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Leading inside and outside of ‘The Usual Systems’

I was struck at the last meeting of our Leaders for Leeds group by a discussion about how we might help ‘community leaders’ to develop their ability to work in and with the ‘usual systems’; the systems of planning, commissioning and funding of the public sector and other funders.

And this is indeed an option.

But there is another one.

To develop leaders who know how to get things done without depending on these usual systems.  Approaches that require no-one else’s permission, no one else’s consent, no-one else’s largesse, except for from those who the leader aims to help.

The first of these options essentially prepares leaders to become a part of the system of top down governance and resource allocation that most of us are so familiar with.  To understand its ways, how it meets, how it decides, how it collects information, and perhaps most interesting what information it values.  This is essentially the top-down, strategic leg of development.

The second of these options recognises that there other ways of getting things done.  One that is rooted in your own networks and communities rather than someone else’s.  That allows you to work in ways that understand, to meet in ways that you prefer to meet, to take decisions the way that you prefer to take them and for you to choose what information you will value and collect.  An approach that could broadly be called grass roots or ‘community development’.  This is the ‘bottom up’ or responsive leg of development.

Now these two approaches are not mutually exclusive.  Indeed I have long argued that we need to have two strong legs, strategic and responsive if we want our progress to be balanced and engaging.  We need great strategic leaders, great community leaders and strong communications and collaborations between them.  But we must recognise that these are different ways of working, with different skill-sets and potentials.

And sometimes, instead of educating community leaders to become effective in the top down systems we should ask them what we could do to increase the power of the bottom-up approaches to development.

I have never tried to do the sums, but I reckon for every pound that is invested in top down strategic approaches to development and change we would be lucky to see even one penny invested in supporting bottom-up development.

And perhaps this explains, at least in part, perceptions of a scarcity of ‘civic enterprise’, a surfeit of apathy and a general sense that we are falling some way short of our collective potential.