The best thing about writing a blog, I’ve come to learn, is that you sometimes surprise yourself. I’ve been writing one since February 2010, a little more than two years’ time, and I can already see small changes in my thinking about the things that interest me: how communities change, how people become leaders, how citizens figure into civic progress, and how local politics works. Don’t get me wrong; in re-reading my postings, I largely agree with the central ideas, but I see changes in how I’d put things today.
Here’s an example: the core skills of community leadership, which I wrote about in April 2010. I still believe that leaders who want to be effective in civic work have to master a set of skills, and the five I listed—empathy, facilitation, strategy, learning and motivation—are the right ones. But I’d call some of them by different names today and place them in a different order.
What has caused my thinking to evolve is the work I’ve done in how change happens. In a set of postings, beginning last August, I mapped out how deliberate change comes to communities. (Literally, I called it a map, with starting points and steps along the way, ending in adoption and implementation.) There’s a lot to the map—it took seven postings to explain it all—and one result of spending so much time studying the process was a new appreciation for what it takes to move things through it. That’s the role, of course, of leaders.
And that brought me back around to looking at those five core skill sets. Here’s briefly how I described them two years ago:
- Empathy: These are the skills that allow leaders to understand others and work with them, “particularly those with whom you have the least in common.”
- Facilitation: These are the skills that “help bring groups together to agree on common goals and strategies. Think of this as putting empathy to work.”
- Strategy: These skills “help you see the road—sometimes the only road—that will move good ideas forward.”
- Learning: These are the skills that “help you search for, find, and recognize potential solutions, sometimes from unexpected sources.”
- Motivation: These skills “help you engage others—and yourself—in your community’s work.”
As I said earlier, I agree that these are the key skills, but I’d put them in a different order, using different words to describe them. Here’s how:
The first skill set is still empathy, but I’d call it relationship building. And, yes, empathy is still important to relationships. But the aim of civic relationships, I’ve come to know, is not to understand people but to enlist them in civic work, and it now seems to me that “relationship building” is a more purposeful and action-oriented term. I’d still put it as the first skill to be mastered because relationship building is where community leadership begins. Without a group of people to call on for assistance and advice—and, ideally, a diverse group—it’s impossible to be a civic leader.
The second skill set is the one I put as number four on the list two years ago, learning. It’s not a great name, but I’ll stick with it for the time being. These skills are about seeing community problems and finding their solutions. Why have I moved it up? Because this is the engine of community change. Change begins when people with strong community relationships meet problems they believe they can solve. So mix relationship building with learning and you have ignition. My caution is that learning is a process and not an event, and the process has two parts: seeing the problems and finding workable solutions. As I wrote in this posting, leaders sometimes get the order reversed. That is, they fall in love with a solution they’ve seen elsewhere—a river walk, say, or a streetcar line—without thinking much about the problem it’s meant to solve. If they did, they might realize that plunking a river walk or streetcar in their community may not improve things . . . and could make things worse.
The third skill set is strategy, and I think my description two years ago still works. It’s about seeing the “critical path” that the change process must follow—the necessary steps of citizen meetings, private consultations, fundraising, committee meetings, public hearings, and government approvals—and marshaling the people and resources to make the journey. If relationship building and learning starts the engine of change, then strategy gives it a map.
Facilitation is the fourth skill set. It’s not a great name, but I can’t think of a better one. I was right to say two years ago that it was the skills that “help bring groups together to agree on common goals and strategies” but wrong to describe it as “putting empathy to work.” It’s more focused and strategic than that. At various points in a change process, leaders have to work with groups of people who are more or less peers, and facilitation teaches you how to do that with good results. Think of the best committee chair you’ve ever seen—the one who kept the group moving forward and pulled the best from its members—and you have the idea.
The final skill set I now call persuasion, which seems a bit more hard-edged than motivation. And that’s on purpose. Change, I’ve come to learn, does not come easily to communities, especially change that requires us to make conscious choices (unlike changes that are mostly beyond our control, such as economic change due to globalization) and meaningful sacrifices. Machiavelli described the problem with change rather well in 1513:
There is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things in any state. For the innovator has for enemies all those who derived advantages from the old order of things while those who expect to be benefited by the new institutions will be but lukewarm defenders.
Let me paraphrase: People who might benefit from a change have trouble valuing what they don’t yet have, but those who are asked to give something up know to the penny what it will cost them. Given this “order of things,” it takes something forceful to push change forward. And that force is persuasion, done in a hundred ways.
These, then, are my new core leadership skills, in the order in which they come to bear on community change: Begin with relationship building, followed by learning. When you have ignition, you bring in strategy, and facilitation. If all goes well, they will bring you to the 20-yard line. And to get over the goal line you need that final skill, which is persuasion.
Photo by Julie Faith licensed under Creative Commons.