Something said during Citizens’ Organising training in the early 1990s had a profound effect on my community development practice. At the time there was a lot of enthusiasm about introducing Citizens’ Organising in the UK. For some reason it never took off and whilst there are still a few citizens’ organisations around they have had little overall impact.
One of the things I remember from the training was one of the characteristics of a community leader is they know their own mortality. This means not only do they know they are going to die, they are constantly aware of that fact. At first glance this may seem to be a disadvantage. My observations over 20 years have found it to be profoundly true.
It leads to a practice citizens’ organisations call ‘sloughing’, where no-one occupies a permanent leadership role. (The word slough (pronounced “sluff”, is usually used of snakes shedding their skins.) When someone vacates a leadership role it is to occupy a new role, thus extending their experience of leadership and vacates a place for someone else to fill and extend theirs. Good leaders share knowledge and experience because they cannot know they will be around for sure. Their role is to pass on leadership, not to build their own power base.
In June 1997 I traveled the UK visiting economic development projects. I visited only one place twice. On my first visit to Moss Side in Manchester my host, then chair of their development trust, was moving into a new office. He was a Church of England vicar and had just retired. He was moving into the vestry of a local church from where he could continue to support the work of the Trust. I found he was someone who had taken the basic tenets of leadership to heart and so agreed to visit again in a couple of weeks to continue the conversation and visit the trust.
One year later I was writing a report and wanted to refer to my visits to Moss Side. I needed more information and so I phoned my contact. A woman answered the phone and told me he’d been incapacitated by a stroke. She had taken on his work.
What was impressive was she knew who I was (she must have had some record of his contacts) and was able to answer my questions. It was as if I had met her first. She told me my first contact had prepared her for his own departure. He knew he would not last forever and so he made sure his work would continue in his absence.
Next Friday I’ll explore what happens when leaders forget they are mortal.