Community Capacity Building

Identify and Cultivate Leadership

Leadership is needed at multiple levels and should be recognized wherever it exists. The most successful partnerships often combine elected, resident, community organization and public agency leadership with staff leadership and project management. Organizational and individual leadership can come from a wide variety of fields and settings. It is important for partnerships to recognize and develop the leadership that exists, even in informal and non-traditional places within a community, such as a street, garden or classroom, and then learn how to put it to use.

Partnerships are more resilient when leadership is distributed and cultivated. Elected officials, partners and staff may come and go during multi-year efforts. If not managed well, turnover can affect morale and hinder progress. The most resilient partnerships ensure that leadership, labor and institutional memory are well distributed and are supported in order to sustain their effort and changes made to improve policies and environments.

Established leaders can transform into champions. Healthy community partnerships often encounter elected officials, department leaders in local government, and other established leaders who are indifferent, lack awareness or motivation, or oppose helping advance a particular change. However, it is possible to win over these leaders with patient, persistent relationship building. As advocates demonstrate credibility, position others for credit, provide valued services or information and earn trust, they can find ways to involve skeptical leaders, address their concerns, solve some of their problems and soften their position on issues. When a successful change is celebrated, it is not uncommon to hear initial opponents share the story and profess their intention to further champion the healthy communities cause.

Facilitative leadership is indispensable. Facilitative, reliable organizers who pay close attention to relationships, partnership dynamics, internal communication, shared resources and structures of accountability are very strongly associated with partnership productivity over time. Involving facilitative individuals as staff and committee chairs and finding them among partners is a good investment of effort.

Facilitative leaders make room for emerging leaders. Natural leaders in a community sometimes need a supportive space to demonstrate their capacity. When existing leaders step aside or remove barriers to participation, they provide opportunity for new leaders to share their abilities and enhance the partnership’s productivity and sustainability.

Good process prevents pseudo leaders from distorting the conversation. Sometimes a community figure attempts to elevate himself/herself to the role of leader without a significant connection or commitment to a constituency. When an inauthentic leader speaks for the community or advances a personal vision or agenda, it can distort community ownership of the process if other stakeholders don’t assert themselves. Facilitative leaders ensure that pseudo leaders do not dominate the process.

Leaders benefit from strong learning networks. Collaborative, multidisciplinary, multi-strategy approaches to community change are complex and new to many leaders. Leaders at all levels of experience and skill can be challenged by the rigors of the work. They need opportunities to learn, build skills and supportive relationships, access new resources, recharge their motivation, or simply remind themselves that they are part of something larger than their daily experience.

Grassroots leaders grow when they are able to connect learning to action. Residents, youth and other emerging grassroots leaders often benefit greatly from participation in applied learning activities (e.g., assessment, evaluation, conferences, advisory councils or presentations to elected bodies or funders) beyond the information they collect or specific skills they learn. Applied learning allows emerging leaders to increase their understanding of the issues and see how they connect to other challenges. They build relationships and increase their willingness to enter public debate and their ability to influence decisions. They learn to collaborate and deepen their commitment to the projects they undertake together. They see opportunity from a larger vantage point. And very often, they stay in the community and continue to contribute over time.

Emerging leaders often do not see themselves as policy advocates. Like many people, residents and other grassroots leaders may view health issues through the frame of individual responsibility and do not see the power of the environment to influence individual choice. They do not understand the policy-making process at first and may find it intimidating. This makes it difficult to see themselves as advocates for policy or environmental change. Resident leaders commonly seek the most direct, familiar and modest kind of support, such as an educational program or health promotion effort. The process of lifting their sights to more ambitious community change often occurs slowly as they are introduced to the importance of environments and policy with specific examples that demonstrate greater potential impact in the community. Sometimes it also occurs as their participation in a health-related program with inadequate facilities or funding sparks demand for improved facilities or a bigger budget allocation. Most often, they are encouraged and supported by a more experienced healthy-community advocate or peer who can help provide the information, training, context and opportunity to advance their interest in pursuing policy change.

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