Speeches at Volunteer Victoria’s AGM: Mitchell Temkin

NOTE: This post is part of the Embracing the Future-Leading for Change post regarding our Annual General Meeting.

We’d like to thank Mitchell Temkin for delivering the following thought-provoking speech on community leadership at Volunteer Victoria’s Annual General Meeting on June 24, 2010.  Mitchell’s bio can be found at the end of this post.

Good morning.

Val asked me to speak a little about what is coming in the future for community leadership. I was foolish enough to say yes!

I am sure we can all agree that prognostication is a dangerous and iffy thing. It is so easy to be clever and look insightful, but ever so much easier to be absolutely and irremediably wrong.

In baseball, if you are batting .300, it means you are doing really well. It also means that you fail seven out of ten times you come to the plate. My guess is that the failure rate in prognostication is much, much higher and that if you are right even one time out of ten – that’s the equivalent of batting .100 in baseball, bad enough to get you left on the bench or sent down to the minors — you are ahead of the game.

So it is with a little trepidation that I launch into these comments. The future of community leadership is an important topic that requires more than cleverness, and we really do need to try to understand what to expect of our leaders in the future.

The good news is that in speaking of leadership we have a little help and we can do better than just guess. That’s because — as I believe — the practice of leadership is shaped by its context.

Military leadership, for example, is what it is because it is shaped by the nature of military organizations and military purpose. Business leadership is shaped by the nature of business organizations and market dynamics. Similarly in community leadership. So in speaking of the future of community leadership we have the emerging form of our communities to help us imagine our way forward. We are starting to have a pretty good sense of how our communities and the challenges they are facing are changing. From this, I think we can begin to understand what good community leadership will look like in the future.

In speaking of this, I would like to talk about five aspects of community leadership that I think will be important in the years to come. These are the leadership of collaboration, values based leadership, situational leadership, leadership from the middle, and leadership in times of increasing uncertainty.

These five aspects are all related. I will take them in turn, starting as above with collaboration.

Now there is nothing new in my noting the need for collaboration, which has received much attention in recent years. The concern for collaboration within the community sector and across the community, business, and government sectors is being driven by the scale of the problems that communities face — problems like homelessness or environmental degradation that no single organization and indeed no single sector can tackle on its own, as Judith Maxwell has pointed out. In my own work in strategic planning with boards, I find that there are very few that currently do not already list more effective collaboration, partnerships, and inter-organizational outreach as strategic priorities.

What is new is the recent urgency brought to collaboration for the community sector by the climate of fiscal restraint, which will seemingly be with us for years to come, or so it would be most prudent to assume. Especially in a smaller city like Victoria, community organizations are correspondingly small and many will not be able to maintain minimum sustainable scale as revenues decline. For these organizations, the stark choice often will be to collaborate or fail.

Whatever form that collaboration takes — cooperative projects, resource and service sharing, joint ventures, or even full-blown mergers, to take a few examples — collaboration does not happen by itself. It takes tremendous leadership to initiate, sustain, and guide it. Part of this is straightforwardly managerial. Innovative, entrepreneurial leadership will be needed to design and implement collaborative endeavors, from simple things like joint project task groups, to very complex things like shared governance and policy structures that work across sectoral and regulatory divisions.

But more important and perhaps more difficult than the practical elements of collaboration is the leadership required to simply get it started. It takes uncharacteristic courage and trust on the part of boards and management to enter collaborative enterprises, and even under financial duress they will not do so easily. Effective community leaders in the future will be those leaders than can inspire confidence and bring people to the table to open and sustain the “trusted dialogues” that make collaboration possible.

Above all, I suspect, it will be the initiators and leaders of collaboration who will be the most significant and impactful community leaders in the years to come.

Second, I am tending to think that community leadership in the future will be increasingly “values based.” By this I mean that leaders will only be effective when they can find a foundation of shared values to unite disparate groups in common purpose. Collaboration and values, we therefore see, are closely related.

The reason for this is that our communities are increasingly fragmented — by age, ethnic, religious, and gender divisions; by ever more narrow localisms; by increasing economic disparity; by increasingly rigid ideological and political divisions; by dispersed communities of shared interest that don’t relate to local issues; by new media tools that often isolate individuals even as they engage them.

