By: Whitney McIntyre Miller
As a leadership studies scholar, I often get to explore the many ways that people utilize and think about leadership. My passion for community development often influences that way I think about leadership. While giving a recent lecture on emerging leadership theories, I began thinking about how they would translate to communities and leaders of community organizations. Below I share my thoughts on these emerging leadership theories and how they may impact communities and community leaders.
Increasingly, emerging leadership theories focus on collectivism, connectedness, and seeing our world as a living system. Gone are the days of the solo “hero” leader that sweeps into our communities and community organizations and creates great change and growth. We realize that our world is complex and interconnected, and our communities are becoming equally as diverse and multifaceted. Therefore these new emerging leadership theories will help community leaders think about the future of their communities and help to move their whole communities toward this future.
In order for us to really utilize some of this new thinking it is important for us to let go of past ideas of community leadership and instead embrace new ways of thinking and leading as they emerge (Scharmer, 2009). Scharmer (2009) told us in his work Theory U that we are at the precipice of an age of individual and collective transformational change. What we need to do is tap into our highest potential and actually learn from for the future- a process he calls emergent learning. This requires “presencing,” or having presence in a situation and sensing what is coming. For communities, we must turn our senses to the future of our communities by not just looking at current detriments, but thinking about how to make our communities safe and inclusive for everyone. What will our communities look like in five, ten years? How do we solve those problems today? By paying attention to what is happening and leading for the future, not the past, or even the community of today.
Wheatley (2006) worked to connect organizations to the quantum physics notion of chaos theory in order to understand how we are really connected to, with, and operate like the living systems that surround us. The truth is that despite wanting to be in control, we live in a time of chaos. While many of us fear chaos, we should really learn to embrace chaos, because not only is it inevitable, it is also valuable to our communities and organizations. This value comes from the scientific evidence that there is actually order in chaos. It is this order that, when allowed to foster, shows us patterns and emerging ideas that would not only be beneficial in reducing our levels of self-imposed stress, but could also allow for our communities and organizations to flow in a free and organic manner.
Chaos theory in organizations provides several lessons for community leaders. First, we must learn to be flexible and lead within chaos- we must see the big picture while also keeping our feet on the ground. Heifetz (1994) referred to this as being both on the balcony and the dance floor. Another lesson from Heifetz (1994) is also valuable for community leaders looking to lead through chaos. This is the lesson of the safe holding environment. Leaders need to provide a space that keeps things calm enough for people to maintain composure, while simultaneously allows for enough chaos to stimulate creativity and emerging thought. If we can provide this space for our communities, then we can provide place for people to self-organize and thrive.
Western (2008) is another emerging leadership theorist that takes lessons from nature. Western’s (2008) model of Eco-Leadership is one of distributed leadership. He saw our collective entry into the post-heroic leadership era and understood that we must think about our environment, as well as our interdependent parts and systems in order to be successful. Building off of Senge’s (2006) now famous systems thinking work, Western (2008) challenged us to see that any leadership task, including community leadership, should be seen through the lens of holism- we are all made up of the sum of our parts and therefore leadership can emerge from anywhere inside an organization or community. As our communities are becoming more diverse, global, and complex, it is important for us as community leaders to understand that we need to embrace our whole community, see the interactions of the various pieces of our communities, and understand how we interact with other communities and systems in order to build a strong culture that encourages leadership from throughout the community to meet our growing future needs.
Finally, we look at the impact of Wilber’s (2001) integral model on community leadership. Wilber (2001) designed a four quadrant model (shaped as a square with two boxes on top and two on the bottom), which includes the notions of thinking on multiple levels and contexts simultaneously. The purpose of his model is to demonstrate that there are many facets of leadership occurring at the same time, of which we need to be conscious. The top left quadrant is that of internal reflections of our leadership practices. The top right quadrant focuses on our leadership interactions with others. The bottom left quadrant is where we tend to find our communities- the space where we operate leadership within groups. Finally, the bottom left quadrant is seen as the global environment within which our leadership occurs.
Wilber (2001) challenged us to develop each quadrant of our leadership in order to be the best leaders possible. For community leaders, this means that we must develop our own leadership skills through reflection and self-understanding, practice those skills with each individual with whom we interact, build communities that have strong leadership capacities and reflect the best image of community-self, and nestle that leadership work within the broader context of other communities, cities, regions, states, etc. This, of course, is no easy task, but perhaps a noble challenge for us to consider as community leaders. What might our communities looked like if we took the time to reflect on our leadership and embrace of leadership work in terms of self, other, community, and environment?
While each of these leadership theories may seem like a long way from the comfort of how we have been leading communities for years, if not generations, if we step back we can see that, at least in the United States, there has been a growing movement away from the hero leader and toward a need for connectivity. Perhaps we have decided that we do not enjoy bowling alone (Putnam, 2000) after all. It is in these cases, where we crave a sense of connectedness and collectivism that we may visit some of these emerging leadership theories and think about how they may help us, as leaders, to be more responsive to community needs and vision now and in the future.
Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Scharmer, O. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization (Revised edition). New York, NY: Double-Day.
Western, S. (2008). Leadership: A Critical Text. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Wilber, K. (2000). A theory of everything: An integral vision for business, politics, science, and spirituality. San Francisco, CA: Shambhala Publishing.
Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the New Science, 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.