Out Front and In Sync

What kind of leadership does the community development field demand in the 21st century?

Rodney Fernandez embodies the complexities of community development today. Sitting in a hotel restaurant after a symposium on leadership in the field, the 62-year-old executive director of the Southern California-based Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation wears a guayabera shirt, drinks an iced tea, and talks in a friendly, easy manner. It’s just what you might expect from a “grass-roots guy” who helped start an organization that originally protected farm workers from being evicted from a labor camp.

Yet Fernandez is also the CEO of a largely self-sustaining multi-million dollar not-for-profit business. Now in its fourth decade, Cabrillo builds housing, provides homeownership counseling, and conducts planning throughout Ventura County, Ca. Fernandez peppers his comments with the kind of language (“sustainability,” “succession,” “strategic planning”) you might expect to hear in Fortune 500 company conference rooms. And when he talks about leadership or helping Cabrillo thrive, he says things that seem counterintuitive in a field built by strong, charismatic leaders, focused on serving the poor and disadvantaged.

“I think in order for us to remain a not-for-profit, we have to make a profit,” Fernandez said. Later, he talked about how effective leaders need to learn to “let go” to build stronger organizations. As he describes it, executive directors who want to sustain their organizations have to support as much as they direct. And he has embraced the new community development leadership paradigm he espouses, putting it into practice at Cabrillo.

Community development has never been easy, but according to experts and executives interviewed for this article, leaders today face a wider range of challenges, complexities, and contradictions. (See Balancing Act.) Organizations have to work toward their mission and their financial bottom lines. This requires leadership that is collaborative, flexible, results-oriented, nimble, and adaptive. In other words, the traditional models of leadership — embodied by the general barking orders or the visionary who provides inspiration from a soapbox — are ineffective for today’s world of community development.

According to those who have been in the field for decades, community development organizations once held a special place in the eyes of progressive professionals and government funders. Today, these organizations are among many actors competing for the same funding, employees, and even customers and clients. Forty years ago, executives of successful community development organizations could have been the go-to people for virtually all questions dealing with their organizations and communities. Today, there are too many demands for quick answers and too much information for any one person to handle. The successful community development organization today is a dynamic blend of several organizational models: charity, small business, advocacy group, public relations firm, planning and research agency, and — often — developer, builder, and Realtor.

Leadership is the art and craft of influencing people to move toward a shared goal. Successful leaders understand and respond to conditions, opportunities, and constraints in their groups, organizations, and communities. Community development leaders have always had to be creative and collaborative to help organizations survive financially while serving communities that often lacked the money to keep those organizations in business. But the balance of leadership skills that help organizations succeed has changed over time.

Forty years ago, the prevailing style of leadership was like a preacher of a new church—someone who could mobilize individuals and conflicting groups around clear visions of the future. In the 1980s and 1990s, as their success created greater expectations, funders demanded more accountability, and government support dropped, community development leaders became like boat captains. They worked to stabilize and steer their organizations through changes in funding and funder expectations. Now, leaders who want to thrive in the 21st century should think of themselves as band leaders: people who direct and harmonize a never-ending performance, but who rely on their bandmates to make — excuse the pun — sound decisions.

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Keith Getter is a management consultant in the Northeast District office of NeighborWorks America.
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Leonardo Vazquez is the executive director of The Leading Institute, and a creator of various leadership programs, including Leading from the Middle and Executive Class. He is an instructor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy of Rutgers University, where he also directs the school’s Professional Development Institute.

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