I recently had occasion to take a long drive through the suburbs of Greater Vancouver, stopping to do errands along the way — from right downtown out along East Hastings and the downtown east side, out to south Vancouver, over to Burnaby, across the river to Delta, and endlessly east through Surrey to Langley, where I was making a presentation. I took the small roads, and despite the commercial sameness everywhere — itself erosive of any sense of place, and hence of community — the fragmentation was easy to sense, as the new jostled with the old, as different ethnic groups in old world dress mixed on the sidewalks, as the machinery of consumption dominated the design of new neighbourhoods, and as everywhere in these far suburbs wealth brushed up against poverty and the marginalized faded to invisibility.

Where does one find community in the big inclusive sense in all of this, I wondered. The answer, I think, lies in common values, which function as a kind of social DNA. Biologists tell us that different animal species share something like 99% (I can’t recall the actual number) of their DNA. For the most part we are not much different genetically than fruit flies! It is small genetic differences that make big differences in species biologically.

Similarly with values. Though we tend to focus endlessly on our differences, which loom large but often come down to small differences in values, the fact is that most of us, most of the time, hold many of our bedrock values in common, wherever we come from, however we live. This was illustrated for me a few weeks ago by a heartening story in the Globe&Mail about a joint Palestinian-Israeli hockey team, of all things — a group of players who overcame their potential divisiveness through a focus on the shared values of sport. Their coach, I’m thinking, must be an interesting sort of leader.

Sport often plays this role. But the values we hold in common reach beyond those connected with games and athleticism. Just as the coach of the hockey team was able to animate shared values to power shared athletic endeavour, I suspect that community leaders of the future will need to be skilled in identifying and articulating the shared foundational values — our social DNA, as it were — that can power common community purpose.  More and more, effective community leaders will be those who can inspire diverse groups to acknowledge their similarities and put shared values to work. This will be essential if fragmented communities are ever to be brought together.

It is within this context of values-based leadership that the third important feature of community leadership in the future will develop. And that is, or so I suspect, that future community leadership will often be situational rather than positional.

What does this mean? Well, right now, when we talk about community leaders, we often have in mind people durably ensconced in leadership positions in organizations. For many of these, their ability to exert leadership influence is as much a function of their positions within their organizations as it is of their abilities and inclinations. And for many one suspects leadership is more a duty, and an uncomfortable one at that, than a gift. Long-term, progressive engagement with leadership positions static organization provides the context for the old model of community leadership — though this is a rough generalization that certainly does not apply universally.

But that model of static leadership positions is already beginning to break down, most clearly among the young but not only among the young. It is doing so because the terms of individual engagement with community issues are starting to change under the influence of demographic pressures (the durable presence of the overly-populous boomers in positional leadership roles), changing attitudes and capabilities (shorter attention spans and reduced free time), changing expectations (community engagement not as civic duty but as a networking opportunity and resume builder), and changing tools (especially the huge facilitative role of online social networks and communication.)

I think we are also seeing here some of the influence of the pressure for collaboration. The less that issues fit neatly within the terms of reference of single organizations the less relevant positional leadership roles become and the greater the opportunity for situational leaders to play an important facilitating role.

Under this new way of engaging people are less inclined to develop long-term affinity with organizations and more inclined to develop short-term but intense engagement with projects and issues. Hit and run engagement we could call it. We see this most conspicuously in the ad hoc projects and initiatives that emerge suddenly through online social networks, but the pattern is evident wherever people volunteer — more and more people are inclined to engage situationally, for the short term, and not organizationally.

This may make problems for boards with an old-world mindset about how things should work, but it creates wonderful new opportunities for getting things done for those organizations that can learn to take advantage of the new attitudinal context.

Now, sometimes situational engagement occurs on projects within the confines of single organizations. But when it does not, we begin to see the influence of situational leaders – those leaders who emerge for a time to lead and inspire short-term initiatives and projects that cross static organizational and sectoral boundaries, but who do not assume formal leadership positions and often relinquish their leadership role when a project is complete, or move on to a different issue.

The more that community initiative requires collaboration, and the more that collaboration depends on establishing values-based coalitions of shared concern, the more we should expect, I think, that community leadership in the future will be situational rather than positional.

For our fourth idea — really two related ideas — about future leadership, I’d like to turn to an article written by famous McGill management professor Henry Mintzberg, which appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 2009.

