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The virtues of building communities by leading them from behind

By Mark Randell - posted Wednesday, 18 June 2003

In one of my children's books, the lion is made fun of for "leading from behind" while searching for the monster of the story. Subtly, it is implied that cowardice is behind the move, and the lion loses and regains his voice with the ebb and flow of his courage and his position in the pack.

Yet I would argue "leading from behind" - or at least by walking beside, rather than in-front of your charges - is exactly what is needed for leaders of all kinds (corporate, governmental, community) in the new century.

This is hardly a new idea. The notion is referred to directly in the Tao te Ching, that 1000-year old classic of Chinese literature: "When a good leader is finished, the people think they did it themselves". That is, lead through empowerment of the people, rather than by undertaking all tasks yourself - or at least make it look that way, make people believe they are making the decisions, providing the solutions.


The idea is contained in many well-known proverbs: For example, "Give a man a fish…etc". You can no doubt think of others yourself.

You are now a community development consultant. For here (never mind theoretical discourses about power, structures and shared meanings, solidarity and agency) is the nub of that much-uttered but little understood word "empowerment". Helping people do things for themselves gives them confidence, capacity, skills, "personal power".

It's a bit like raising the kids, really; but such talk is paternalistic and patronising when talking about, and to, adults. So the question of leadership becomes how to lead without being patronising or paternalistic, authoritarian, disempowering rather than empowering.

This, strangely enough, is the promise of community development, properly done: that people can discover their own abilities and powers, that whole communities come to understand that they can determine their own destinies. Leaders could do worse than scan the community-development literature for new insights into their own craft.

Yet few of our "leaders", in any sphere, have truly absorbed the message, let alone the practice, of empowerment, of what John Ralston Saul calls the virtue of "disinterested participation", of quiet service to the common good. The tendency to "assume the mantle of control" is strong, and few who achieve it have the humility or self-confidence (yes, self-confidence) to stand themselves out of the spotlight while others, with the appropriate encouragement and assistance, do what is needed, and take the (deserved) kudos.

One did, once - and said "Be the change you want to see in the world" along the way. He was steeped in the art of humility, and change the world he did. His name was Mahatma Gandhi. A community developer like none other.


I was once asked by a CEO, in a meeting with his executive, what kind of leadership would be necessary in the 21st century. My reply - met with blank stares from the gathered management team - was "Taoist leadership". I was referring to the quote I have already made from the Tao te Ching. The type of leadership we need from all quarters is "facilitative" leadership, "empowering" leadership, humble leadership, Taoist leadership. We need leadership from those who would build us up and stand aside, insisting that we take all the credit. We need leaders who truly understand the first principle of community development: "Work yourself out of a job". If a good leader does good work, they render themselves virtually obsolete: the workers, the community, the team becomes self-sufficient.

Yet few of today's leaders - particularly in government - would be willing to "hand the credit" to others; they all want their moment in the spotlight, their 15 minutes. Credit is necessary to their continuing success as politicians, bureaucrats. Indeed, we set the entire "system" up that way from the beginning: We believe in the heroic leader, we build hierarchical enterprises where "the boss" is the only public face of the enterprise, we clammer for "doorstop" interviews with the leader, the Minister, the head honcho, as the only one who can give us the pearls of wisdom we crave. We focus our media on the people, we subscribe to the twin cults of personality and celebrity.

I saw a wonderful poster recently in a gym: "Beaten paths are for beaten men". So lest we admit to being beaten, let me make one or two small suggestions, in the spirit of that poster, and let me suggest that part of the answer lies in silence, in the absence both of the need to gain attention and the not giving of attention to inappropriate behaviour.

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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