Secret Community Leader #1

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May 26, 2020

The Secret Community Leader is an anonymous column sharing the highs and lows of community leadership. It provides an open and honest forum for community leaders to get nagging challenges and worries off their chests. It also aims to share some of the most rewarding moments of community leadership, in the hope of both relating to, and inspiring, other leaders and communities...

I’ve always said that ‘failure is the development cost of your next success’, but that doesn’t make it any easier to take when things don’t go to plan. As community leaders we can often be cast as the indefatigable entrepreneurs, but we need to accept how fragile we are. After all, we suffer all the worries of new and marginal businesses, alongside trying to do something about the huge and increasing stress of rising social welfare demands, fractured communities, service cuts, and a punitive social security system. On top of that we have to be open, transparent, and accountable for everything that we do. 

To create a collective sense of purpose, individual leaders do need to put their heads above the parapet, which can lead to potential animosity coming from all quarters. We are very often engaged in various degrees of local  political conflict, bureaucracy, and decision- making processes that are not within our  control. And, as leaders, we must always try to be optimistic, ambitious for change, and ready to take opportunities to make a difference. Taken together, it’s a huge amount of pressure, and this year that pressure almost broke me. 

This is what I’ve learned. 

If a leader is too far ahead of their followers, they begin to look like the enemy.

I’m a very impatient person. Impatience is great as a tactic in the world of community power, but in terms of community leadership it can be problematic, because you can easily leave people behind. When I haven’t got the time to wait, I have a tendency to do all the work without giving colleagues the opportunity to get onboard, understand what I’m trying to achieve, and share the workload. 

I also get frustrated when I see people failing to take up opportunities that are sitting in front of them. Often those with the most limited resources are the best at getting stuff done. It’s the people who have the time and money who all too often seem to sit around and talk about what should be done, then don’t do it, and pin the blame on somebody else. 

But with the right team and regular personal reminders to pause and regroup, real change can be created. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a team pull together and making the most of opportunities when they present themselves. 

Enjoy the moments when you are standing on safe ground. 

It can be incredibly isolating being a leader and shouldering a lot of burdens, but the best bit is when everything comes together and a community takes collective and individual ownership of an idea. A great high for me is when safe ground is reached – that moment when you feel like nobody can take this away from us. 

There are stepping stones between dangers and some wonderful moments when you are standing on solid ground and surveying your current position. It’s really important to pause and take a breath before you set out on the next leg of the shark infested waters!  

Success is somebody finding their own power and using it for the common good. 

For me, the highs of community leadership are about watching other people achieve things rather than my personal triumphs. It’s hugely rewarding to measure success in the achievements of other people; when a sense of ‘we’ comes through strongly and progress is made even when I’m not there. 

If the people I’m working with can take up, shape, and retell the stories that I have begun, then I feel a great sense of fulfilment. Recently my team was delivering a presentation to a funding Board and our Executive Director was ill. He was meant to do a chunk of the presentation and normally I would have covered it, but our Administrator offered to present instead. She did such a fantastic job, going above and beyond to tell the story in her own way and demonstrate her belief in our shared values. Seeing her come into her own was incredibly rewarding. 

It would have been easy to use this column to rant about the absolute horrors of fighting established power, the weight of bureaucracy, and the assault course of funding.

Those are the things that all too often weigh me down. It feels more productive to recognise those things but finish instead on the incredible rewards that community leadership brings. As leaders we must pause and reflect on the highs and successes of our leadership. We should spend a moment on those stepping stones to survey what we’ve achieved, how we measure our success, and learn from our mistakes. And we must recognise the pressures we are under, and our fragility, so we can support each other on this journey.

This column was first published in STIR Magazine, Autumn 2019. Support our journalism by purchasing this issue or an annual subscription. Featured illustration by Guillermo Ortego.

The Secret Community Leader is published in partnership with Practical Governance. If you have a story to share get in touch

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