Thomas's Community Connection
Collective Leadership: An Answer to the World's Great Challenges
The wicked leader is he whom the people despise.
The good leader is he whom the people revere.
The great leader is he of whom the people say, "We did it ourselves."
- Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher, 604-531 BCE
Today, leaders who catalyze collective leadership are considered innovative and believed to be critical for the times in which we now live.1 Yet, as read in the words of Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, such leadership has been valued for over 2,500 years. American system scientist, Dr. Peter Senge, and his colleagues, Dr. Hal Hamilton and John Kania, calls a person who catalyzes collective leadership a system leader. They write and lecture that this unique type of leadership is required in order to lead “the deep changes necessary to accelerate progress against society’s most intractable problems.”2
The dominant leadership style is the leader-centric perspective, that of “a tall man standing at the front of the room providing instruction or inspiration.”3 Defined by Lao Tzu, such a leader could be either the wicked leader who is despised or the good leader who is revered; it is of an individual person who leads and everyone else responds. This model of leadership is critiqued as being an ineffective form of leadership, and when such leadership is associated with harmful consequences for followers and organizations it is called “destructive leadership.”4 In his studies of the ‘dark’ side of leadership, Dr. Christian Thoroughgood, and colleagues Dr. Katina Sawyer, Dr. Art Padilla and Dr. Laura Lunsford elaborate that even though leadership can be destructive, there continues to be a general consensus and appreciation of leadership. Thoroughgood et al. find that effective leadership “is a dynamic, cocreational process between leaders, followers, and environments, the product of which contributes to group and organizational outcomes.”5 Processes that are co-creative to the extent defined by Thoroughgood et al. develop participants’ own capacity and leadership. As such, it is inferred that effective leadership is that which develops the collective leadership of participants, including that of the specific individual leader. According to Senge et al., this effective leader would be a system leader, who catalyzes collective leadership to be able to address today’s intractable challenges.
A few global intractable challenges of today: climate change; over population; the extreme poverty and wealth disparity; armed, biological, chemical, and cyber terrorism; ethnic and racial discrimination and genocides; health crises and epidemics; food and housing insecurity; environmental degradation; and many more. These are echoed at various levels within national and local arenas. Many of these, perhaps all, are interconnected with one another; efforts to address one of these require efforts to address one or more others. It is messy, and as such it is easy to get overwhelmed and lose hope.6
Bringing this conversation to the local realm, and in her work with community and economic engagement, Dr. Lori Kniffin and colleague, Ryan Patterson, highlight that “the nature of 21st century challenges and the trend in leadership theory suggests that more people must become engaged in their communities to address challenges.”7 They, like Senge et al., argue that leaders must empower and engage others around them to also become leaders. This collective leadership engages diverse stakeholders (not just “experts”), pays careful attention to the context of the community and challenges being addressed, and creates opportunities to learn from experiences in the moment-in-time.8
During my time working directly with communities and community services, I have been asked countless times as to whether I think things are hopeless. Others have asked me if we should just leave and start over – letting chaos and destruction envelope the community / nation and from that rebuild from the ashes or taking all belongings and move to another better place. It is heartbreaking to hear these questions, seeing the hopelessness and desperation in the eyes of those who ask them. It is true that there are problems that are detrimental to personal safety, health and opportunity. It also may be true in some instances that life would be better starting fresh somewhere else or rebuilding from the ashes. What I do know is that what is left within these communities during and after said devastation are often the most vulnerable members of the community, those unable to get out in time before such devastation occurs.
