On Leadership

If you stop learning today, you stop leading tomorrow.
             – Dr. Howard Hendricks, theologian.

What makes a leader? We all have an image in our mind’s eye. More often than not, that image is of someone charismatic, charming, passionate and tireless. But when it comes down to it, leadership is more work than glory. The work of leading community-based organizations in particular involves balancing multiple demands, paying attention to the development of other people’s skills, and encouraging and supporting other people’s contributions to your organization. As John Barros, the new executive director of Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative says, “Leadership is the ability to facilitate….to bring out the best in others by providing the right circumstances for folks to flourish.”

In this issue’s collection of articles, we examine leadership from a variety of perspectives. In each, however, we find one key element – the nurturing of what the academics call human capital.

That is exactly what Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) does in Chicago  when they bring together parents to help them learn to see themselves as leaders and take action on family issues in their neighborhoods. COFI trainees always work in pairs or larger groups, supporting each other in their organizing work. And one of the next steps that many of COFI’s graduates take is learning how to lead the basic training workshop for other parents, gaining in the process another crucial leadership skill for themselves.

But developing that human capital can have unwanted, or at least unexpected, consequences. For a hierarchical organization, where power is vested in the top, the development of leadership skills in community stakeholders may challenge that power.

Roland Anglin’s article on stakeholder community development concedes this point, but argues that empowering stakeholders is the only real way to create enduring organizations capable of creating long-term, positive change. The benefits of such empowerment accrue not only to the individual, but to the organization, its mission, and the community. There are many kinds of stakeholders that a CDC must recognize and nurture, he writes. One of the most central tasks for a CDC executive director is maintaining the organization’s connections with all of them, and helping them all (staff, board, community residents) to learn how to be real stewards of the institution.

As an organization matures, this principle becomes even more important. Robert Zdenek and Carol Steinbach, in an adaptation of their upcoming CDC management book, explore this terrain. While charismatic entrepreneurial leadership may serve a brand new organization well, they say, to create an enduring organization, leadership needs to be dispersed and shared.

And Speaking of Leadership…

As we go to press this country has a striking vacuum of leadership at the national level. Ordinarily at this time in an election year we would be writing in our editor’s note about what we could expect from our new administration – the continuation of certain housing policies, or an impending dramatic shift. This year, instead, we are learning about the topology of chads and, as a nation, participating in one of the most exciting lessons in democracy and constitutional government since the 1960s.

On December 1st, we still don’t know who our next president will be. Nonetheless, there is no scarcity of programs and policies that advocates should support and promote. We have a roundup of the 106th Congress’s housing progress. The verdict? A lot of hopeful signs that haven’t yet come to fruition. Once the election drama is over Congress can return and finish what it started, hopefully with support from the new administration.

Beyond the crucial yet technical details of specific housing programs, the new administration is going to have to face an America with rapidly growing inequality, and a national disregard for what remains of our safety net. This disregard results in people going hungry or without medical care to which they are entitled. (see Organize! column.) These problems will only get worse with the inevitable next recession. 

A Radical Thought

Every once in a while somebody says something that seems to clear away a fog you hadn’t noticed had settled. Paul Grogan, former director of LISC, does this in his new book Comeback Cities, which we review in this issue.. In the process of chronicling neighborhood revitalization, Grogan makes one very simple point: you can improve the quality of life in poor neighborhoods while they remain poor neighborhoods. Poor people deserve, and can have, safety on their streets, structurally sound homes, and public services. In the thick of ever more focused discussions about deconcentrating poverty, Grogan’s point is a welcome reminder: the problems of poor neighborhoods cannot all be blamed on their poor residents.

Unfortunately, as reviewer Brad Lander points out, Grogan makes a substantial leap from that radical premise to discounting the importance of fighting poverty itself, elevating community development above community organizing, and celebrating a number of questionable practices including New York City’s recent approaches to policing. We need to remember that even in a ‘revitalized’ neighborhood, the destabilizing effects of poverty and discrimination can be devastating.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

Thank You

At this time of year, we want to thank all of our readers and our many friends and supporters for the important assistance they’ve given us during the year, and the countless people engaged in the fight for social justice. We extend a special thanks to the Annie E. Casey Foundation for providing funding support for this leadership issue. We hope, as always, that it will help you – the leaders of our field – to keep learning and keep leading.

Series NavigationDeveloping Future Leaders >>The People Shall Rule >>
Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.