The community sector: Different types of leadership

| March 6, 2017

We usually talk a lot about leadership in a business context, but what about the community or civil society level? Russ Grayson has met some of those social entrepreneurs.

Too much has been written about leadership. Too many books, too many articles. So much has been written that we now risk submergence below the sheer weight of printed material.

Sure, the literature on leadership has succeeded in identifying particular types of leaders. We have leadership from behind, leadership by example, leadership by position…

It is understandable that much leadership literature is directed at business. It has to respond to and survive in a world beset by new technologies, a flowing stream of new ideas, dodgy economic trends, confused political leadership and changing social expectations. It looks for security in an environment in which there is no resource security, no market security, no security that is lasting in a world beset and increasingly confused by change.

Business leadership — the fail

Once, we had business leadership heroes. IBM in the latter years of the twentieth century. Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. They have gone or faded. Now, we have clumsy, sometimes-malfunction and often deceptive corporations and institutions.

The likes of Gates and Jobs were entrepreneurs. They took calculated chances that sometimes failed but, overall, worked. We still have entrepreneurs and they are held up as glaring examples of leadership. All too often they bloom then fade like one-day dasies in the garden.

I don’t know if it is correct to talk of the cult of the entrepreneur. But we hear much about it. Hopeful and imaginative young people flood to workshops yet few succeed in effectively applying whatever knowledge they gain. Small businesses in Australia are often short-lived; though this might have to do with the churn in ideas, technology and economics as much as with entrepreneurs burning out.

What’s more, most of us cannot be entrepreneurs because we cannot afford the economic and other risks involved. Or the long, tiring hours. After attending a workshop on entrepreneurship, a person I know told me that he realised he did not want to become an entrepreneur. Yet, he was an ideas and action person.

A different entrepreneurship

Through working in small business, government and the community sector I came to realise that although leadership and entrepreneurship is commonly articulated as something primarily in the field of business, there were people out there working, often voluntarily or for little money, in the chancy world of social entrepreneurship. This involves leadership qualities as much as does any business. Chancy? That’s because people are the most changeable, most troublesome, most uncertain resource to work with.

But who are these social entrepreneurs?

Thinking about it, I found I was listing those I know who were working in the permaculture design system. Once, I taught courses in permaculture design and used it in international development projects for an Australian NGO.

Permaculture is commonly explained as a system of design for creating resilient communities. Its area of application is broad and when it comes to the business side of it I think immediately of a landscape architect I know with his own small business, an architect, someone who started a food distribution business and a magazine publisher. I prefer to think of permaculture as a platform of ethics, design principles and characteristics upon which people develop useful applications. Those might include urban agriculture, food security, energy and water efficient building retrofitting, community work, small scale international development, education and more.

So, how did those names demonstrate leadership?

David Holmgren co-invented the permaculture design system with Bill Mollison. His approach to education and to his design work is an intellectual one. David is a kind of public intellectual. A thinker. An author. An educator. He is a leader through being an early starter in the design system.

David’s, then, is an intellectual kind of leadership build upon his role in developing the design system.

Rosemary Morrow is different. She has built her leadership on her experience in the world.

That experience includes decades of teaching permaculture design. Perhaps more importantly, her leadership is built on her work in small-scale international development and working with her local community in Australia. We might call this leadership-by-doing and she supplements it with a down-to-earth, approachable personality, a factor that illustrates the importance of personality to leadership.

So Rosemary’s is leadership by experience applied through an open, friendly personality.

Hannah Moloney, together with husband Anton set up the aptly-named Good Life Permaculture. The name is apt because it well matches Hannah’s outgoing personality. That personality is also apt because Hannah’s style, her language and her personal presentation attracts a primarily young cohort of students to her courses and to the other enterprises she engages in. Of all mentioned so far, Hannah and Anton come closest to the conventional model of entrepreneur as someone building their own small business.

Hannah’s, then, is leadership by exuberance and personal style.

The late Bill Mollison’s leadership was different again. As co-inventor of the permaculture design system Bill, like David, fell into the natural leadership of first-starter. But his leadership stemmed from far more than that. It came out of a career that included scientific field research and, later, academia, an academia about which he was quite critical.

Bill’s was also an intellectual leadership though his expression of that was different to David Holmgren’s intellectual style. That’s because Bill combined the intellectual and the practical. He was the sort of person who could discuss the theory of farm dam construction, then design one and go out and build it. This is what people found attractive about him, this blend of the intellect and the practical.

Bill was something else, however. He was an iconoclast. A challenger of fixed, entrenched ideas whether those of academics, government or society. He would challenge these, abruptly sometimes, in a way that was designed to shake people out of their fixed views. That could put people off but it helped those ready for change to make that mental leap into a new way of seeing things and acting.

Bill formulated his ideas in a number of books and a TV series called The Global Gardener that was broadcast on Australia’s ABC TV in the nineties. His leadership, then, was that of first-starter combined with the challenging attitude of the iconoclast.

A crucible of leadership

The permaculture design system has turned out to be something of a crucible of informal leadership at the community or civil society level. The informality has been important because there is no leadership-by-appointed-position in permaculture as the design system self-structured as a distributed network. There is no head office. No CEO.

This makes it different to leadership in business or the leadership example of the go-it-alone entrepreneur. Sure, there are small businesses built around permaculture, and entrepreneurship has played a role in it. For the most part, though, leadership in permaculture has been based on personality and on the daring of just getting out there and doing something.