The literature on Leadership seems as endless as it is conflicting. The best I can say in defence of ‘leadership’ as a concept is that when it is done well, things change; sometimes for the better, in large part because great leaders can convene conversations that lead the people who participate in them to actionable change. Co-creating a shared future that feels different but inclusive of the past. Put like this leadership is an innate capacity and everyone is called to it, leadership is not something that should be siloed in the personage of a modern day messiah; leadership is a community affair, and calls for everyone’s contribution. Thought of in this way, leadership becomes about building community. This is the strength-based way of thinking.
A strength-based approach to leadership then is less about training individual leaders to be better ‘leaders’ and more about encouraging leadership across the community-creating a culture where everybody leads. The hardest part of achieving the latter is supporting ‘leaders’ to lead by stepping back, so as to create sufficient space for us mere mortals to step into and discover our own capacities and to co-create a future of our own choosing.
How many times have you looked at a social or economic problem and said ‘I blame the leadership, or lack thereof’, with eyebrow raised? Let’s imagine for a moment that one day all leaders get their act together. Will all the problems of the world suddenly disappear? No! And the reason in part resides in how we deal with problems and encourage performance in the first place. Our obsessive focus on quality, impact, risk, and safety are strong on individualism and weak on community. Our culture is strongly invested in the myth of the ‘hero’, and in avoiding the tragedy of becoming the ‘loser’.
As Peter Block in Community: The Structure of Belonging reminds us: ‘the work is to overcome the culture of isolation, fear, and waiting for the leaders to get their act together. Their act is as together as it is going to be.’
Spreading leadership in part involves people with power, giving it away, and in part it involves each of us redefining the meaning of the word ‘leader’, and writing ourselves back into the script not as hero but as gifted contributor and co-creator, reclaiming our role as citizen. Democratising leadership so that everyone can get in on the act is central to strength-based practice. Real leadership then is not about having followers, agenda setting, or getting it right most of the time, nor is it about power, privilege or position. Instead it is about ‘being at the service of’, being convener, listener and bringer of the right question, not the right answer. In many respects the word leader has become so mangled that it has come to mean the opposite of what it ideally should. So we mistake it for the pursuit of power, not service. Money, takes the place of values. Control replaces care, and answers matter more than questions.
Yet in pursuit of ‘the answer’ we are no more than consumers and the effect of others actions. It is in the pursuit of the question that we become co-creators of a community where everyone leads. Whether in an organisation or a neighbourhood everyone has something valuable to contribute to creating a community where everyone is valued. I believe we need a new word that reclaims leadership into the heart of community responsibility and shared power, and that word I believe is ‘stewardship’.