Leadership – mass participation or elite sport?

Leadership in Leeds

How does a community get the leadership that it needs to thrive?

Is it a question of finding an elite cadre of movers and shakers, networking them, hot-housing them and amplifying their power?

Or is it about offering the opportunity for anyone to ‘lead’ on whatever matters most to them, their loved ones and their neighbours?

Can we design leadership development processes that:

  • support and reward mass participation?
  • are inclusive rather than exclusive?
  • respect local starting conditions (values, cultures and issues)?

Certainly this kind of leadership development is possible.

By giving people space to talk about what matters to them and encouraging them to think through what they can do about it and whether they want to move from words to actions we can find ‘leaders’.  But they rarely see themselves as such.  They don’t see their agenda as being ‘leadership’.  They may see it as developing a ‘local community website’, or ‘starting an urban gardening project’ or ‘finding opportunities for young people to learn and earn in our community’.  There are plenty of people looking to do plenty of good things and the truth is that what we usually describe as ‘Leadership Development’  is unlikely to help them in their work…


  1. Mike,
    No sure I can sign up to everyone is a leader. That sounds chaotic. I do sign up to everyone being a decision maker. We need people to decide to follow as much as lead. I think this is likely the point of what you are saying; perhaps we are just separated by a common language 😉

    How to find them? Talk to people, ask questions, take risks. We are trying to develop this skill at Shine for when the day comes that we are reinvesting significant profits into the local area. Indeed we are trying it now with the resources we are reinvesting. Some would like to see bureaucratic walls set up to ensure we have a transparent process and its completely equal. This means application forms and surveys and panels. I think that simply wastes resources to give the impression of complete neutrality. Nothing is neutral, nothing is equal, nothing is without risk.

    What I would argue for, a fair system with little to no bureaucracy. The emerging US Trusts model that does not ask for applications, but instead, searches for people making a positive difference in the fields they are interested in supporting. They quietly support that person, amplifying the good work; not putting it through a sausage machine to make sure it fits some preconceived paradigm.

    I would take the same approach to community leadership. Let’s spend our energy finding people who are greening, making safer, educating, investing in, and creating cohesion in our neighbourhoods. Then let’s use our collective power to amplify that work. Simple, time-consuming, not very sexy, but important work.

    Perhaps this could be the singular goal of the leadership series we both attended. Pick a few key indisputable themes: health, education, crime, community, business and divide them up into groups so we have teams working in each area. Result: lots more local leaders (not everyone), and examples (of leadership) for others to follow—that are relevant.

    • Don’t think we can blame this one on ‘the common language’. We do see things differently. Which is of course OK.

      Every human being is born with potential and agency, to lead if they so wish and or to follow. But we tend to collude in, and perpetrate the myth that says only a certain few are ‘leaders’. We then set ourselves the challenge of finding and investing in those few. My take is that everyone has the potential to lead. They just have to figure out what it is that they HAVE to lead and how. Or, who/what they have to help/oppose. These too are forms of leadership. Everyone leading is not chaotic. It is everyone having the chance to be an active powerful agent in the complex system we call society.

      You touch on the issue of who to trust and how to administer support to/investment in ‘leaders’, on developing a system. Well, I am not sure that money is really the issue. You wave money and suddenly all the sharks and grant junkies stick their hands up as ‘leaders’ in need of investment. Leaders are people who start from where they are at and work with what they have got. Not those whose leadership is dependent on the investment of another. For them leadership becomes about securing investment and funding. It becomes what JG Ballard called a ‘dependent client class’, a weird kind of leadership that is in service to funders. Leaders as lackeys and funders as puppeteers.

      We need to help people who have to make change happen to build their power and support networks. How do we make it possible for them to find a platform and to develop their voice? How do we acknowledge that ‘we’ might be part of the problem rather more than the solution?

      If the best we can do is to find people who are already working on ‘our agendas’ (greening, making safe, creating cohesions etc) and raising their profile the nothing much will change. We need to make it OK for people to pursue THEIR agendas – even if and when they are not part of our policy objectives. I can’t remember the last time I met someone who said that live would be just find if they could lose a few pounds, give up the cigs and reduce their carbon footprint. These maybe our funding and policy objectives, but they are not the issues that demand leadership. It is not US who should be picking the themes – but those who we wish to engage in the dark arts of leadership.

      We need to build a leadership ecology that recognises that bottom up is the new black.

  2. I propagate the idea of “leading from every seat” in my organisation. Each person has an impact on the lives of the people we aim to work with. The decisions they take can amplify that impact or deaden it. In every interaction they can improve their reputation,. that of their team and of their organisation too. The receptionist trudging through five miles of snow to make sure someone is there to greet people at the health centre is showing as much leadership as a district nurse trudging through the night to a palliative patient. We just need to see it, value it, encourage it. That requires a different model of leadership form those ultimately accountable. Beyond the heroic model to a facilitative model.

    How that idea is transferred to a community is another issue. I can see how in our trust we aim to share values of the organisation and a common vision of why we work. Doing that in a community is more difficult.

    Rob Webster
    Chief Executive
    Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust

  3. I find this conundrum fascinating and I do hope that in Leaders for Leeds we can develop an approach to leadership that you describe. I’m particularly interested in the role of large public sector institutions which have assets and resources – should these organisations be releasing those assets to support people leading innovation in their communities and how is this best done? We’ve done a bit of this in our NHS Trust and it requires quite a different approach and different way of thinking as well as taking a few risks. I personally would like us to build on this approach and engage in more collaboration where public sector organisations are acting in a supportive rather than leading role.

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