A Model of Community Leadership?

Following a very useful and broad ranging conversation with Daniel Goodwin, I was motivated to write this as a thought-starter – it has certainly given me new insights into the role of community leader that we may need as part of the “Big Society”…

A Model of Community Leadership

David is a Community Leader.

David works very hard in his local community coordinating a considerable amount of local effort.  He visits people when they are unwell, at their home or in hospital.  People trust him with their problems, and know that he can give them helpful advice on any of a very wide range of issues.  He helps families who are having difficulty, gives parenting advice, and couples often come and get some good general advice from him before getting married.

If something happens in the community, such as an emergency, people instinctively turn to David.  If something particularly newsworthy happens in his area he is sought out by press as a spokesman for the community.  He’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people with a crisis, although most people don’t abuse this.  He spends a lot of time fundraising for local facilities and coordinates volunteers who help him.  His wife spends a considerable amount of time helping David, even though she isn’t paid at all, and some of the women in the community will bring sensitive issues and problems to her, which she helps to resolve.

If people have money problems David will help them to get advice on support that may be available.  If people have literacy issues he will help them to navigate the form filling to access benefits.  He’s good at connecting people in the community who can help each other.

Because he lives in the community he serves people will talk to him about issues in  the street, the supermarket or the pub.  He is “always on”, and his actions are always held to a slightly higher standard than others because of his role.

Amongst his other activities David publishes a small local newsletter with a range of very community based items – unpaid volunteers help write this and distribute a copy to every house in the community.

David works full time at his job and is paid less than £20,000 but he does receive rent free a house in the community that he leads, and where he now lives, although he wasn’t born there.  David studied and received extensive training for his role, not only in terms of skills like counselling, and information about helping people, but also in some deep areas of moral philosophy which he sometimes reverts to as a basis for his actions and advice.  Most people realise that David really isn’t in this for the money – they realise that he does it out of a sense of vocation rather than because this is the best gig for making him rich.  He had to pass exams and go through a period of apprenticeship under someone more experienced before he got a leadership role of his own.

Many activities led by David at specific times of year help to give a sense of tradition and core to the community.

David has a particularly key role to play in many core life events: when children are born he helps ensure that the parents are getting enough support from their friends and family.  When people die he’s there as a source of comfort and practical bereavement advice to the mourning family.  David is even licensed by the state to perform marriages.

Once a week David holds a meeting that some people attend – he greets them all and gives them a short talk about current affairs and citizenship.  They sing some songs together – it’s very friendly, and then anyone who’d like to, comes back to David’s house for a cup of tea.

After a few years David will be moved to another community to be a leader there, and he’ll be replaced in his current community.  This helps keep him fresh and stops too much of a dependency.

Why does David do all this for so little money?  Basically it’s because he cares, and knows that some things are more important than money.  He gets an incredible buzz from knowing that he’s making a difference for people, and from the genuinely high regard in which he is held.

David is, of course, a parish priest or vicar.  The description omits the religious aspects and could apply to the role played by other faith leaders in their communities, too.

I find it interesting to compare the points of difference and similarity between David’s role and that of an elected member ( a similar exercise with, say, social workers may be interesting but I don’t know enough to do that):

Parallels between David and an elected member:

– they live in the community they serve

– they aren’t paid very much (as backbenchers anyway, though the perception is wildly different “snouts in the trough” – and maybe here the perception is the important thing)

– the bases of their “authorising environments” (christianity and democracy) are thousands of years old (although the structure of local democracy and universal suffrage are quite new by comparison)


– David is imposed on the community, the elected member is chosen by them (so should therefore be more legitimate – except that some people therefore actively didn’t vote for them)

– David really serves only his “flock”, the elected member serves everyone

– David is moved on after a while – he’s term limited (and for example is not allowed to retire in the place where has just been a priest)

– David has certain “statutory roles” that legitimise him and give him profile

What are the “so-what’s” here?  I’m still thinking about that, but a few tentative conclusions may be:

– The possible value of bringing some deeper substance around moral and political philosophy to bear in councillor training (perhaps especially to give an intellectual framework for some of the excruciatingly painful ethical tradeoffs to come)

– The power of ritual.  How can we add members to local ritual – a surgery “stall” at the weekly market?  Support to members to be local leaders around eg carnival floats, Big Lunches?

– Local communication – a role for social media and blogs perhaps: a parish magazine will usually contain a little “editorial” from the vicar but then will be full of community information and items by people in the locality rather than necessarily all be written by the vicar – perhaps a more active role for comms departments in providing content too.  The “Harpenden West Ward” website hosted by the council with a suitably legal space for comment from the local elected member, and with other relevant information on it?

I’d be really interested in any comments or observations that people have on reading this.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. John Atkinson says:

    It might also be worth reflecting on the psychological contract between community leader and the community they purport to serve. Differing expectations allow different actions and the challenge with looking at other models is how do you get there from here? It’s probably also worth reflecting that both models on reality touch a tiny proportion of their community and that by and large, that’s ok.


  2. Jeremy Evans says:

    Speaking as a social anthropologist, I’m very pleased to see that you have picked up on the importance of ritual. A key feature of a successful ritual is that it’s dependable and sufficiently regular so that it is easily remembered with deep understanding. It also needs a clear leader who is also an authority-figure rather than simply a forerunner. Your vicar carries the charisma endowed to him by his church; his secular counterpart would have to carry authority while not being able to punish, and be an exceptional cross-generational communicator. I suspect an elected official would find it difficult to be creative beyond the bounds of his job description and public accountabilities.


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