Leadership Blog

  • The Challenges of ‘Engaging Community Leaders’

    Leaders for LeedsI attended Leaders for Leeds this morning – a breakfast meeting that connects a group of people who are trying to work on achieving ‘best city’ outcomes, aka make Leeds a better place to live.  I jotted down a few notes, some taken from our conversations and some capturing thoughts that I didn’t have time to express, and these form the basis of what I have written here.

    The theme of the session was ‘Engaging Community Leaders’ exploring the premise that Leaders for Leeds needs to get more and different people and perspectives into its network.  We were invited to explore what might need to happen for more community leaders to show up.  This raised a number of interesting issues in our conversation and the thoughts it prompted in me:

    What do we mean by community?  Geography? Interest group? Ethnic group? Faith based group? Age group?  Community is a weasel word.  We can utter it with gravity and credibility while conferring on it no specific meaning.  It is a broad signaller of intent, with no specific commitment or rationale attached.  I reckon what we actually mean by ‘community’ is often ‘target population’.  Except Leaders for Leeds has no ‘targets’.  We are not clear on whose voice we want in the room and why.  We don’t know whose voices are missing.  If ‘they’ were present what would they say and do?  How would that help?  Who would that help?

    ‘Community Leader’ is an equally difficult term.  Often it is little more than a media label applied to someone who expresses an opinion about a community issue.  They may lead a project, or an organisation, but do they lead a community?  Leadership is usually contested.  They might lead some but not others in ‘the community’!  We also discussed how bestowing the title of community leader can be damaging to the individual concerned and their relationships in the community.  Few are prepared to put themselves forward as community leaders.  The label does not fit.  They don’t recognise it.  Call yourself a community leader, or be called it by someone else, and you risk getting a backlash.

    We also talked about ‘community leaders’ who are appointed or recruited, either from the community or into the community, to do a specific job for a particular sponsor in ‘the community’ and how seldom they seem to become effective catalysts for lasting change.

    So why the interest in ‘community leaders’?  Is it because it is a convenient idea?  If we can find them they provide a short cut to ‘engage with community’?  Are we looking for individuals who have respect and influence in communities that we don’t?  Are we looking to extend our power and reach through them?

    Or is it because we believe in the ‘law of requisite variety‘ that says the more diverse our membership the greater the diversity of the issues that we can respond to effectively?  That we recognise deeply that unless we get more diverse membership our capacity to act as change agents is limited.

    We also heard how for one participant how attendance at Leaders for Leeds was largely symbolic. They got little from it themselves, but their attendance served as a reminder that black and minority ethnic people are here.

    Conversation then turned away from leadership and towards the  issue of power.  Are we seeking to give those that ‘organise’ in our communities more power to work on what matters to them?  Can we do that? How?  Or are we seeking power for ourselves to influence and create change in those communities by finding individuals to act as bridgeheads for us and our projects?

    We then talked about Leaders for Leeds providing access to those in power and also about providing a broader perspective of the city as public, private and third sector gather together.  The issue of access to those in power was interesting to me. Do we believe that if we can relate to them and influence them we can secure different outcomes?  Is that the game plan?  That what we need to do is persuade those in power?  Do we believe that power is essentially wielded from the top down?  Or could we conceive of Leaders for Leeds as a mechanism that serves the voices and needs of ordinary citizens – giving them power to shape their own futures and recognising how we might often need to get out of the way?  A city of 750 000 voices rather than ONE?

    For me the key challenges facing Leaders for Leeds are:

    • How do we enable small groups of people that care to have conversations that lead to action?
    • How can we encourage them and amplify their power to transform lives for those that most need change?

    (As I was pondering these thoughts and jotting them down in my notebook I then heard one young woman say “In my community many young people believe that they have to be bad or pregnant to get attention!  How could Leaders for Leeds challenge that believe, in that community?  Probably not by inviting folk to meetings – but by going there, by listening and responding, respectfully.)

    So I guess it comes down to one big question for me:  Is Leaders for Leeds there to help existing power structures to cope with change?  Or is it there to help them change?  Perhaps radically?

    Not a bad bit of brain tickling from a 20 minute conversation!

    Top Down: Bottom Up

    Top Down Development

    Top down development is characterised by usually a small number of people recruited or elected to develop a ‘strategy’ that will lead to progress.