Called “Rebuilding Companies as Communities,” the article focuses on re-establishing the lost sense of community in large corporations — a sense of community destroyed, says the professor, by the short-term, self-serving thinking of big-ego, flagship business leaders. With a lovely turn of phrase, Professor Mintzberg suggests that what companies need is not more big time leadership from the top, but rather “communityship” — intentional action to rebuild community from within.

Though he is concerned with large companies, in talking about how communityship gets re-established Professor Mintzberg develops two leadership notions that I think are directly relevant to community leadership in the future.

The first of these is “leadership from the middle” — by which he means initiative from small groups of middle managers who bond together to lead and drive change from the inside out. Now, the community at large does not have “small groups of middle managers,” but the manifold relevance of the idea of leadership from the middle to community leadership to me seems quite striking. To my mind, leadership from the middle in organizations seems a lot like situational leadership in communities, in the sense that both are ad hoc and unrelated to formal leadership roles. My guess is that it is situational leadership from the middle, involving volunteers and middle managers from different organizations, which will ultimately make community collaborations successful.

Professor Mintzberg goes on to ask what will facilitate the growth of leadership from the middle. And here he comes up with a really striking and beautiful idea. Playing off the notion of “just in time delivery” as it is used in operations management, he suggest that what is needed is “just enough leadership”  — by which he means leadership from the top whose primary role is to facilitate leadership from the middle, and then fade to the background. Just enough leaders are, more than anything else, catalysts whose primary role is to bring out the leadership capacity in others, and not just to dominate things themselves.
I find it hard to imagine an idea more useful to our exploration of what community leadership might be. Just enough leaders are implicitly situational leaders of collaborative endeavour based on values held in common, and they are absolutely what will be needed in abundance if the collaborative community enterprise of the future is to succeed.

Finally, I want to speak for a moment about leadership in times of uncertainty.

One thing that many of us feel for certain about communities in the future, is that their identity, security, prosperity and sustainability will become increasingly uncertain. Times, it seems, will be more and more fraught.

Now, one way of looking at leadership in general is to reflect that leaders are simply people who — whether or not they are working in a leadership team of some sort — accept individual accountability for decisions and actions made under uncertainty. Think about it, work it through for yourself: where there is no uncertainty there really is no need or role for leadership.

As a species we are evidently extremely uncomfortable with uncertainty — as evidenced by the elaborate belief systems we adopt to mitigate our discomfort and our repeated, relieved, enthusiastic, collective abandonment of skepticism in the face of the plausible, no matter how odd.

All of this is perhaps a bit more gloomy philosophy than one really needs over coffee and muffins first thing in the morning, but I bring it up because it is directly relevant to the quality of community leadership we want for ourselves.

Leadership is ethically neutral. Though we have a tendency to think of it as a good in and of itself, the key question always is “Leadership for what? To what end?” Reflect that many of the most evil figures from history have been highly effective leaders by today’s standards and definitions. I’m sure I don’t have to come up with examples for you. 

As we look forward to more uncertain times, therefore, we look forward to times in which strong leadership, while increasingly needed and important, is also increasingly risky. Just because someone is an effective leader does not mean that he or she necessarily gets things right or holds benign intent. And when strong leaders get things really wrong, or are working with hidden agendas, the results can be ugly, even disastrous.

So as uncertainty grows, what is needed for community leadership in the future is a strong counter weight of accountability. This comes down to all of us, because the less formal and positional leadership becomes, the less accountability can be exerted through traditional structures. What is imperative is that we never abandon our skepticism, and collectively as communities hold our leaders to continuous account. Accountability, like leadership itself, will need to come from the middle, and unless we exert ourselves to demand it we will neither get nor deserve the leadership we need.

And on that cheerful note I conclude! We will see if even ten percent of all this is right. Thank you.

Mitchell Temkin is the principal of Associatus Consulting, providing strategy, business development, and board development services to purpose-driven organizations. His focus is strategic planning for public good. He has more than 25 years experience as a consultant and as a senior manager in both business and the not-for-profit sector. Mitchell is currently on the board of Leadership Victoria and volunteers with the Victoria Foundation as a Community Advisor. He has served on the boards of the Ontario Field Ornithologists and the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, as well as on the Communications Advisory Committee of the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy. He has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Western Ontario. He is qualified as a Certified Management Consultant.

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