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.