The Central Act of Organising

Today we have a problem with leadership. All forms of authority have lost ground to a sense that every leader is somehow selfish and ego-driven, that leaders are innately corruptible and venal and that honour, confidence and drive are immediately questionable. In this third part of a series on key concepts in community organising, I want to challenge such views head on and suggest that communities that get organised must be led by women and men who understand a different form of leadership – a dispersed and collective model. In the last two posts, I have explored the nature of private and public relationships and how a one-to-one encounter can bring a person into the public realm in a highly effective way. This time, I want to explore the nature of community leadership and how organising marches to a different drum around authority and shaping the network.

Leaders Reaction Course by West PointLeadership unmasked

Most people think of leaders as individual high achievers who stand out from the crowd by dint of their exceptional abilities, inspirational character and personal commitment. Such leaders are a real block to an organisation and today this sort of single-minded autocrat is recognised by all the management textbooks as old hat. Such people – mostly men but a few woman as well – still emerge but they often find that a fast moving environment just doesn’t allow them to be effective. Today’s literature on leadership is much more aware of the role of leaders as part of a network, skilled indeed but in knowing when to sit back and allow the process its head and when to step in and nudge it in the right direction. Leaders are seen today as enablers, facilitators and supporting an emerging reality rather than capable of creating that reality by their tenacious effort.

Years ago, I was part of an advisory group for a project on leadership. We were tasked with advising on drafts of a new guide to community leadership. When we gathered for the first meeting, we were presented with a well-written and carefully thought through draft which the group proceeded to maul and savage! The educationalist and community development experts who had brought it together were still working from a model of the individual leader; they were thinking as though leaders developed particular characteristics that were necessary to their leadership and exercised them within a stable organisational setting. I joined forces with voices around the room who wanted to see the project express an understanding of community leadership that resonated with my experience of neighbourhood working – messy, unkempt, turbulent and dynamic. We said ‘Go away and read Alinsky and Friere again. Then come back with a new draft!’

Followers by mattedgar CC FlickrLeaders have followers

One of the key insights from organising is into the nature of leadership. People of all sorts and types in society gain the support and approval of their peers by exhibiting leadership. It’s conditional, contextual and temporary but the insight that leaders are found anywhere there are followers is immensely important. It means that the organiser is ready to find leaders in the most unusual places and amongst all the ‘wrong’ people. Individuals who speak with passion about things that really matter to their peer group get a hearing; folk who have experienced the reality of hardship and cruelty get to be respected. There are of course those who are erudite and educated but the sort of leadership given that name by those who get left out of society is often emotional and deeply personal. This is the raw material of authentic community leadership.

Chertsey Town FC vs Banstead Athletic by Chris Turner Photography CC FlickrOrganisers are not Leaders

Another clear distinction taught in community organising circles is that between an organiser and a leader. The organiser agitates, advises, prompts but the actual decisions and most of the work is done by leaders; it’s in their shared self-interest to deliver a stronger network, to have a successful action. But the leaders are those who are most closely implicated in the life of the network. It’s their community, their families, their jobs and homes that are on the line. I sometimes use the analogy for an organiser’s role of a community coach, one who supports the team to play the game to the best of their ability. In many ways it is instructive. The Coach is not part of the game but outside the match or event, they are central to the planning and developing of each aspect of the play. It’s the brilliance of the players’ skills that sparkle on the pitch but the coach is key to enabling them to play as a team and perform to the best.

Leaders are always in the plural

This open approach to leadership seeks out the place for each individual to play their part. Whether the person is a chef, a pupil at school, a carpenter, a lawyer or a cleaner, they should find a role in which they have responsibility and can contribute their best. Leadership is contextual and we need in community to learn to respect the ability of each to lead in their own realm. But we also need strong clear overall leadership and in most traditions of organising, some form of direct elective democracy is used to select the right people to sit on the decision-making bodies. Lots of people play a prominent part in public actions in community organising but the diversity of the leadership adds a real vitality to the process.

Leaders are the focus of organisingLeaders in Darfur Camp Voice Concerns by United Nations Photo

Organising is centrally about developing leaders. An organiser knows that their input will be strategic and time-specific whilst leaders are immersed in the network and fully part of the solutions. Without leaders, organising leaves no legacy and many guides to organising are directly addressed to grassroots leaders themselves. Those who advocate for egalitarian visions of flat structures are often bewitched by the face-to-face scale of organising. As organising becomes more ambitious about challenging power so the importance of the leadership group becomes more important. Autocratic leaders are not welcome but rather those who constantly reinforce their networks through one-to-ones and a relational style, who show their respect for others and build trust for collective action.

Finding and developing leaders becomes a constant task that organisers have to attend to consistently. Leaders move on and change their circumstances, like us all. Leaders are well suited to one campaign or another but few have the skills and aptitude to fill the role for ever. The network needs to find fresh leaders on a regular basis, to remain organically related to the membership and to respond to new challenges creatively. The organiser is a key part of providing continuity, pressing the leadership for more or less at different times and encouraging openness to green shoots and new buds. Perhaps this way, we can reclaim a more wholesome understanding of leadership and see what it means for those in power to be accountable and to serve the common good.


Si Khan (1998) Organizing – A Guide for Grassroots Leaders (revised edition) NASW Press

Michael Jacoby Brown (2006) Building Powerful Community Organizations – A Personal Guide to Creating Groups that can Solve Problems and Change the World Long Haul Press

Lee Staples (2004) Roots to Power – A Manual for Grassroots Organizing (Second Edition) Praeger

Aaron Schutz and Marie G. Sandy (2011) Collective Action for Social Change – An Introduction to Community Organizing (Chapter 10) Palgrave MacMillan

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