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The wisdom of the ages: leadership is about participation

By Mark Randell - posted Monday, 25 November 2002

In the August 2002 issue of Boss, the Australian Financial Review magazine, Michael Cave takes a look at a new paper in the Deakin Law Review, by Leigh Johns and Mirko Bagaric, on the morality of "expenditure networking" – that is, for example, buying lunch for a client. The paper apparently tells us that there is little moral difference between bribery and buying lunch. Duh! The paper’s authors note that some ‘incidental good consequences’ come from the practice of networking — such as, increased social interaction. Uh, yep.

In the same issue of Boss, articles take up other ‘new issues’ for corporates; social responsibility, giving staff a feeling of ‘meaning’ in their working life, handling the increasingly blurry boundary between work and family life, the difference between leadership and management, and so on.

I need to get up, walk around and shake my head. New issues? What? These may be new issues for the corporate sector, but for people in Community Development — or at least to me — they look eerily familiar.


The questions apparently teasing the minds of our finest corporate warriors are essentially the questions of creating community. They are the questions of achieving creative community participation, giving people meaningful lives, instilling moral and ethical values, providing support for the demands of work and family life, building social capital, bringing up the kids (a.k.a. the difference between leadership and management), and empowerment of individuals within the community, among others.

The purveyors of website ‘community’ software are the world champions at creating new types of ‘community’. They have given us ‘communities of interest’, ‘communities of commerce’, and recently ‘alumni communities’ (communities of people who used to live here, but now don’t, but can be networked into here via the internet). I’d like to add a type, one that I think needs some attention from those of us with an (offline) community development bent: the staff community.

The news for our nation’s corporate leaders is that despite Margaret Thatcher, there is such a thing as ‘community’, and when you are busily ‘creating a corporate culture’ you need to think about the same things you would think about when creating any culture or community. You need to think about power structures and relationships (‘co-evolution’, in the model contained in the paper I have just submitted to the international Community Development Journal), introduction of new talent versus use of experienced hands (‘sparse connections’ and the EVE dilemna, in the same paper), provision of resources and information (‘nutrients for the co-evolving agents’), corporate (and communal) goals, building trust and ‘social capital’, that ‘vision’ thing, and so on.

You need, it is true — as another article in Boss points out — to understand the difference between leadership and management. Which reminds me of a story:

I was once asked by the CEO of a City Council what the attributes of a good leader were as we entered the 21st century, and my reply was a saying from the Tao Te Ching: "When a good leader has finished, the people think they did it themselves." What we need, I said, are Taoist leaders.

From the blank looks I knew I had entered consultant heaven: I was one step ahead of the client. That Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching, had served me well in the past, and it had served a blinder this time.


The concepts underlying the quote — and the ideas of the Taoists — fit exactly with the ideas contained in my more academic paper for a community development audience: What we need to be creating is adaptive, self-organising, self-sustaining organisations. The ‘leaders’ of such organisations will be those who can create the appropriate structures and ‘rules’ — and then leave the game.

If you’ve done your job properly, you’re only needed to occasionally ‘nudge’ the organisation in the appropriate direction, then let your self-organising staff ‘community’ do the rest. Again, the Tao Te Ching: "Manage a country as you would cook a small fish."

Communities — real, geographic communities — are complex, self-organising, self-sustaining, adaptive organisms. Nobody ‘manages’ the general affairs of a community (I am not talking here about council issues, such as rates and rubbish). It is a group of peers, with no central ‘leader’ (although there may be various civic ‘influencers’ (think ‘nudgers’)).

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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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