    The ‘strategy’ is usually accompanied by a ‘plan’, where costed elements are prioritised and scheduled for delivery in the full expectation that things will, as a result, get better.

    The strategy and its associated plans are usually supported with evidence and feasibility studies showing just why this is the right course of action and how benefits will accrue and to whom.  In recent years it seems we have stopped worrying about ‘to whom the benefits will accrue’ and accepting that the trickle down fairy will ensure that any wealth and wellbeing created by the plan will be enjoyed by all.

    Top down development is also characterised by:

    • delegation down a chain of command to manage implementation – this is not always well managed
    • fierce discussions about the correct allocation of scarce resources – this can divert us from real issues and burn millions
    • disputes about chosen methodologies and the viability of alternatives – as everyone tries to get a piece of the planning budget
    • piloting and subsequent rolling out of schemes and plans – a belief that what worked elsewhere can also work here, and there….
    • attempts, with varying degrees of honesty and legitimacy, to encourage participation in the top down planning process – phrases like consultation, co-production and engagement are used liberally.
    Top Down Development is really the only way to manage large infrastructure development projects.  It is a characteristic of electoral democracies where we vote in a small group to develop our strategies. It is also a characteristic of feudal and despotic states.

    Bottom Up Development

    Bottom Up Development is characterised by people using their power to develop their self interest. Remember self interest is not selfishness but means ‘self amongst others’. One of the important lessons from top down development is that often the best way to develop ones own self interest is to look after the self interests of others.

    Sometimes bottom up development is also characterised by groups of people coming together when they have shared self interests.  In bottom up development this coming together around common cause requires little engineering. It sometimes just happens.  But it can be supported and encouraged. It is often discouraged.

    Bottom up development is characterised by:

    • Individuals working in their own self interests in the way that they see fit
    • Individuals looking for  the resources that they need to make progress
    • Individuals pondering their options
    • Individuals coming together around common causes – forming associations and organising in order to increase their power
    Bottom up is the only way to really get large numbers of people engaged in their own development and developing agency in their own lives and communities. Bottom up is about life in a participative democracy.

    Bottom Up AND Top Down

    Both bottom up and top down processes of development are necessary in a modern society.  Top down to plan and provide the infrastructure required and bottom up to allow individuals and groups to use it effectively.  Nearly all development work is done in a top down way.  It is my contention that we need to invest significantly in bottom up development and its relationship to top down, if we are to build communities full of active citizens.  If we are to encourage civic enterprise.

    Some thoughts on Collaboration and Innovation

    Don’t do it unless you have to!

    If you know what it is that you want to achieve, and you have the power to do it without collaborating then JFDI.  Collaboration is a tool best left in toolbox. unless you have the right job for it.

    What are you collaborating for?

    Be really clear on what you want the collaboration to achieve, both for you, your preferred, chosen collaborator (more on this later) and your service users or customers.  What impact do you want the collaboration to make?

    Develop the vision and rationale for the collaboration – but leave the detailed planning till later

    Finding the right collaborators depends on having a vision that is credible, compelling and achievable.  But leave plenty of room for your collaborators to get on board with you in refining the vision and getting down and dirty with shaping goals, projects and plans.  You want them to be collaborators remember – not just hired hands…

    Choose your collaborators with care

    Make sure that your collaborators being resources, abilities, skills, something to the party that you don’t have but that you need to achieve what it is that matters most to you.  Collaborations that bring to the game more of what you already have tend not to be very exciting – unless your challenge is simply to ‘do more’ rather than ‘do different’ or ‘do better’.

    Surviving or thriving?

    For some at the moment the need to collaborate is driven by the scissors of doom, the falling levels of investment and the rising demands on services.  ‘Collaboration’ is seen as a way to get more done at lower costs and can be a euphemism for, or a preamble to, merger where back office costs can be cut and we get to live another day.  Nothing wrong with living to fight another day, but using collaboration to innovate might mean that you get to thrive rather than merely survive.

    Collaboration, like innovation, is an acquired competence

    Innovation and collaboration are both complex processes that require certain skills and cultures to enable them to develop and thrive.  You can’t just expect individuals or organisations to be innovative and collaborative, any more than you can expect them to walk a high wire or speak Latin.  These things have to be learned, and learning takes time.

