Developing Leadership

Note: This document is from a photocopy of what we believe is a chapter of a book entitled "Organizing for Social Change". We have no other information about the book, its author or publisher. The copy we obtained was deteriorated and in a few limited instances, certain words were unreadable. In those cases, we have attempted to reconstruct the sentence(s) with words that seem contextually appropriate within the meaning of the discussion.

All organizing is about the development of leadership, although this takes place in many different ways. Some organizations, particularly community- and church-based groups, consider leadership development to be the real purpose of their work. To them, while issues are important, they are only a means to developing a large pool of skilled leaders. without which the organization can never win power for itself. In some organizations. state and national coalitions, for example, the leaders are often people who have risen to the top of another organization, such as a union, and who have many years of experience in a position of some power. In a network of progressive elected officials, the leaders are all elected.

While the experience level in each of these situations is very different, leadership development is nonetheless the critical element in making the organizations work. Community people may need to learn such basic leadership skills as writing a press release, analyzing the strength of an elected official, public speaking. and running a meeting. The union leader may have learned those thing many years ago, but is unaccustomed to working in coalition with environmentalists and consumer groups, or integrating direct action campaigns into the union's electoral agenda. The elected officials are grappling with such problems as working together as a team inside a system that can force them to compete with each other. All of this is leadership development.

For most community Organizers, leadership development poses a set of basic questions: how do we get people to feel that they own this group, raise money for it, recruit to it, and work to keep it going? We will address the subject of leadership development on this level, knowing that the larger elements can't be attended to unless the organization has a sound foundation on which to begin.

Principles for Leadership Development

In established organizations, paid staff are responsible to their elected leadership or to a board chosen with input from the members. In new organizations, the staff are often out looking for potential leaders. In both types of groups, the task of replenishing the leadership core tends to fall mostly to the staff. This actually puts the staff in a more powerful position than is implied in the group's by-laws, and the success of the organization very much depends on the good judgment of the staff in finding potential leaders.

Leaders Have Followers

How do you know who is a good potential leader? Who among the membership should be encouraged to be more active and take on more responsibility? The basic guideline is that leaders have a base. They can bring people to events. It might be a neighborhood person who can bring friends from her building, or, in a coalition, the head of another organization who can bring his members. In any case, a leader has followers. Not only that, but the followers are typical of the community or constituency that your organization represents. The person who brings people from the Society for Freeze-Dried Pets may not be who you are looking for.

The importance of the principle that leaders have followers can't be stressed too much. It builds a reality principle into the organization. People who can motivate and move others are basically in tune with the community or constituency. They talk the language. they are trusted, they understand what others want or expect, they know how to get along. Therefore, the decisions that they make as leaders are more likely to be sound ones, and the organization is more likely to grow. The person who comes to every meeting and has a strong opinion on every subject, but who never can bring another individual is likely to be out of sync with the community.

In the course of time, it may be useful to add to the leadership people who have special skills or special training the organization may need (e.g., someone who understands the banking regulations on community reinvestment). But these folks, useful as they are, should not make up the majority of the leadership.

To develop the leadership of people -- those who can bring out other people -- the organization needs a program that includes many public events and opportunities to do turnout. It also needs to find ways to spotlight those who do the best turnout, such as praising them at meetings.

Unless this principle is followed and events are managed to encourage leadership by people with a base, top positions will end up going to those who talk the best game at meetings, or who are known because they run a local business or have ties to the political machine. A few such people are fine, but if they are the majority of an organization's main leaders, it can be a problem. (There are exceptions, however. One of our staff recalls organizing in rural Kentucky where, in three communities, the owners of the general stores became the main leaders. It worked out well. Meetings were held in the stores, people were used to coming there, they all knew the owners, and they all owed them money. Those store keepers had a real base.)

In coalitions, the principle of having a base takes on an added dimension. One leader may represent an organization with 7,000 members. none of whom ever come to anything, while another may have 70 members and brings 20 of them. Who gets a seat on the executive committee? Well ... they both do. but the bigger group goes on first. There are many ways that the power of such an organization is both important and useful, even if the members are not seen. Perhaps later you will find the key to involving some of them.

Start with a Balanced Ticket

The balanced ticket is an old urban political concept. To get the votes of all ethnic groups, have one candidate from each group running on the party ticket. The same applies to organizations. If you want racial, ethnic, gender, and class integration, the leadership must reflect this from the very start. Once the leaders are established as being one kind of person, other people will stay away.

Many groups don't have an integrated leadership. just as most institutions and communities in our country are not integrated. We don't only mean racial integration, although that is often the case. Avoid trying to remedy this with tokenism. If people of a particular race, ethnicity, gender or class are staying away in droves. don't go out and find the one person from that constituency who is so atypical that he or she agrees at once to become a leader in your group, unless that person has a real base and can bring other people along. Instead, change your issues. Find out what is of concern to the group you want to recruit, and start a campaign that will bring you in contact with its real leaders. If recruitment still isn't working out, consider a coalition approach instead.

