Who is a Leader?


I have been thinking about leaders lately.

Our Young Leaders of Abilene summer program is in full swing, as we work with 20 youths who are learning to lead through their service as counselors in a four-week series of day camps for our elementary-age neighbors in north Abilene.

One of the tenets of the community development model we follow at Connecting Caring Communities is dependence on indigenous leaders. In my opinion, it is one of the hardest to genuinely put in practice. We tout the value of finding and encouraging leaders in the neighborhood. Our neighbors, we say, are the experts with first-hand knowledge and creative ideas about the strengths and challenges of the neighborhood, including recommended paths toward progress.

Additionally, one of the strategies involved is leadership development; strengthening the skills of potential leaders living here who will stay and continue to revitalize the neighborhood.

A Google search of leadership skills reveals the expected: confidence, communication, passion, creativity, delegating, commitment, responsibility, flexibility. One site lists 52 characteristics. The listing is easy. While we may disagree in how to rank them, we would mostly agree on the list of traits, even if we evaluated all 52. What can be tricky, though, is recognizing these traits in people.

I grew up in a conservative church where leadership was mostly male, white and successful in the business world. The first two sort of went without saying in that time – not that I was complacent about that fact – but the latter was troubling in a different way. We talked in the church about measuring success differently than the outside world, but when it came to choosing who would lead us, we couldn’t help but default to the world’s narrative, exclusively equating business acumen with the ability to lead. It didn’t add up.

It is almost irresistible to acknowledge as leaders only those who look the most like us, or who meet the standards of our tradition, our culture or even our donors. It is natural to accept the ideas of those who do things the way we think they should, or who fit the description of leaders we have seen modeled everywhere else in our lives.

During camp, one of my youths was talking about how some of the other leaders weren’t as loud or commanding or just plain extroverted as she thought they should be. I reminded her of a couple of incidents involving one of our favorite campers, who is autistic. One of our quietest leaders has been the best at listening to, enjoying and patiently guiding this camper through the afternoon’s craft and snack sessions without hurrying him, no matter how long it took him to painstakingly create his masterpieces. “Does that seem like something a leader would do?” I asked her. She smiled knowingly.

Leaders who don’t look the part are often overlooked and consequently not given opportunities to grow, learn and increase in confidence – which in turn would lead to more opportunities.

In our neighborhood work, we pledge ourselves to this principle, talk about it, claim to understand it, and yet we still begin projects or programs without our neighbors weighing in heavily from the very beginning – starting off as leaders alongside us. Then we wonder why their leadership isn’t apparent to us or why they don’t thrive in the environment we created for them and forced them to fit into.

Do we really believe the experts are within our community? Let’s begin our development efforts with the end in mind. If our intent is to allow neighborhood leaders to lead, then let’s step aside and welcome them right from the start. Let’s broaden our ideas about leadership. Let’s open our minds and eyes to the true wealth of those with the lifetime of experience. We certainly have room for more ideas to make this world a better place for all of us.

The best sermons, they say, are preached to yourself. I am not always good at relinquishing control. In a small way this summer I have challenged my belief in this long-touted principle, turning over much of the daily planning and execution at our day camps to the four youth leaders and their teams. Sometimes, I have to busy myself in the other room to keep from interjecting my great ideas or advice. Most of the time their ideas are simpler and more successful. They are, after all, more in tune with what the young campers think is cool!

”Ms. Janet doesn’t even mess with me,” the group leader I mentor told a fellow counselor. “She stays out of my business and just lets me do it.”

 I couldn’t ask for a better evaluation.