    Get used to failure

    Both collaboration and innovation are risky endeavours.  They cannot be ‘evidence based’ and guaranteed to succeed.  The more you innovate and collaborate the more you will fail.  But also the greater the chances that you will succeed.  And as long as your successes create more value than your failures destroy then you are winning.

    Ponder the ‘non suicidal acts of courage’

    Collaboration and innovation both demand courage.  For us to leave our comfort zones.  To risk failing, looking stupid, provoking disapproval, even anger.  There are risks we could take that, if they went wrong, would put us out of the game. These are potentially suicidal acts of courage – and sometimes they may have to be taken.  But what are the non-suicidal acts of courage that you might be able to commit to?

    An imaginary open letter: To those who would ‘engage’ us…

    To those who would ‘engage’ us…

    We are already engaged.

    We may not be engaged with you, or in what you think we should be engaged with, but none the less we ARE engaged. The things that we are engaged with offer us what we are looking for, perhaps consciously, perhaps not. Our chosen ‘engagements’ give us some combination of love, power and money.

    There is a fourth thing that some of us get from our preferred engagement, and that is freedom from pain. Freedom from the pain of hope denied. Freedom from the pain of optimism dashed. Freedom from the humiliation of yet another ‘failure’. This pursuit of freedom from pain is what you label ‘apathy’.

    We may choose to engage with you, and your agendas, if you offer us what we want. Unless we see possibilities for this our engagement with you is likely to be short lived and will change nothing. It might be enough for you to tick the box called ‘community engagement’, but little more.  Love and fun might attract us for a while, but it is making us powerful that keeps us engaged.

    Many of us who you find ‘hard to reach’ or ‘difficult to engage’ have ‘been engaged’ with people like you before. We have been sold false hope and have suffered the pain of having that hope dashed when you let us down, or when you run out of funding. Your reputations go before you. Sometimes even your promise of cash can’t persuade us to engage…we know that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

    You might pay us to move our muscles, or answer your questions, but you cannot buy our hearts and minds.

    If you want to encourage us to change what we engage with, then you need to understand us, understand what we are looking for, and understand where our engagement is likely to take us. It is this ‘where it leads’ that is often the hardest part of the story for us to explore. Some of us have learned to live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself. But, if you can really offer us something that provides us with a genuine shot at a better future….

    Often your approach appears to us to stand on the premise that you have the right to engage us in what you believe to be good for us. You impose your sensibilities and priorities. Or you impose the policy objectives of those who pay your wages. You force us into a parent child relationship.

    Imagine that a powerful outsider came and tried to persuade you to live your life differently. To give up some of the things that you enjoy. To ‘persuade’ you to work on a project of their design.  How would you respond? With enthusiastic compliance?

    Perhaps instead of seeking to engage ‘us’ in your decision-making processes, or in co-creating your services, or in spending your budgets, you should instead seek to engage yourselves in our agendas, our decisions, our opportunities. You should put us as individuals and communities at the heart of your endeavours.

    Before you seek to engage us in your agendas, perhaps you ought to spend a bit of time trying to engage yourselves in ours? Not by pushing your way in with your authority and your money.

    But by winning an invitation. By being ‘helpful’.

    So, the next time you sit down to write your engagement strategy, just think about what you might need to be like for us to invite you in.

    Some thoughts on Best City outcomes

    The only test of ‘best city’ is not a position in a league table, but some very personal answers to a complex set of questions, which may include….

    • Is this the ‘best city’ for me and my loved ones?
    • Is this the best place for me to make a life of fulfilment, dignity and pride?
    • Will I find people that are willing to challenge and support me with compassion?
    • Will I find opportunities to be stimulated, provoked and changed?
    • Will I find it possible to connect with others with whom I share a common cause?
    • Will I find the space and support to do my best work?
    • Will I find myself in a political, social and cultural system that accepts my values and beliefs?
    • Will it encourage the production of goods and services necessary for a becoming existence or will it do almost anything in pursuit of growth?
    • Will it respect and nurture micro-enterprise, sole traders, makers, community groups and individual activists as much as it ‘establishes proactive relationships’ with ‘large corporate employers’?
    • Is this a place where I can help to shape a better future for my children and theirs?
    What kind of ‘city development’ processes would be necessary to allow the majority of us to be able to answer most of these questions with a yes?
    Get those processes right and we might just be on course for somewhere exciting.


