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Identifying and Training Community Leaders

By Phil Bartle, PhD

Concept Paper

What kind of leadership is needed to lead or to mobilise a community?

First, we must identify the nature of leadership itself. This is different from characteristics of leaders, including characteristics we desire them to have.

There is probably only one characteristic that makes a person a leader. It is they lead, and others follow. To avoid the implication that the followers are blind or like sheep, and that a leader must go where she or he wants those followers to go, we might reword that and say: "A person is a leader when she or he suggests or proposes some action and others agree with it and are willing to do it."

All other characteristics are characteristics of kinds of leaders, not leadership itself.

When a mobiliser is organizing a community, she or he needs to identify community leaders and potential leaders, because leadership is a vital element of that organizing and organized action. Listen carefully. When some individuals speak, no one pays attention. When others speak, people listen, and agree with the ideas put forward. The mobiliser must find and shape local leaders and potential leaders. If someone says things with which the mobiliser agrees, but no one listens to, the mobiliser must be firm and go on to others. When a person makes suggestions that other people take seriously, even if the ideas are not in compliance with the principles the mobiliser wants to emphasize, the mobiliser needs to select that person for training and shaping.

A leader is one who leads.

Once we understand leadership itself, it is now time to ask what characteristics can leaders have that we desire, or see as being most useful.

The Thoughts of Lao Tse

"To lead people, walk beside them ..."

Although he was writing about three thousand years ago in China, Lao Tsu's thought are very modern. He was suggesting democracy in a mild, calm way, long before the time of Classical Greece. His philosophy is much in contrast with the authoritarian approach of Confucius.

In the following, Lao Tse is talking about characteristics leader have, not their leadership itself.

As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
The next best, the people honour and praise.
The next, the people fear;
and the next, the people hate ...
When the best leader's work is done the people say,
"We did it ourselves!"


The above quotation is taken from the same chapter of the Tao Chi as the "Go" poem that we use for our central inspiration for community empowerment training. We are indebted to Mujeeb Khan and his Bhumi organization in India for suggesting this.

Community Leadership:

There are different kinds of leadership that are needed in different contexts and for different purposes. It is an important element of making communities stronger, but a different kind of leadership than as in the military or in corporations.

It is relatively easy to recognise what we want, but how do we train someone to obtain it (as a mobiliser and as a community leader), and how do we train someone to recognise it in a community member, let alone recognise a potential community leader?

There is a lot of training in leadership that is used by military organizations, but that is leadership in a hierarchical organization. The social organization of a community is not the same as the social organization of an army or air force, and a different kind of leadership is needed.

Similarly, there is a lot of leadership training used by commercial corporations, but corporations are organized differently than communities; again a different kind of leadership is needed. We want Gemeinschaft, not Gesellschaft leadership.

There are many references to leadership on the Internet, and easy to find if we use any search engine.

There are many characteristics in leaders that we want: honesty, transparency, charisma, ability to organize, thoroughness, fairness, loyalty, dependability, ability to listen, respect for the people, ability to communicate, and several others. These are characteristics of leaders we want; they are not elements of leadership per se . . . trainable and identifiable.

I have not seen one document that carefully describes what leadership is, as applicable to a community. Nor are there simple, non theoretical documents in how to train people to become community leaders, or how mobilisers can recognise natural and potential leaders in a community they want to strengthen.

So I am looking for your input here. Even partial or half thought out ideas will be welcome, and perhaps we can come up with something through debate, dialogue and discussion. Also your ideas about which module to put this in.

Please jump in.

Sam's Thoughts:

Sam duBois, our colleague and my good friend in Ecuador, contributed the following. Note that he is talking about qualities of leaders that we desire, not the nature of leadership itself:

In a world of "too many chiefs and not enough Indians" (yet another phrase I have failed to bring into this century...) why leadership? No, just kidding – I agree with you completely. I once (in a past life, in a former century) did a degree in "leadership" and what it meant was curriculum co-ordination and staff supervision in schools ... And they were taking all their research from the corporate world.

We have a program in Latin America called "Liderazgo Moral" by Nur University in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The Nur was founded by Bahá'ís and friends of Bahá'ís (i.e., the human race!) and is an interesting outfit. For example (you won't believe this, but I'll say it anyway) their professors are all trained in participatory learning, and their classes all follow through a progressive, active cycle that touches on several different "kinds of intelligence" (you know, as in Gardner). Professors who know how to teach? Yep!

I'm sure that you can instantly find unlimited material on the Web in Spanish, but a number of the founding geniuses are native speakers of English, so I'm sure that a request to the U will readily get you to someone who can poke around in their project proposals and doctoral dissertations and come up with more material than you were really looking for!