Don't Rush the Leadership Process

Because of the need for balance, and for knowing who can bring out folks, it is wise for a new group to delay its first elections for six months or even a year. Set a date, of course, but in the meantime operate with a temporary steering committee open to all.

A pattern we have seen repeatedly is that at the first meeting of a new group, someone says, "We can't operate without by-laws." There are always a few people whose main interest in life is by-laws. They immediately start a series of long and boring debates on the subject, which drive away everyone else. Months later, when the by-laws are finished, there is no one left to run for office but the by-law crowd. Once in leadership they say, "The reason that no one comes to meetings anymore is that we need to revise the by-laws." Start with action. Stay flexible.

Both Task and Maintenance Leadership Are Needed

One helpful social work concept is that of task leadership and maintenance (sometimes called emotional) leadership. Task leadership is the kind of leadership that gets tasks accomplished. Maintenance leadership is the kind that cares about the emotional strength/maintenance of the group and the people involved in the group. Every successful organization has a healthy balance of both.

While most of us consciously try to develop skills in both areas. our personalities and innate characteristics lead us to be stronger in one area than the other. Someone who is stronger in task leadership is probably pushing through programs, but making people mad all along the way. Someone stronger in maintenance leadership probably gets along well with everyone. but has trouble moving a program forward. The point is not that one kind of leadership is better than the other, but that both are needed for a healthy organization.

If this concept is unclear to you. think about any group with which you are familiar that has functioned well together over a long period of time, see if you can identify a number of people who provide task and maintenance leadership. Or, you can observe any meeting. Typical task leadership functions are:

  • Preparing an agenda
  • Recommending objectives
  • Determining key questions
  • Suggesting ways to accomplish specific objectives
  • Clarifying information
  • Moving the group to action or decision-making
  • Recording information and decisions
  • Opening and closing meetings.

Typical maintenance (emotional) leadership functions are:

  • Welcoming and introducing people
  • Actively listening to people's ideas
  • Including everyone in discussions
  • Encouraging shy and quiet people to speak
  • Thanking people for contributions and coming to meetings
  • Giving positive feedback to speakers.

If you suspect that your organization does not have a good balance between task and maintenance leaders, watch a few meetings to observe the dynamics. If it seems to be short on one kind of leader, actively seek people who provide a balance.

Seek Qualities and Develop Skills

All good leaders possess both personal qualities and specific skills that make them respected. The easiest way to distinguish between skills and qualities (or characteristics) is to say: "Susie is __________" (a quality) or "Susie is good at __________" (a skill). A quality is something you "are" intrinsically. Usually, your inclination toward being a task or maintenance leader is one of your qualities. A skill is something you learn.

It is important in identifying potential leaders that you learn to distinguish between skills and qualities. We have to look for people with the qualities that are needed. We can then train people in particular skills.

For example, if we are looking for a volunteer treasurer, we are looking for someone who can provide attention to details, thoroughness, good follow-up and commitment to the organization. These characteristics can't be "taught," at least not very easily. We must find someone with the knowhow. Obviously, we'd like to find someone with bookkeeping experience. If we can't, we can train someone in bookkeeping.

Although the qualities and skills needed for every position vary, there are some typical that leaders need in most roles. The qualities leaders need are:

Commitment. If they are not committed to what they are doing, it will show. The leader with commitment to the particular organization's long-term commitment to social change has a vision of what the future can be.

Honesty. Honesty, tempered with tact is always the best policy.

Positive Outlook. The world is full of negative people and negative situations. A leader should radiate a positiveness that looks for solutions to problems instead of focusing on the differences.

Confidence/Self Assurance. A leader needs confidence in him/herself. This does not mean that the person knows everything, but means he or she is self assured enough to ask questions and to admit weaknesses. The confident and assured person accepts compliments as well as criticism.

Confidence is not only important in individual dealings and relationships, but also when the organization is facing an adversarial person who is representing an unjust position. The leader must have the confidence to be firm in a position based on the planned objective.

Trust in People. Leaders must fundamentally trust and like people. They must draw out the best in people and urge them to live up to his/her standards, as opposed to waiting for people to falter. Most people live up to the high standards and trust placed in them.

Mistrust of Unaccountable Institutions. Although leaders must trust people, they should mistrust institutions that are not accountable to the people. Leaders are frequently the people's last resort and it's important to ask, "why" or "why not?" A healthy skepticism is a useful quality for a leader.

Some of the skills almost all leaders need to develop include:

Listening. Leaders need to be able to listen to others. Good listening means not only opening one's ears but also really concentrating on what someone else is saying.

