Immortals

In June 1997, I took a month out to travel the country, visiting a community regeneration project almost every weekday.  This followed a period of great stress and confusion as we set up Attercliffe and Darnall Community Enterprises in Sheffield.  We had all our key staff in place and my aim was to tour the country and find more ideas for economic regeneration.

I visited only one project twice.  The reason was HM, the founder of a Community Development Trust (CDT), had just retired and the day I visited was the day he was setting up his new office. HM was an ordained Anglican minister and the reason I made contact with him was with Industrial Mission, similar to my employers at the time.

His office was in a church vestry, some distance from the CDT. He wasn’t in a position to show me around that day but we had a conversation and agreed it would be worth returning in a couple of weeks, when he would be able to show me around.  If memory serves he had been running the CDT but now he’d pulled out almost completely.  He retained a small role as an adviser but he wanted to keep a strategic distance, to allow space for his successor.

The purpose of the office was for his new role as a coach for leaders of urban regeneration projects.  He had a lot of takers because he had a brilliant reputation and many senior people trusted in his guidance.  He explained that he was keenly aware that he could not depend on doing this for many years and so he was planning how to pass on his work to others.

This reminded me of a course I took a few years earlier.  Citizens’ Organising (CO) came to Britain from the US in the 1980s and by the early 90s was well established in Bristol and a few other places.  I admire CO but it never really worked out in Britain, possibly because so much community development depends on government grants, which means they don’t have the same freedoms to act as their US equivalents. 

I always joke that I failed the course because good organisers get angry and I was too phlegmatic (cue guffaws from people who know me).  Maybe I didn’t make the grade as a leader but one thing stuck in my mind that resonated with what HM told me.  CO teaches that one of the marks of a good leader is they are aware of their own mortality.  As such they know they are in their position as leader for a limited period and therefore they must prepare their successors.

About a year after my visit to HM, I was preparing some funding proposal for my employers.  I needed to ask HM some question relating to his work with his CDT.  I phoned him.  A woman answered.  She told me HM had had a severe stroke and could no longer speak.  He had prepared her to take over his role, so that his work would continue.

She knew who I was and she was able to answer my enquiry.

Over the years I have met many community and organisational leaders who act as if they will live forever.  They hang around after retirement or sort of leave but hover in the background, unaware they are not indispensable and could jeopardise the future of their precious organisation.  HM was unusually aware of this and whilst staying in the area and pursuing his interests in new ways, guarded against these dangers.  He was able to pass on his legacy to someone else.

Isolation is not always about being alone.  So many leaders become isolated through their belief they are indispensable.  As such they often self-sabotage.  To live as one who is mortal is a gift that paradoxically may lead to living on in the minds and actions of many others and that is the meaning of solitude. 

Day 11/21 of my writing challenge. Every weekday, I publish a short piece of writing on my subject, solitude. The writings are based on a daily prompt from Megan Macedo, who leads the challenge. These are all first drafts with minimal revision. Please comment if you find these posts helpful. Previous: Keep Off the Grass. Next: The Food of Love.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

Leave a Reply 5 comments

Audrey Scully - February 19, 2020 Reply

Very good story and message Chris – thank you.

Audrey <3 <3

Chris - February 19, 2020 Reply

Thanks Audrey, what did you like about it?

Gordon Ferguson - February 21, 2020 Reply

This rang a bell, because, as you know, I was involved in Attercliffe and Darnall, as a resident, just before ADCE started. We left Darnall in December 1997.
I had a similar insight about mortality and practice a few years ago. This is in the context of the relationship between master and apprentice in the acquisition and passing on of embodied knowledge or ‘knowledge of’, rather than ‘book learning’ or ‘knowledge about’. As I put it at the time: ‘Unlike the relationship between teacher and student which is intrinsically unequal when acquiring ‘knowledge about’, the relationship between master and apprentice when acquiring ‘knowledge of’ is intrinsically equal. This is because ‘knowing of’ is embodied in the master and the wise master will be aware of their own mortality – their knowledge will die with them if it is not passed on. The apprentice will be respected from the very start as the person who will carry the skill on into the future.’ (published in ‘Knowing’ in ‘the Friends Quarterly’, Volume 44, Issue three, August 2016).
However, in a culture where it is believed that everything can be codified and our brains are merely some sort of super-computer, such insight has all but disappeared.

Chris - February 23, 2020 Reply

Thanks Gordon, I agree and the master/apprentice relationship is not one I’ve thought of before. The apprentice learns to do the job and not about the job.

The coach/client relationship is perhaps a generalisation of the same dynamic. The big difference is that the coach need have no detailed knowledge of the field the relationship operates in. So long as the client has detailed knowledge, then the relationship works.

The M/A relationship has the added bonus of built in quality. The Master can assess the performance of the apprentice. They are also likely to pass on “knowledge about” to some degree. I suppose therefore you could say the Master has a more rounded role than the coach.

The problem for marketing is the codified instructions are not likely to sell because everyone in the same business will share the same proven technique. So, it’s worth asking what is the specific genius for this particular business. This post may be of interest: https://communitywebconsultant.com/2017/12/moving-technical-adaptive-solutions/

Gordon Ferguson - February 25, 2020 Reply

You bang the nail on the head with ‘… built in quality. The Master can assess the performance of the apprentice. ‘ In education this is called ‘competence’ and is contrasted with ‘qualification’. The concept of assessment and recognition of competence seems to have all but disappeared.
As you say, simply learning the technique in the form of knowledge about merely makes you the same as anyone else with the qualification – and therefore replaceable, which is ultimately demeaning of full person-hood – you become a mere cog in a machine.
Your link is useful, but appears not to fully grasp the nature of the master/apprenticeship relationship, which is hardly surprising in this day and age. ‘Adaptive solutions’ are still solution orientated rather than the richer problem orientated. You cannot create community – you can only provide the space – the problem domain – in which community may emerge. The master does not only tell the apprentice how to do something, but shows them the problem domain and the use of tools to work effectively in the domain, enabling the right solution to emerge. However, the entry ends spot on with ‘When you sit down together the chances are there is no clear idea of where your work together will take you.’
To get some real insight into the nature of competence, skill, and living with the problem, I unreservedly recommend ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work’ https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/shop-class-as-soulcraft
(The book was published in the UK with the clunky title ‘The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work Is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good’ – but all you need to know is that in American English, you buy stuff in a ‘store’ and make stuff in a ‘shop’)

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