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From Leadership Void to Too Much Energy? Part 1 of 2

July 1, 2013 - Ernest Hohmeyer
A Perspective on the anatomy of a community cause...

We have all been part of community efforts that have withered and died.

We have also been involved with those that have been tremendously successful.

What happened to make one effort successful and the other not?

I don’t profess to know that answer but I have been thinking a lot about this lately and here is why:

Gaps & Changes

Virtually across the board in the Tri-lakes we have seen, just in the last several years, prominent changes in leadership. This is not just political leaders but key community organizations and businesses. There have been several changes in leadership in our local chambers, community development efforts, elected officials and businesses. At times these periods of transitions have created voids where volunteers or community groups have stepped in.

And now most of these important community positions have been filled. In some cases this is causing an interesting yin and yang among volunteer citizens and local community leadership.

Have we gone from a leadership void to too much leadership – from all sides? A key question is now “who is doing what” and “what group should I be part of?”

If we do not get in sync with what seems to be gushing community energy ranging from downtown revitalization, business development, tourism and marketing, will it explode into the fragments of parochialism?

Volunteers the Glue?

I have often said it is the community volunteers that hold the glue together for many of these initiatives. They generally do not have any other motive but to see the mission accomplished.

As a volunteer, we have often played different roles. Sometimes, we are a ring leader on a certain cause. Other times we have been invited and in others we have mustered enough courage to show up because it hits an emotional chord.

Most of the time we are not quite sure what to expect, perhaps carrying a bit of a jaundice eye on “okay what is the real agenda.”

Emotion vs. Mission

And there is perhaps a fundamental friction: we often become involved because it hits an emotional chord. The effort is usually led by a well-known personality which immediately colors the mission – both good and bad. So there is a lot of emotion in the room right from the start and sometimes the objectivity or the real reason why we are here can get lost. Perhaps we spend too much time worrying about who is in charge, who will get credit and how we will function versus the mission at hand.

From my observations being on both sides of the table from an economic development professional representing an organization to a volunteer community member, there is usually no one cause for success or failure.

A Perspective

So between all of these groups, some that were started during these voids in leadership, has it become too much now that many of these positions have been filled?

A community developer's perspective on an autonomy of a cause.

There are many ways on how this gets started. A sector of the community sees a need – or an opportunity - or a community leader prioritizes a cause.

The Early Days

There is a lot of informal probing in these days: from my community planning days I call them “circles of the cause.” The first, tightest circle is often among friends and family. You talk about this over dinner or a few beers. If enough favorable reaction is garnered it’s on to the next circle. The danger here is you know what they say about family and friends and marketing…

The “Circle of Influencers” is next. You run this by a few community “notables.” There is no rhyme or reason here and it usually based on who you are comfortable talking to. It could be a community organization, a prominent business person or elected official. This is the first litmus test in determining the community interest level.

If all goes well, an informal “network circle” is formed. The greater the connection to those that are in a position to take action on a cause, the greater the chance for success it seems. If you fill this informal circle with only the “friends circle” and no “influencers,” it will be a great rally party but potentially no action. One of the first agenda items at this stage seems to be clearly identifying the cause and broadening the circle to be able to successfully conduct action.

This is usually the fun stage. All kinds of ideas or bantered about. To continue though, concrete action steps are needed with short-term and long term objectives. A key tool is the “capacity matrix.” Here, having an honest discussion of not only group skill sets, but who is really willing to do what is critical. Someone needs to carry the heavy hammer and prioritize as initial success to establish momentum is important.

A Vested Interest

You also need a vested interest. We don’t like to talk about this enough early on because, well “This is a community need.” But if that community need somehow does not help you in some way, it will be short lived. We are embarrassed sometimes to ask the question “What’s in it for you?” It is an important one though that should be put out there right up front.

Here is where the seeds of discontent also are born. As the circles become broader, people less familiar with each other become involved. However, this being a rural area, everyone seems to know everyone else – or perhaps more damaging – a preconception of who they are. And this is where the mission vs. personality can get clouded. Depending on our perception of who the real ring leader is, we may be colored as to the intent. It could also be who it is that they represent we are uncomfortable with.

And some of us can’t get over this and we drop out. Others bare it and others love it. However, if the party is only “friends” or those that feel obligated because it is their “job” it may not have staying power. Sometimes a good cross-section is often needed.

The Neutral Facilitator

I often wondered if our towns should have a powerful community position: the “Neutral Facilitator.” This person would belong to no one and represent no one and their only function should be facilitating community causes.

The “Money Bully”

Few of our community causes can succeed without money. The success of raising money can be one of the most gratifying moments of a cause. Its influence however, can change the nature of the group forever and sometimes can spell its death. How you “manage” the money influence on your group and at this stage it has nothing to do with how you will spend it, may be important.

We will talk more about money and leadership in the anatomy of a community cause next time.


Article Comments



Jul-02-13 10:13 AM

There can also be such a thing as too much "theory." There can also be such a thing as too much jargon and pretentiousness hiding what you really want to say as your article is confusing. Please be more direct in your writing.


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