I plan on talking a lot about leadership and leading and my focus will be on the “local”. In fact, that’s going to be my primary focus for this site. Exploring the concept of local leadership in theory and in practice. To seek out good examples, crack them open and see what makes them work, and hopefully learn how they can be replicated. But before I do any of that, it occurred to me that I should define this term for myself. What do I mean when I say, local leadership?
Local Leadership: Position or Function?
When we speak about leadership we typically get hung up on position, status or job title. Local Leadership is not about the sign on your door. It’s about what you do, it is a function of your actions.
We’ve all had a boss, or been involved in an organization where the chair or president were simply not leaders, right? I know that I have. You know the people, they have the title and the formal authority to give direction and make decisions and they do these things, but when they act, it doesn’t feel like “leadership”. We may call these people the “boss” or say they are “in-charge” but we wouldn’t call them “leaders”. You can be in a leadership position, but not be a leader.
That’s not to say that the two are mutually exclusive. In fact, we often find leaders in positions of authority – their demonstration of leadership is what has gotten them the job. What is important here is that we draw a distinction between the concept of leadership position and leadership as function.
Leadership is the use of social influence to gain commitment of work effort in pursuit of a specific outcome or goal. This definition says nothing about the legal structures that give a position the authority to direct people or make decisions. It simply says that the leader has the social influence to get other people to do what the leader wants them to do. Sometimes an organization’s structure is enough to provide that leader with the influence they need. That is to say, the “other people” have internalized the organizational structure, and it’s their respect for that structure and organization that motivates them to follow the directions of the person in the position of leader. The social influence here is the other people’s perception of social expectations of their actions. Even in leadership as a position, the ultimate driver is social influence, clout.
Now think about that person, maybe a co-worker, a friend, or that person in your community, who has no real authority over you in a formal sense, but for whom you have deep admiration and respect. If they asked you, would you not willingly participate in some project for which you have no personal gain? We’ve all had those people in our lives who make us feel good when we’re around them. We listen to their words and if it challenges our worldview, we don’t get defensive, we get reflective…”hey, maybe she’s right” we say. That’s leadership. That’s the sort of leadership that I’m referring to when I use the term Local Leadership.
What Does the Local Mean in Local Leadership?
Local, in this context, is more than just geography. By local, I don’t just mean proximity of location, but proximity of relationship and impact. It’s about the direct and near direct connections that leaders have with their followers and the how close they are personally to the impact that they have. It’s really about leading in your own backyard. It’s about the impact one has in their own home, in their own neighbourhood and in their own community. Here community doesn’t just mean municipality – but it could be ethnic, religious, and cultural communities. It could be their community of practice or interest.
Examples of Local Leadership
Local leadership can be expressed in many ways. It can be demonstrated by setting a good example for your children. It could be organizing a neighbourhood watch, or fundraising for the local food bank. It can be demonstrated by organizing a campaign to encourage investment into public transit or protect the health of a local waterway. In short – local leadership is using the social influence we have at our disposal to improve the conditions around us, and for the people we are most connected with. It is the type of leadership that every single human being, no matter their wealth or status, has the ability to foster and use to make real, practical and meaningful change.
Can Local Leadership Change the World?
One of my favourite quotes is by Robert Kennedy and it does a great job of explaining my belief that local leadership really does matter:
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Very few of us will be the next Kennedy, King, Gandhi, Chavez, Douglas, or Mandela. But that’s okay – because you would know of none of these people if it were not for the thousands of local leaders who operated in the background to create the conditions and built the movements for which these fine examples of humanity are remembered.
As van Gogh said, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together”. One act of local leadership will not change the world on its own. But this one act may be the catalyst for others. As other local leaders see the impact of that one act, they may replicate or synthesize a similar act. This one act becomes tens of acts, then hundreds and soon a tipping point is reached and the momentum us so strong that this one act of positive change has become a movement, impacting millions.
Think about it, if you make a positive change in your life that benefits you and through you all of society – say you start a garden in your backyard and grow some of your own food organically. If you convince your spouse or another family member to help you and you grow more food for both of you, you’ve doubled your impact. That’s a return-on-investment (ROI) of 100%. Now what if the couple next door see your garden and because they see the positive benefits it brings you and your family, they decided to start their own garden? Well, your ROI is now 300%. And what if that couple inspire a couple families they know from their church? And on and on and on.
Local Leadership Equates to Organic Change
The really powerful thing about this sort of locally based, incremental change is that it doesn’t depend on massive redirection of social resources. There are no large scale social and economic upheavals to deal with. Even more importantly, as the idea spreads, as it is replicated in different situations, it changes. People take your example and tweak it to better meet their needs or their environment. As the idea propagates it evolves and improves in a way that large-scale projects simply can not. This process mimics the organic process we see in natural systems. It encourages the sort of diversity that makes healthy and resilient ecosystems. Change through local leadership is stronger and more resistant to disruption than large-scale change imposed by government or corporate mandate, just like natural grasslands or forests are less susceptible to disease and weather than monocultures.
Not only is change through local leadership easier and quicker to initiate, it is also more sustainable and has broader impacts than the single idea being adopted. Local leadership encourages positive changes to your own life and those to which you have immediate connection. Changing what you do, or encouraging a close friend or family member to make a small change their behaviour is far easier than trying to change the behaviour of a whole nation or city all at once. It typically doesn’t require huge investments of resources or take years in planning. It can happen literally overnight. As people follow your example of local leadership they make it their own. As they do that, they internalize the new behaviour, rationalizing to themselves why this is part of who they are. This internal storytelling helps to shape their self image and their worldview.
One of the most powerful forces of motivation we as human experience is the desire to maintain our self-image. Marketers use it all the time. It’s the power behind lifestyle brands (Apple, Starbucks, Lulu Lemon, etc). The changes adopted as a result of local leadership help people think differently about themselves and about the world they want. People reinforce this new image by making other changes in their lives when then find that their current behaviour is incongruent with their new self-image. Let’s take the home garden example – now that the couple next door have their own garden, they see themselves as people who garden and enjoy fresh vegetables. They see other people who enjoy fresh vegetables and notice that they go to the farmer’s market on the weekend and they wonder, “Hey we are people who garden and like fresh vegetables, we should likely be going to the farmer’s market as well”. After going to the local farmers market for a while, they internalize that behaviour “We are people who go to farmers markets” and they notice that other people who go to farmer’s markets also seem to prefer local businesses to big box stores. They say to themselves “We are people who go to farmer’s markets, we should likely do more of our shopping at locally-owned businesses because that’s what people like us do.” The impact of that one change initiated by local leadership has far deeper implications and positive results than the simple act of expanding the population of home gardeners by one family.
Okay, I can see that I’m getting carried away here. I tend to get a little passionate and verbose when taking about the power of local leadership. I don’t have to capture every idea here in this one post, because as I said, this whole blog will be about local leadership. To close, I’ll leave you with one last quote. This simple message continues to fuel my passion for local leadership and it inspires me everyday:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
– Margaret Mead
Local leadership matters and anyone of us can use it to make the world around us a better place. If you share my passion for making the world a better place by starting in your own backyard, I hope that you’ll follow my blog, share your thoughts in the comments space and spread these ideas.
So, what does local leadership mean to you?