Tensions, Learning and Adaptation:
Inevitably there will be times when uncomfortable tensions arise. Leaders need the moral courage to challenge unacceptable behaviour and acknowledge their own fallibility too. Leaders can help create and model a non-defensive climate of learning, reflection and inquiry in which people can give and receive feedback and find a way forward. Effective leaders take time to reflect on their own patterns of thoughts, assumptions, feelings and behaviours in order to understand the part they can best play, and what is beyond their control or is not a priority to try to change right now.
Leadership is a bit like riding a surfboard on a sea that is always moving. Sometimes the tides ebb and flow gently – and simple habits like being open to feedback help us re-balance from our vulnerable (“I don’t know”) moments, back to our strong selves with relative ease. Then at times, bigger waves dump us into stormier waters. Rip-currents might even push us towards the edge of chaos. We come up against the darker sides, the challenges, the not so helpful behaviours, attitudes, and ways of thinking and acting. To escape from drowning in rip-currents we have to swim in not so obvious directions – away from or parallel to the shore – finding our inner strengths, other resources around us, to create counter-intuitive responses that we may never have thought of before. While it’s not a comfortable place to be in, collision of these lighter and darker sides is actually a creative space for innovation, learning and dynamic change.
The Leadership-as-Learning-Framework – conveys these movements around four interwoven dimensions of change: personal, relational, structural and cultural – which are identified in Inspiring Communities’ Quadrants of Change as important areas to pay attention to if we want to impact and sustain transformation in communities.
Download the Leadership as Learning framework so you can refer to it as you work through these threads. You might like to print off the whole framework or just explore one layer at a time online.
The centre column of the framework reminds us of some of the resources we can draw on to lead our way through the normal tides, waves and rip-currents of community leadership.
The inner two columns on either side of the centre show some of the constructive leadership behaviours, attitudes and actions that we apply in the normal movements of the regular tides. Yes they might look like polar opposites, yet each have their time, place and use! Indeed, the polarities need each other. For example, moving between our sense of being strong and feeling vulnerable keeps us real and humble.
The outer two columns identify more destructive responses that can happen if we take the positive leadership responses to any extreme. For example, the dark side of being strong can be a big, controlling ego; the dark side of vulnerable can be paralysing self-doubt. The framework encourages us to not get stuck in any one place but to see this as a sea that needs to keep moving to stay alive, learning, growing and innovating. And as leaders, that means being aware and constantly adapting to what’s needed for each new wave or situation.
Let’s take a brief look at each of these four layers, helping you explore this framework with some reflective questions about what you can do to grow:
- your own leadership
- the leadership of others around you
- the leadership of organisations you work in
- the leadership of communities you live and work in
Each section includes a fictional story to illustrate the ideas offered. You can also read some of our Inspiring stories that highlight the many amazing things that communities are already doing.
Here we try to unpack some of the “back story” of the leadership challenges and responses that often sit behind such fantastic results. We hope the stories and ideas presented will support you to work with the complexities and messiness of CLD work as the “new normal” and encourage you to hang in there to make things happen!
The personal thread: leading ourselves
Mere moved to a new city, a year on she had still only met one neighbour in her street. She missed the friendly street gatherings and connections she had before. She wondered about organising a Christmas street gathering at her house, but felt a bit strange taking initiative as the newcomer. How would the established residents react? What if no one came? Did it feel safe to invite strangers into her own home? How much time & energy did she have anyway?
Having surfaced her fears she decided to just do it, keep it simple and that whatever happened would be OK. She photocopied a simple invite, put it in 30 letterboxes – and 10 households came. Everyone had fun and they exchanged contact details. The established residents thanked her and one offered to host the next gathering.
She reflected that night how glad she was to have found the courage to take initiative and not let her fears take over. She now felt confident, more relaxed and was curious to see what these new connections would make possible for her and others, as the relationships grew.
Take a moment to look at the personal threads identified in the framework, and to understand how this table works.
- What resonates for you? Can you see the patterns of:
- the tides moving between the red columns, which sound a bit like opposites?
- the dark sides shown in the black columns that can undermine our best intentions?
- the blue resources in the middle that help us make a shift to move forward?
Common fears that hold people back from being active citizens or taking on leadership roles include personal fears of change, of not knowing what to do, of failure and loss of face. The challenge is to not stay stuck in these fears. We can lead with useful reflective questions to identify our fears, or where we are stuck and open up to possibilities for how things might shift to a different place.
For example, how could you think, engage or act differently in your personal practice,
- to hold the good aspects of your humble self-doubt and feel confident that you will find your strengths as you step out and take action, despite your understandable fears of the unknown and the unknowable? What if you turned your fears into questions you wanted to explore as a curious, inquiring learner along the journey? What do you most need to receive or give, offer or accept? What do you need to sustain you on the journey?
