From Best Practice to Best Fit: Fostering Community Development through Community Leadership

By: Michael Asante 
Published July 15th, 2020

Social observers have attempted to make sense of community leadership from different perspectives (Apaliyah et al., 2012). They have sought to discover the traits of successful leaders (Stogdill, 1950) and the tasks they needed to perform (Adair, 1979). They point to the style and approach leaders needed to adopt (Geenleaf, 1998), and how they were to take account of the contingencies of the people and situations they faced (Hersey and Blanchard, 1977). In recent decades, organizational uncertainties caused by rapid environmental change prompted a resurgence of focus on transformational leaders able to inspire staff to success through troubled times (Apaliyah et al., 2012). What all these perspectives on leadership have in common is that they focus on the study of leadership is centered essentially on the person. However, Horner (1997) reviewed the leadership theory and concluded that the most current theory looks at leadership as a process in which leaders are not seen as individuals in charge of followers, but as members of a community of practice. A community of practice is defined by Drath and Palus (1994) as people united in a common enterprise who also share a history and thus certain values, beliefs, ways of talking and ways of doing things. 

Community development provides a good example of the orientation to development in the community. Community development emphasizes on creating jobs and raising the real incomes of residents (Summers, 2019). The local economy is treated very much as if it were a business firm, and attention is given to efficient use and maintenance of productive resources and to changes in the external environment, both markets and the supply of materials for production ( Shaffer, 1985). The role of community leadership and community development is very important if the overall improvement of the community is to be pursued. This article will examine how leadership is created and how it has emerged. It will first analyze the concept of leadership from the traditional perspective, by traditional I mean the general or common form leadership emanates. It also accesses the community theory as proposed by Wilkinson (1972) as well the leadership theory proposed by Rost (1991). 

Concept of Leadership

During the latest two decades, there has been an explosion of the specialty literature regarding leadership (Vagu et al, 2006). Most of the specialists define leadership as a process of social influence in which the leader requires the subordinates’ willing participation in an effort for achieving the organizational goals. The leadership represents the capability to exert influence on individuals and groups, directing their efforts towards achieving the organization’s goals. Mescon et al, (1988) consider leadership as a process of social influence in which the leader seeks the voluntary participation of the subordinates as a reward for achieving the  goals. Leadership is a mutual action between people manifested in particular circumstances by means of the communication process and focused on choosing a specific goal or goals. “Leadership consists of influencing people in such a way so that they devote all their efforts, willingly, for the common goals achieving,” (Koontz et al, 1980). Leadership is “the ability to efficiently use all the existing power resources to transform a vision thought for others into reality” (Vihanskiiet al, 1998). 

Scholarly research on the topic of leadership has witnessed a dramatic increase over the last decade, resulting in the development of diverse leadership theories (Dinh et al., 2014). Leadership theory and research form an important cornerstone of organizational science, and this field has continued to grow in many top-tier publication outlets (Nye, 2008). Leadership literature shows that several theories continue to spark scholarly interest in understanding specific leadership phenomena (Vihanskiiet al, 1998).  There are also several research domains that have grown in popularity over the past five years, suggesting a growth of new emergent theories (Dinh et al., 2014). Leaders address the problems they face in their practice, there is a unified approach which involves a step-by-step process that enhances leaders’ abilities to resolve complex and dynamic problems. 

Traditional Leadership Development

Traditional notions of leadership focus on individuals who inhabit formal positions of power and possess traits such as assertiveness, decisiveness, control, and domination (Fletcher, 2004). These characteristics have long differentiated individual leaders from their followers. Because this definition of leadership has typically been associated with masculinity and individualism (Douglass, 2018). Traditional leadership focusses on the ability to harness and build community capacity that resides in individuals. They seek to bolster the ranks of local individuals who are willing and able to assume some responsibility for the community’s well-being by being “out front” to initiate and facilitate action (Chaskin et. al., 2001). This effort presumes that most communities include enough with adequate leadership capacity and interest to solve community problems. These communities appear to function well if they can identify, engage and train ordinary people who take responsibility to solve community problems. In typical traditional leadership development, potential candidates for leadership positions are identified and hand-picked by committees or consensus process. Popper and Mayseless (2007) suggest that to develop as a leader, an individual needs to have the potential to lead, the motivation to lead and that certain developmental processes and experiences need to happen. Looking historically at leadership research, nearly all of the early focus was on the potential to lead searching for predictors of leadership (Popper and Mayseless, 2007). In particular, there has been great interest in the traits that predict leadership. For instance, intelligence as a predictor of leadership has been studied for nearly 80 years (Bass & Bass 2008). Moreover, nearly every possible trait, from height and physical attractiveness to intelligence and a myriad of personality variables, has been investigated as a possible predictor of leadership (Riggio & Mumford, 2011). In particular, there has been great interest in the traits that predict leadership. In some cases, there is a broad outreach or application process based on eligibility criteria and availability of resources for leadership development (Chaskin et. al., 2001). The leaders are then provided with the opportunity for building his skills. These are done through leadership training programs and on-job leadership development programs (Chaskin et. al., 2001). The capacity of the leaders are built through this process, the leaders therefore mobilize people (followers) who are willing to build community capacity to solve community common goals. Figure 1 below illustrates the leadership development process as seen in (Chaskin et. al., 2001).

Leadership plays an important role in community development by serving as a tool for meeting the needs of a community as seen in Figure 1. Various studies (Martiskainen, 2017; Slimane, 2012) have shown the important role of community leadership in sustainable community development. In recent years, there has been a growing concern that societies’ formal administrative structures are not well prepared to tackle the complex problems facing our communities (Bono et al., 2010).  Although traditionally, problems were tackled by leaders through leadership training, there is increasing recognition that problems be addressed by interactions among actors. These problems require community leadership that fosters collective action by multiple stakeholders from various sectors of society who work together for the common good (Bono et al., 2010). 