Diplomacy. All leaders find themselves in situations where they must use diplomacy. They must learn to be direct, assertive, and yet tactful, unless a group has consciously decided in a particular situation not to be diplomatic.

Recruitment. Almost all leaders need to recruit others to work with them in some capacity or other. Thus, they must clearly understand how to recruit and to develop experience in recruiting others.

Personal Organization. Leaders need to be personally organized. They need good systems for keeping track of meetings, following-up with people, making calls, and so forth. Without good administrative systems for organizing one's self, a leader does not follow through with tasks and commitments as promised.

Goal Setting. All leaders need to develop skills in setting measurable and realistic goals. Without such goals, we are unclear about where we are going. If we get there, we don't know to congratulate ourselves. Learning to set such goals helps avoid leadership burnout. The skills of goal setting are needed at all levels of the organization, from the board. to the staff, committee. and individual levels.

The Leadership Development Process

Start with Self-Interest

There is a saying in community organizing that leadership is developed. not found. There are very few "natural leaders" sitting around not doing anything but waiting for you to call. Your group may be lucky and find a person whose leadership experience was developed in another organization, perhaps a church, or who is one of those rare people to whom others in the community turn in time of crisis. But for the most part, organizations develop their own leaders. (As noted previously, in coalitions, the people who come are already leaders, but they develop coalition skills.)

Developing leadership on any level starts with understanding the self-interest of the potential leader: A person who is going to put in long hours, hard work, and take real risks has to get something back in return. Of course, there is commitment to the issue itself, but issues are won and lost. There has to be more. Think for a moment about all the things a person can get out of being a leader in your organization. Here are just a few:

  • Notoriety
  • New skills
  • Respect
  • Excitement
  • Social activity
  • A chance to make history
  • A seat on the dais
  • An opportunity to start a new career
  • The pleasure of sticking it to enemies of the community.

A coalition leader may already have all these things, but can gain:

  • New allies
  • A wider circle of influential contacts
  • New ways to be more effective in her own organization
  • Even greater contact with the media
  • An opportunity to run for office.

Of course, not everyone wants all of this. The point is to listen and figure out what the potential leader's self-interest actually is, and then shape the position in ways that help the leader achieve those personal goals.

Create Positions in Which Leaders Can Develop

A true story illustrates this point. Many years ago a popular figure in both the women's movement and the peace movement ran for mayor of New York City. The campaign attracted hundreds of volunteers who where deployed on weekends at street tables up and down the main avenues. The volunteers, sometimes numbering as many as 300 in a single weekend, gave out literature, sold buttons and publicized issues.

The paid campaign staff ran the whole street table operation. There was no leadership among the volunteers until the staff decided to create it. They invented the position of "corner captain" and invited volunteers who had come regularly to be corner captains. Their responsibilities included arriving early to receive the table from the truck and then instructing other volunteers in their duties.

It worked. People began to take responsibility. Special training sessions were held at headquarters for the captains, and they felt more a part of the campaign. Later, the staff who had been supervising the weekly phone calls to all of the volunteers told certain captains, "We have six people for your location on Saturday. There are ten more volunteers living in your area, but we don't have the phone capacity to call. Could you call"? Before long, a number of the captains were calling their own volunteer lists.

A niche was thus created in which leadership could develop. There was a strong motivation provided by the candidate and the issues. There was a title, a short list of time-limited responsibilities, other people to help, and someone higher to step in if there were problems. It turned out that all the elements for beginning leadership development had come together at dozens of street corners.

In many organizations, the same type of niche is provided by a committee structure. People can start on the path to leadership by chairing a committee, and even a sub-committee, that has a specific task to carry out. It gives newer members a place to do something without being overshadowed by the older leaders. The reason for having a formal committee structure isn't necessarily that it is more efficient: it is a way to develop leaders.

We once saw the program for a dinner given by a congregation to honor a civil rights leader. The program listed the names of the members of all the committees. There was a committee in charge of floral arrangements for the head table and another committee for floral arrangements for the other tables. There was even a committee to print the program listing the committees. In all, over a hundred names were listed on that program as having had some part in organizing the dinner, and you can bet that they all showed up at the event, and sold a lot of tickets as well. That's leadership development! In most groups the organizer would just have picked up the phone and ordered the flowers, or more like there would have been no flowers.

As this indicates, one of the secrets of leadership development is breaking big project down into manageable pieces, and then finding people to take responsibility for each piece. It will work if there are clear goals, the piece is really manageable, there are people to help. there is someone experienced to fall back on for advice or help, and doing the job brings some satisfaction and reward.

Guidelines for Leadership Maintenance and Growth

Practice Evaluations. Look for and give positive, as well as growth-producing feedback. Regular group evaluations at meetings are good.