- to hold your self-confidence and an awareness of others who may feel reluctant to help when you are so competently handling everything? Have you got the courage to let go some tasks and ask others to help, even if they might do things differently to you or that things might not happen at all? Are you being overly responsible – or maybe not clear enough about intentionally redistributing power and control in how you lead?
- to ensure regular still time for reflection about recent events e.g. what you are grateful for that has happened today; what your intentions were for the day – how you wanted to be; what you notice about your behaviours, thoughts, questions, feelings today; what your intentions are for tomorrow – how you are choosing to respond to enable your own and others’ leadership. Are you being too hard/too easy on yourself? Remember the power of small action to produce big outcomes!
Peter was helping get a community garden underway. It was exciting at first just doing it. He was confident helping build planter boxes, planting, weeding and tending the vegetables. Yet it soon became clear the more complex part was building good relationships amongst the people involved and with others who wanted to join.
Peter and two mates from the garden went off to talk to another local community garden group to share experiences and pick their brains. They decided to visit each other’s gardens on alternate months – for practical working bee help and some informal conversations over a cuppa afterwards about what each garden group was learning about running a great garden. They now feel more confident to work through organisational issues – not just the veggie growing – because they are not alone. They get new ideas and insights from each other, and in between times share cool stuff they find on the web and Facebook.
Three key ingredients typically support our leadership learning:
CLD leadership work focuses on creating an environment where everyone is nurtured to contribute their diverse strengths towards the leading, doing, thinking and learning. At least three key ingredients or factors can help support anyone’s leadership learning.
- exposure to new ideas that stretch our thinking beyond the familiar (e.g. from something we read or hear or a workshop we go to) – typically this provides 10% of our learning
- opportunities to try out new practices (e.g. behaviours, skills, tools, approaches in practical situations that stretch us beyond our established habits) – typically this provides 70% of our learning
- safe, high trust learning spaces to reflect with our peers (e.g. about what we are all learning from each situation and where we can still grow further) – typically this provides 20% of our learning
What’s missing or needs rebalancing around these three factors, for you or your community group/initiative just now?
What simple steps could you take to reach out and create opportunities for the missing ingredients that you or your group/initiative needs?
The relational thread: leading with and alongside others
Three years ago Peta initiated community pot luck dinners in her neighbourhood that were now happening four times a year, and attracting up to 100 people each time. Peta was quietly proud of the way she had slowly stepped back from being the catalyst getting these dinners started, by involving others in looking after different aspects like publicity, the kitchen and activities for the children. She was consciously trying not to be a one woman band taking responsibility for everything. Those she was actively encouraging, were now stepping up to keep these dinners going.
Then one night there was a tense discussion in the kitchen. A large group of students who had recently moved into the neighbourhood turned up at the dinner without bringing any contribution – and then ate before other families, some of whom missed out on getting enough to eat. Some felt strongly that they needed to say something to the students now! Others felt they should just be inclusive and accepting of everyone as they are. Peta listened for a while, then one of the group turned to her and asked what she thought.
Peta wanted to shift the conversation, so asked a powerful question: “What could we do that ensures everyone in this community is welcome here, whether or not they can bring food, AND that whatever is brought is shared?” The group soon agreed that they needed to communicate these values in what they said at each dinner when blessing the food and welcoming people. That night they made the students welcome, encouraged them to come again and shared the story of how the dinners got started.
Peta reflected on how she had needed to take a different leadership role this time. It would have been tempting to just express her opinion. Instead, by framing a powerful question, she was making her voice heard, and helping the group learn to work through issues and get beyond “either/or” or “them and us” thinking. At the next dinner the students returned and brought pizzas without anyone having explicitly asked them to contribute – they had worked that out for themselves.
Take a moment to look at the relational threads identified in the framework, and to understand how this table works.
What resonates for you? Can you see the pattern of:
- the tides moving between the yellow columns, between the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ aspects?
- the dark sides of the brown columns that undermine our best relationship intentions?
- the blue resources in the middle that help us build respectful, shared leadership?
CLD doesn’t happen if it’s just one person with a vision being the expert with the answers and everyone else following. Yes, we do need people with bold visions who often catalyse change. But the sustainability of community-led change comes over time from building a shared vision, one conversation or action at a time, listening to many voices and perspectives, and finding ways to knit together many different ways of making things happen. CLD leadership challenges us to find ways to be truly inclusive, and grow the leadership of the many, not just the few. Sometimes we’re just overloaded, drop some balls and find we have left a useful gap for others to step up! Whether by accident or conscious reflection, leaders need to keep moving between leading out front, walking alongside or stepping right back to leave space for others to lead and meaningfully contribute too.