Their programs include planning projects with communities. For example, when folks lament that this logical planning framework is too difficult, my Bernarda (who studied with the Nur) just smiles and runs them through it the way Nur did the log frame, and in a little while no one is afraid of it anymore! She has campesinos/as coming from all over the province to work on projects and their trappings, using the Nur materials and approaches.

When Liderazgo Moral started a couple of decades ago, and no one had heard of it (now they have done lots more in Ecuador, including a World-Bank-funded M.A. program for thousands of teachers!) I used to explain it this way (it's better in Spanish, but still makes enough sense in English):

Normal leaders dominate others to serve themselves – moral leaders dominate themselves to serve others!

Sam duBois

Ana's Thoughts:

Ana tackles the difference between leadership in corporations and the military versus what is needed for community mobilization and action:

This discussion about leadership in communities is very interesting, and I would like to share some of my thoughts about it, apologizing me for my terrific English.

I think the key is the difference of structures in army, corporations and communities like this one; the first two have vertical structures and the last aims to have horizontal structures. So, I think that we have to find a different kind of dynamics; not thinking just on leadership but that every and each role is absolutely necessary in a group to achieve a goal. The group's psychology could help us to understand this better (see group dynamics and group roles).

The main question is: "Should we still think on leadership, as we did up to now, or should we try another form of thinking about groups or organizations?

We are very used to personalize groups, to think in one person who is the leader, who dictates to the others, who represents the others, who is the face of a movement. But, instead of this, I think we have to promote that the team is the more important than an individual leader, that every role in a group is important in it, not only the leader. For example, leaderships could be the shared with 2 or more persons, or the group could have commissions for different functions, and one of these is in charge of representing the group. If we think horizontally, we should promote horizontal structures too.

I'll think more about it, and everything I could find on this matter, i'll share with you.

Ana Paula Silvestre

Hassan's Thought:

Hassan reminds us that some communities have hierarchical structure and their leaders appear to resemble those of the military or corporations:

Here is my thought on the topic:

Whereas all said is correct in some way or other. But the fundamental question that remains is why we need leaders or leadership in communities. Of course, the answer varies from communities to communities based on their context. However, the basic idea behind community leadership or leader for community, is to have leader or leadership that could provoke community or keeps community together (mobilized in other words). Beside, community also need leadership for facilitation of thought process on various issues and their solutions. Of course there could be variety of other reasons for having leaders or leadership in community.

While it is right that there is a structure difference between armies/corporates and communities. yet there exists a vertical structure in many communities ..... where establishment of horizontal structure is a larger aim of community interventions in many community development initiatives. For example, in Pakistan, there always is a community notable or group notables to lead community and he is (or they are) usually someone who is thought to be above the community (Just as a corporate director or military top official). He has to decide the fate of community leaders. In case where exists feudal system. there are these feudal lords as self-proclaimed leaders of communities and they are in many ways worst than military dictatorship. Of course, their decision making process also varies from case to case. In communities, where communities are closely linked to each other, the notables undertake a consultative process and the decision is reached through a complete consensus or by voting. Whereas in other case, the notables verdict is final and is to be followed by rest of the community fellows whether they are pleased are not. Of course this kind of leadership should not desired.

Within communities there often exists structures based on cultural values, religion, local values. In worst case, these structures become worst barrier to the community development and we often call them cultural and religious institutions.

What we or I here often mean is we need a participatory leadership, or in other words shared leadership, in communities. But we really need to learn the academics or philosophy of leaders and leaderships types. They are types are mainly determined based on the conduct of a leader or the decision making process he/she likes. If he/she likes to impose, its autocrat or whatever ..... continues ...... (may be bit later) ....

Now why we need leadership training for community mobilizers? Because they are always present in communities trying to mobilize them or do other actions as per projects or needs of communities. They are some way or other leading community. So they need a good understanding of the leadership skills in order to better take on their work. Caution for them is to always check if they are trying to impose anything on communities or there are trying create those hierarchical structures themselves by trying to master of communities' fate/decisions/issues .......

May be more later ..... I need to refine my ideas more .... for this I would some feedback as well.

Hassan Mirani

Leadership and Mobilization:

The mobiliser must identify community leaders and potential leaders and train them to continue to mobilise the community, and strengthen it after the mobiliser leaves. It is more effective to search for the leaders, even if they do not yet share the values we promote, and mould them to the values of community leaders we desire, than to find individuals who have the values we want, but have no innate abilities to lead the community.




© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
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Last update: 2012.07.15

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