    To mentor…


    If you want to find yourself a great mentor, then in my experience best avoid those mentor matching services…

    Making Progress Through Austerity

    There can be little doubt that these are relatively tough times in the UK, and the minds of many are focussed on how best to make progress when it feels like everything is being cut.

    But most of those who are thinking about it are the professionals, who control budgets for the delivery of services or front-line service providers trying to figure out how to stop things getting dangerous as they are stretched further and further.  The assumption is that the job remains to be done, that they are the ones to do it, and they need to figure what they are going to do to make the best adjustments that they can.

    But supposing they took a different tack?  Suppose they invited citizens in to explore the challenges that they face and how they might be met, how ordinary citizens might be able to use their resources, time, knowledge, skills and sometimes perhaps cash, to help?

    So, for example, we might

    • invite citizens to explore issues around poverty in an area, and what they might be able to do about it.  And we might end up with something like Disrupting Poverty in Leeds
    • ask people to think about what they can do about empty properties in Leeds and end up with something  like Empty Homes
    • ask residents to explore how they can make a city more playful and end up with something like Playful Leeds

    What might happen if we asked local people to step up and see what they might be able to do about other issues facing them, their loved ones and their neighbours like:

    • dementia care
    • sports development
    • fostering
    • elderly care
    • crime reduction
    • economic development and supporting start-up businesses
    • educational attainment
    • resettlement of offenders
    • suicide reduction
    • mental health promotion
    • and so on….

    Or  we can just bundle these issues up into performance related contracts, attach our 56 pages of terms and conditions, develop it into a multi-million pound contract and pump it through the procurement process?

    How might this work out at a local level?

    I watched a community psychiatric nurse, working with a third sector service provider, planning home help for an elderly gentleman in the early stages of dementia.  He needed help with a weekly shop, food preparation and encouragement to take his medication.  Essentially they agreed a piece of business for the third sector to provide this basic support, paid for out of public finance.  There was no discussion of the role of neighbours in helping out.  No exploration about whether they might be able to manage a weekly shop between them, or set up a meal rota, or ensure a daily visit.

    Now I don’t think this was a rare one-off.  I think our neighbourhoods are awash with opportunities for local people to engage with each other, to help and be helped, and to learn how to make a real difference to the big and small issues that beset us.

    I am not saying that we don’t need specialist public services, of course we do.  But we will have to learn to do the basics for ourselves if we want to make progress.

    The challenge is how can the funders possibly engage with a civic group that helps it to do something quite remarkable.  Because standard forms of procurement and project management are hardly conducive.


    Smile or Die – Why I don’t subscribe blindly to the school of positive thinking

    Shaking Up Education in Leeds

    I trained as a teacher in Leeds back in the 1980s.  And ever since there has been nothing but ‘shake-ups in education’.  Nine years as a School Governor in the city was characterised by a succession of initiatives, mostly from Whitehall, to be dealt with.

    But inspite of all of this change, very little real progress.  You don’t believe that rise in examination results every year for the last 29 do you?

    So what happens when you float a radical idea related to education in the city?  A senior public sector manager snorts loudly and says ‘That’ll never happen’.

    Nice.  Way to go.  Innovation Central.  Thank you!

    The idea?  Not a manifesto.  Not even a proposal.  Just an idea….

    What if every school in the city carried the same proportion of pupils from poor homes?  Instead of some schools having no ‘poor kids’ and others having a majority, why not find ways to ensure that every school has a very similar profile of wealth in its population?

    What might the impact be on the quality of education right across the city?

    Or how about this?

    Why not take the money that we currently spend on inward investment and tourism in the city and instead use it to reduce class sizes across Leeds?  We might then attract employers to our city because of the quality of the education we offer, the resulting talented workforce and providing great education to employers and employees children?  Tourists might come because the citizens of Leeds are actually able to produce an experience  that few can match.

    • What are the other radical ideas that we could explore in relation to education in Leeds?
    • How do we produce citizens who know how to make their enterprising souls sing?
    • How do we overcome the disparity in achievement that is dictated more by a fate of birth than anything else?

    Anyone up for an Innovation Lab on Education in Leeds?

    The Age of Stupid


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