What could you do to strengthen respectful, shared leadership in the CLD spaces you are working in:
- to truly honour/grow the diverse strengths of the community you work in? How do you check you are really hearing what others are saying, what they are meaning, what they are offering? How do you offer encouragement for others to step into the unknown and recognise their potential?
- to ensure you don’t lose your own voice, while working hard to listen to, empathise with and understand and include others’ views? When do you stand up for some really important principle/purpose and when do you hold back because it’s more about your own ego or need for control?
- to ensure you don’t get locked into ‘in group/out group’ or ‘them and us’ thinking? How truly open to other ways of thinking are you/your group/your initiative or do you still act as though ‘your’ way is the only right way?
- to keep noticing where you need to lead from at different times and places – out front, walking alongside, from behind, or stepping right out?
The cultural threads: how we work with each unique community context
Sione, a youth worker at a local church, engaged with some young people in the neighbourhood who had previously dropped out of school. Initially Sione just hung out with them. Over time he earned their trust, came to understand their way of seeing and doing things and the young people started to share their aspirations. Together they decided it would be great to have a place to call their own, and Sione agreed to ask the church if their vacant house could be used, now the church no longer employed an assistant minister.
The church council agreed it was a great idea, and had potential to be a ‘Youth Hub” for the city, but beyond their capacity to manage. They suggested delegating the oversight of running the house to a governance group made up of key church, education and social service agencies in the town who had a depth of professional experience in working with youth in the city. They felt this would provide an excellent focal point for inter-agency collaboration around youth development as well as property management.
Sione went back to the young people to share the good news that they had got the house. He was surprised by their responses: What’s this Youth Hub idea? That wasn’t our idea! Why would we trust those people on their committee – some of them kicked us out of school! They wouldn’t listen to our ideas. Why don’t they trust us to look after it all?
Sione believed there was some common ground between the ideas of the young people and the church council but he had a big job ahead to bridge between such different cultures of doing things. So he asked the young people: “If you trusted the church or any committee to really listen to you, what would tell them about your vision for this house? What would you see happening there? How would people treat each other? What would be needed to make this a cool, safe and creative space you really wanted to be involved in?”
Sione and the young people invited the church council to share fish and chips with them the next week. It was a bit tense for starters, but as they discussed Sione’s questions, and listened to each other, they started to see how they could make it work. Their most important decision was that the young people and the church council would work alongside each other to shape next steps together.
Take a moment to look at the cultural threads identified in the framework, and to understand how this table works.
What resonates for you? Can you see the pattern of:
- the tides moving between the bright green columns, shifting focus around the who, what, how and why?
- the darker green columns highlighting challenges that can undermine a strong CLD culture
- the blue resources in the middle that offer strategies for strengthening a “doing with” CLD culture?
It’s tempting to think we could find out what works and replicate recipes across lots of communities. Yet each community has its own unique context, history, culture, stories, identity, complexities and ways of getting things done.
We can’t helicopter in solutions that have worked elsewhere and simply expect them to work. We need to build home-grown strategies out of local relationships that bring knowledge of the strengths and complexities of each local context – and keep sharing lessons and stories from one community to another.
It is often the culture around how people have worked together that we can learn most from, not just what they have achieved. How did they spot where the energy was? What were the things that fell over and why didn’t they succeed? How did they stay resourceful to keep everyone on the waka through the ups and downs of their journey?
What, if anything, needs to shift to break any unhelpful patterns in the culture of your community initiative?
- How involved are those with the lived experience (e.g. local residents or people affected by the issues or change you are working on)? Or are things mainly led by agencies and professionals at this stage? What tangible actions could engage more of a ‘doing with’ than a ‘doing for’ or ‘doing to’ culture? Who needs to be more engaged with the decision-making? How could that start?
- To what extent is “the way we do things around here” named, known or discussed? What are the positive and negative aspects of existing community culture? Has the group/initiative ever had a discussion about core values and behaviours/attitudes they would like to model as a way of people working together? How are those expectations communicated to others? How do people deal with behaviour that is inappropriate/unsafe?
- How clear are those involved around their shared “why” intent? Their “how” processes? The doable “what” next steps? Is there a strong culture of collaborative inquiry to shape these together so they are really grounded in the community’s ideas and owned by a wide and diverse group of people involved?
- Is there a healthy tension between strengths based thinking and utilising gaps/deficits/failures as opportunities to find new community assets and for new people to contribute? Are founding leaders leaving space for others or still ‘holding the baby’?