Institute the Rotation of Roles, and Develop Systems for Training People for New Roles. Who of us want to remain doing the same job forever?

Make Sure Leaders Are Enjoying Their Positions. If leaders are not enjoying their positions, they will either get frustrated and quit or they will make themselves, and those around them, miserable.

Use Strong, Skilled Leaders to Train Others. Every strong leader should be training others. No one should become "irreplaceable." Build leadership development into every position.

Ask Leaders to Set Personal Leadership Development Goals as Part of Your Annual Goal Setting Session. Provide needed support and training to help leaders achieve their goals as long as they don't conflict with the organization's.

Leaders and Organizers

There are some schools of organizing that stress that a leader is one thing and an organizer is another. Conceptually, it is not quite clear that this is true. In a coalition, the leaders may all be the paid staff of other groups, and in many organizations that have no staff, volunteer leaders do much the same thing that paid staff would do. What is clear is that in local organizations with paid staff and volunteer leaders, there are certain roles that are appropriate for each.

One of the first things that most new organizers are taught is that in the absence of a salary, there are certain "perks" that leaders get: being quoted in the newspaper or interviewed on TV, representing the organization publicly. and receiving praise and recognition. This is not just a matter of rewarding leaders. It is important to the organization as a whole that its leaders become widely known personalities who enhance the group's power. For that reason, organizers are warned not to get in the spotlight themselves. Every time the paid staff are interviewed on TV, an opportunity is lost to strengthen the leadership. Worse, resentment is created and leaders ask. "Why should I help her run her organization; that's what she's paid for."

The situation is somewhat different in statewide and national coalitions. It is not always possible to have volunteer leaders on hand where and when the media want them. There is also a need to have the coalition as a whole receive a large amount of the recognition, rather than have it go to the head of one group within the coalition. In such situations. executive directors and other staff more often play the role of spokesperson.

The second thing that organizers should be taught. but many aren't, is don't do anything for leaders that leaders can do for themselves. The job of leaders is to do things to build the organization. The job of organizers is to get others to do things to build the organization.

There was a community organization that at one time had no staff. Often, leaflets had to be taken to the printer, who was located in another neighborhood and closed at five o clock. The leaders worked out a system to get their copy to the printer. The woman who did the layout brought it with her when she took her child to school. There, she gave it to another member who had a child in the same class. That member took the layout home and gave it to his wife who, the next day, brought it to work. At lunch, she gave it to a another member who worked near her. He took it home, and the next day, his wife, who worked near the printer, brought it in on her lunch hour. Now, it was true that getting the leaflet to the printer took two days and involved six people, but that was really fine. It kept the people in touch with each other, and with the organization, and it gave them a way of helping the organization that didn't take them much out of their way. Later, when the group hired an organizer, he said, "I'll just pick up the layout at your house, and take it to the printer." Wrong!! The organizer is a paid professional. His job is to get people to do things to build the organization, not to run errands. That organizer was taking roles away from members and wasting time that he should have spent finding new people to do more things. Here are some of the roles that are appropriate for paid organizers and for volunteer leaders. For most community organizations, organizers should:

  • Make proposals for action
  • Develop workplans based on board decisions
  • Identify leadership roles and training needed
  • Help recruit new leaders
  • Ensure honest evaluations
  • Help people assume leadership tasks
  • Coordinate information flow between boards and committees

Volunteer leaders should:

  • Represent the constituency, which means speaking in public forums and providing interviews for the media
  • Lead in actions
  • Maintain the organization by forming a board that is responsible for raising money. setting policies, hiring and evaluating the executive director (firing if need be)
  • Doing as much of the actual physical work of the organization as possible.

Sometimes problems arise within organizations that hire community leaders to serve as organizers. Even if the leaders have good organizing skills. they may not understand that their roles have changed, and that they are now to develop the leadership of others and drop the up-front spokesperson role that they might have played in the past.

Another problem arises when people are hired to function as organizers, but really have no experience in organizing. Leaders become frustrated and wonder why they aren't getting paid if that person is. If the organizer is not looked to for providing professional organizing skills, then the leaders will tend to give the staff all the jobs they don't want to do. The organizer gets frustrated because he doesn't enjoy the work and is learning few skills.

If your organization is in this situation, consider raising additional funds in order to hire a professional, skilled and experienced organizer. Perhaps a person could be hired to train and develop your inexperienced staff, or perhaps the person could be shifted to another position. If you are not able to hire a professional organizer, be sure to provide intensive training and support from an experienced organizing consulting group. A few foundations set aside special technical assistance funds to ensure that community organizations get proper training and consulting.

In ending this chapter, allow us to restate what is really the only point, just in case any missed it. Volunteer leadership development is about the most important thing an organizer does. If you are not developing leaders, then are not building the organization.

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