to an end that climbs up a ladder. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all crown. Recognize that leadership not a superpower to be outsourced.

2) Leaders aren’t messiahs

Or rockstars. Or gurus. Or mavens. Or ninjas.

I have respect for expertise, and as we seek to create change we will need the guidance of those who have seen and done before. The problem lies in the space between simply diagnosing our biggest problems, over-simplifying them, and actually curing them. A lot of those we look to for leadership are great at diagnosing and potentially over-simplifying the problem, but aren’t around for the cure. It’s those change agents within the community that are left with the difficult task of an actual cure.

In his article “We Need To Talk About TED” Benjamin Bratton speaks of the bi-products of this approach to change and innovation:

“You see, when inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation.”

Placebo politics and placebo innovation, he says, offer seemingly tidy solutions and a momentary buzz on behalf of the audience, but no problems are actually being solved.

In this way, so many of those we look to for leadership have become enlightened sources of what Bratton calls “middlebrown megachurch infotainment.” True leaders are better than this, and false messiahs could never go beyond this. So let’s help each other out by skipping the rockstar mentality and getting things done.

3) Leadership has become a meaningless noun.

Here’s a fun exercise.

Explain to a 5 year old what love is. Love, the noun, is elusive and difficult. The more you try to explain it, the more the definition tends to unravel. As the concept is overused, it becomes increasingly difficult to capture. Even worse, it morphs and becomes an adjective. Lovely.

Now…. Try loving. As in, the verb. Show it. Act it.

Leadership has unfortunately become a platitude. Like innovation, creativity, and community itself – that is, a word or statement that has been used too many times to be useful, interesting or thoughtful. This happens to words when they become nouns and lose the force of action.

We need to save leadership, innovation, creativity, and community, from “All Talk No Action” syndrome.

I don’t want to get into a debate about semantics here, but I’ll use one more example.

We generally tend to agree that we prefer leaders over managers. Managers manage. Leaders lead. Managers tend to manage concrete things in discrete (albeit sometimes very terrible) ways. How do leaders lead? It’s emotional, it’s elusive, it’s … not managing. It’s one of those things that you know when you experience it – like love, the action is felt much stronger than the concept.

So where do you begin to seek community?

Let’s recap.

1) At the true centre of community is change. Coming together to share and change. The door is open to everyone, and no one should leave the same way they entered.

2) Community is not about you. It’s for you, and for others. It’s with you, and with others. It’s because of you, and because of others.

3) Ask not what leadership is and who is a leader. Ask instead how can we lead, and create momentum for ourselves and others to lead. Without action, leadership is an empty concept.

This may seem a far cry from my previous rant about tossing aside the shackles of “having it all” or work/life balance, but for me it is all intertwined.

Part of reconciling the fact that we are being marketed and sold a certain kind of success includes a false idea that community is something “I” create for “me”, and is just another consumable commodity that makes us feel good. As if the goal of creating community is to have people follow you, and that this will create meaning for us and them.

So how do we really seek community?

We can start it, not with “me”, but with a desire for change at the centre. You’ll notice it’s already happening all around you. Stop trying to define it, don’t scale it to some platitudinous ideal. I have no idea what’s already happening in every town and city around the world, but chances are great there’s something. It probably isn’t ideal, and it probably wasn’t your idea. And that’s okay.

It’s also not going to be easy. Leadership isn’t a get rich quick scheme and community is challenging, hard work. It’s going to push you. Change is difficult and being an agent of change can be an uncomfortable choice.

To once more quote Benjamin Bratton,

“At a societal level, the bottom line is if we invest in things that make us feel good but which don’t work, and don’t invest in things that don’t make us feel good but which may solve problems, then our fate is that it will just get harder to feel good about not solving problems.”

If we are seeking genuine change, genuine community, let’s toss aside these placebos and get to work.

This does not seek to be a diagnosis, nor does it seek to over-simplify. It’s an observation that this current approach doesn’t seem to be working, there are no easy answers, and each of us can begin to come together, rock star egos aside, and do the heavy problem solving together. As a fierce community.

And by all means, please tell me all about it. It’s time to do great big difficult things together.