This article will focus now on the concept of leadership that has originated as a result of the interactional relationship between community members.  The community in this sense is defined as a generalizing, locality-oriented social action field (Wilkinson, 1972).  A social field is a process of interaction through time, a direction towards a more or less distinctive outcome and with constantly changing elements or structure (Wilkinson, 1972). The main components of the social field are the behavioral role of actors as these are organized through time-related to one another and relative to the collective interests being pursued. The principal actors and beneficiaries are local residents, the goals and interests represent interests of local residents, the goals being pursued are common goals that benefit local residents including the actors. Therefore, a community field can be described as locality oriented social field through which actions expression local interests are coordinated. It is through the community field that generalized interests are pursued relative to specific special or private interests of individual social fields. It is through the community filed that comprehensive community improvement is conducted and these improvements are manifested in the act of generalized leaders which contribute to the accomplishment of common goals. It is important to recognize that the community field is a constant process of change of actors, associations, and actions that move into and out of contact with the generalized process (Wilkinson, 1972).

Community development is an issue of which the assumptions of social fields are especially relevant. Development must not be regarded as a natural unfolding predetermined sequence of forms but a process formed from the generalization of special interests. The intentions of actors to create or strengthen the relationships and patterns through which they seek collectively to express common interest and to solve community problems, the purposive structure-building activities constitute community development (Wilkinson, 1972). Community development is structure-oriented. Development at the community level requires that attention be given to the integrative, generalizing structures in the local society. It is a purposive action that is oriented in a positive way towards task accomplishment, the orientation of actors towards task accomplishment is the distinctive quality of community development (Wilkinson, 1972). According to Wilkinson (1972), leaders are those who subordinate structure by viewing it as a manipulative tool for expression interest or something to be changed. There are the participants in community development who orients their behavior in a positive way to the structure of the community field, acting in an immediate situation to effect positive change in community structure in line with desire common goals (Wilkinson, 1972). Community structure is the generality or comprehensiveness of the interest scope, in community field, improving the structure means contributing to increase the generalization in the relationship among actors. Wilkinson (1972) , therefore, argues that any purposive attempt to change the structure by increasing the generalization potential in the field is community development. 

The development of the community field is building the capacity of community members to work together for the common community good, in other fields of community development, goals and accomplishments of specialized fields (groups) are considered development with a focus on the linkages (interactions) that permeates the different special interests between these social fields to create a mediating structure (Pigg, 1999). According to the theory of leadership by Ross (1991), it is a social institution that is created as a result of the extensive interaction of social agents. These social agents are highly connected and networked in such a way that their influence is geared towards community development.Community leadership as a form of relationship among actors in the social field. This relationship is multidirectional and not forceful or coercive, since it is a relationship, leadership cannot be ascribed to a person to be called “a leader” therefore a person who controls or direct others (“followers”) and also determine what is “done to” others cannot be termed as a leader (Ross, 1991). The field theory of Wilkinson and the theory of leadership theory of Rost emphasizes leadership as an emergent phenomenon that comes about as a result of interaction between social fields. Rost argues that outcomes are not the most critical elements for determining the presence of leadership but rather when purposive action is taken to pursue generalized community interest rather than special interest, leadership emerges from the interaction. Wilkinson (1972)  also focuses on the fact that for community development to occur, generalized interests should be pursued than specific interests. However, both theories place emphasis on the process which emanates from the actual outcome of the interaction. The field theory by Wilkinson (1972) puts a much higher value on the process which seeks to improve the community structure than the outcome that creates community development. Clearly the traditional structure of leadership and the leadership as seen from the perspective of (Ross, 1991) are different however, both emphasize the importance of structure. The community field theory and leadership theory are depicted in Figure 2 below.

As seen in Figure 2, there is an interaction between the social fields (Specialized interest groups, social field leaders, NGOs/CBOs). It is only when there is an interaction between social fields to identify a common purpose that will result in community development. Community development, therefore, occurs when a common purpose is acted upon even in the absence of any outcome.  In the usual case, the critical issue in operationally defining community development is whether an actor in the social field is primarily concerned with solving a community problem and does so in such a way to improve the process, structure and interaction, if so, what he is doing is community development. 

In conclusion, the field theory and leadership theory have a point of convergence in the sense that they share emergent properties, and they emphasize the important role that leadership plays in community development and therefore neither community nor leadership exists without actions to create them. There is also convergence on  process rather than content, it is important to know that while content is imperative, there should be a focus on building understanding and guiding intervention. It is also true that both theories agree that the element of purpose is very necessary as a guiding factor in the interactive relationship.  Even though the leadership development process of Chaskin (2001) is a framework, it does not cover emergent leadership. It focuses on distributed leadership present in the community with certain personality traits. Therefore, in communities where these qualities are not readily available, leadership development processes may be stalled. The Chaskin (2001) framework is also very likely to compromise community cohesion since leaders may be appointed. Appointed leaders may not necessarily relate to “followers” so well and this may affect community development.

The original and important contribution of this article is the identification of the leadership development process and its relationship with community development.  Leadership should be locally shared and owned by community members. This leadership should be value-driven, participatory, authentic, and appreciative in nature. Chaskin’s (2001) framework of leadership development does not focus on the relationship that exists between community members but rather associating the term with positions and responsibilities; this could result in making community members reluctant to get involved in community activities. The relational emergence and leadership framework as described in Figure 2, is more likely to be the best tool for fostering community development through community leadership since it places less focus on persons and more on relationships, and more focus on purpose than on results and effectiveness. The distinction leads us to appreciate the interconnections between action and purpose, between intention and working together to foster development in the community.

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