Between the years of 2008 and 2016 I supported developing community leaders and collective leadership as a community organizer. I did so working with youth, low-income households and in socially diverse communities. For several years I had the opportunity to work alongside manufactured/mobile homeowners and renters at risk of relocation from park closures. Here, I worked to develop and strengthen their own leadership and knowledgebase on rights, opportunities, and tactics to preserve their affordable community. (Unlike traditional homeownership, manufactured homeowners own their house but often do not own the land it resides on. As such, these communities who lack landownership are at greater risk of being forced to relocate due to land redevelopment, almost always at the expense of losing their immobile “mobile” home and all investments they put into them. These communities would be forced to start over with nothing.9) Through developing collective leadership, many, but not all, manufactured home parks facing closure were able to preserve their communities. The residents within these parks built on and strengthened their own power and ability. By working together this people power catalyzed the preservation of their homes and their communities. Had these homeowners and renters had the luxury of more wealth, they would be able to move to a new location and own their home and land, not having to worry about the threat of losing their home and community; however, not everyone is that lucky. Without strengthening their own leadership and knowledgebase, these manufactured homeowners and renters would have been unable to preserve their communities; by doing so, adapting Lao Tzu’s words, “they did it for themselves,” and they have the tools and know-how to do it again and develop the collective leadership of others so they too can do it for themselves.
Building resilient and thriving local communities for the future requires collective leadership. And, according to Senge et al., building collective leadership to the scale needed to address the world’s intractable problems requires system leaders, as such Senge et al. encourages us to “re-direct our attention.”10 Having a better understanding of the global and local systems at play, we would see that these problems within this community exist in some form in other communities as well, and that the two are in fact connected. Building on my experiences as a community organizer and background in social work and urban / regional planning, the term system leader, as defined by Senge et al., resonates with me. Understanding the systems at play and their interconnectedness, re-orienting strategies to build on and strengthen the collective leadership and wisdom of diverse stakeholders, and learning through doing are all highlighted by Senge et al. as gateways to becoming a system leader.11 They are also attributes valued in community organizing.
Despite the fact that developing collective leadership has been valued for thousands of years and is seen today as the most promising solution to 21st century challenges, Senge et al. do ask the question, “Is there any hope that a sufficient number of skilled system leaders will emerge in time to help us face our daunting systemic challenges?"12 They do find three reasons in which to remain optimistic.
First, the interconnected nature of societal challenges is becoming more evident and growing numbers of people are adopting a systemic orientation.
Second, the last 30 years has seen a tremendous expansion of tools that allow for stakeholders to collaborate and create collective success.
And, third, there is a broad (albeit undefined) hunger for processes of real change.13
And finally, in their analyses of programs that develop community leaders, Kniffin and Patterson identify “it is imperative that more communities exercise collective leadership to address complex social issues” and stop using the leader-centric model to educate and empower one another.14 In other words, pairing the language of Senge et al., community leadership programs must incorporate system leadership, catalyzing collective leadership that addresses complex social challenges. As more and more community programs aim to develop collective leadership in addressing social challenges, communities will grow stronger, be more resilient, and thrive into the everchanging future.
1. Senge, Peter, Hal Hamilton and John Kania (Winter 2015). “The Dawn of System Leadership.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, 13 (1), 27-33. Accessed 1 December 2019. <>
2. Ibid. P. 27.
3. Kniffin, Lori E. and Ryan M. Patterson (October 2019). “Re-Imagining Community Leadership Development in the Post-Industrial Era.” Journal of Leadership Education, 18 (4), 188-209. Pg. 190. Accessed 1 December 2019. <>
4. Thoroughgood, Christian N., Katina B. Sawyer, Art Padilla and Laura Lunsford (September 2018). “Destructive Leadership: A Critique of Leader-Centric Perspectives and Toward a More Holistic Definition.” Journal of Business Ethics, 151 (3), 627-649. Pg. 627. Accessed 1 December 2019. <>
5. Ibid. Pg. 627.
7. Kniffin and Patterson (October 2019). Pg. 188.
9. All Parks Alliance for Change: “Preserve Your Community.” Accessed 1 December 2019. <>
10. Senge et al. (Winter 2015). Pg. 29.
12. Ibid. Pg. 33.
14. Kniffin and Patterson (October 2019). Pg. 205.