- How do you make the most of uncertainty, messiness, diversity, tensions, disturbances and paradoxes? How could you reframe these uncomfortable spaces as key opportunities/energy sources for learning, innovation, new approaches and new possibilities?
The structural threads: working with sound and flexible organisational processes
Jane, recently retired, had moved to a small rural town to be closer to her mokopuna. Soon after she arrived, NZ Post decided to withdraw the town’s only Postshop and Kiwibank services. This not only cut essential services but threatened the viability of the only local store. She went along to a community meeting which was well attended by many locals, and found herself offering to help on the committee that was going to lobby NZ Post to keep the services and at the same time look at alternative ways to sustain the local store.
Jane offered at the first committee meeting to use her professional marketing skills and experience from her previous Wellington work to draw up a campaign plan. She went and talked with the local store, school, church, kohanga reo and kaumatua about their networks and potential contribution to the campaign. When she tabled the plan at the next meeting, there was a mixture of gratitude and scepticism in the comments made around the table. “All these fancy words look great on paper but I am not sure it will change anything. Wellington never has listened to us, so we’ll have to find our own solutions.” Jane was surprised with how powerless many felt and hoped her skills could help.
Over the coming weeks, it became very clear to Jane that her initial plan to delegate different tasks and roles to different people on the committee was not going to work like it did in her previous Wellington management role. Things happened in a much more organic way in this town, and it was still early days for her in getting to know people, let alone for people to trust her. So she held her plan lightly, and shifted to the “a one conversation at a time” strategy instead. She spent time getting to know the key local community people who would make or break this campaign, and gently dropped into the conversation possible actions that they or she might take. They shared tea, scones, beer, laughs, stories and outrageous possibilities, till they landed on agreed actions. There were heaps of skills and resourceful people here – just different from Jane’s previous life.
The committee met weekly to keep momentum going. Jane’s plan was still there in the background, but mostly action plans emerged from weekly committee discussions, depending on how NZ Post were responding and who else was coming on board. They won a temporary reprieve from NZ Post for 6 months and so refocused their energy on ways to keep the local store viable. Their vision was a new café for locals and visitors, – at the local store and they expected it would thrive when a new cycle trail opened a year later. Jane reflected on how much she was enjoying about listening, learning and being adaptable in this new phase of her life.
What resonates for you? Can you see the pattern of:
- the tides moving between the bright blue columns, addressing both task and process needs, with structured and flexible ways of working
- the darker blue columns highlighting challenging aspects of organisational and power dynamics
- the blue resources in the middle with strategies for strengthening CLD working structures and processes
CLD takes us out of our silos and particular assumptions of what is efficient and effective in ‘getting things organised’. CLD often invites us into generative thinking spaces or experimental actions across and beyond traditional role boundaries (e.g. bringing together governance, management & staff for focused dialogue; or diverse sector organisations and people of different ‘status’ in a community who wouldn’t otherwise meet).
There are times when writing decisions down into plans, job descriptions, agreements, diagrams and reports really help clarify what needs to be done, by whom, how, and later, the results achieved. There is a real skill (and often a sense of relief) when someone sums up what they have heard in a community conversation with a clear action plan that everyone can agree to and get on with.
There are also plenty times when dialogue has no immediately visible outcome. It can feel messy, complex and slow for new thinking or actions to emerge. Yet investment in relationships, trust and understanding is usually needed before any concrete plans or action can emerge. And once any plans, systems or structures are put in place, the challenge is to ensure they are not too fixed or rigid. We cannot fully anticipate the ripple effects of all the diverse actions we try out in the CLD space. Some will fly beyond our expectations, others won’t get lift off.
We have to stay flexible, carefully listening and noticing what is emerging, planning next steps as we go and being open to adapting any structures, plans and processes we put in place. That’s because CLD is complex, and takes us into unknown, unfamiliar territory where answers emerge out of our korero/conversations, our whakawhanaungatanga/relationship building, our mahi/trying things out and our ongoing learning/ako with each other.
What structures, systems, processes or plans are useful in your community context:
- to clarify what the group holds in common in terms of shared identity, vision, values, culture and what can be left diverse, flexible and emergent in terms of perspectives, pathways and plans towards the vision?
- to support regular individual and collective reflective practice to keep learning from what you are doing, the patterns you are noticing and to make sense of the best way forward?
- to manage power dynamics and shift unhelpful patterns of behaviour or attitudes that might be limiting energy and discouraging shared leadership?
- to avoid overly fixed roles, plans, boundaries and structures to enable flexible exchange of information, assets and energy across all those who want to engage in the kaupapa?