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In my work (academic and community) I’ve felt increasing disquiet about the frequency of calls for a leader – someone who can take charge, someone who “we” can follow, someone will lead us from the wilderness, from the uncertainty, someone who will know what to do, and someone we can rely on to look after our interests…

I had a lesson quite early on in my political career about where such calls can lead.

I was a local government representative on the community board at the time.

I had been trying to support the setting up of a residents’ association – a group which could effectively represent local residents and with whom local government representatives could liaise on matters of local concern.

There were several meetings. At one meeting, during a facilitation process designed to help people get to know each other, some in the group got very impatient. They didn’t want any more talk. They just wanted action. There were angry words – including some directed at me and my possible conflict of interest (being on local government and helping set up a group). As we were leaving, one person issued a clear and plaintive call for a leader, “a strong man.”

I had no more contact with the group or its process. I heard the group had split up. Those who wanted more time getting to know each other – finding out what people cared about, their interests and skills – met in one place. Those who were frustrated by talk and just wanted to get on with action met in another.

The action group worked at lightning speed. I knew this because in no time at all, a member of this group contacted me saying they had found and elected a leader. This leader (an outsider, and not at previous meetings) was described as a “nice young man.” I was told this group would want formal local government recognition as soon as possible. As one of the local representatives, I realised this request would be on the next meeting’s agenda, with an expectation that I would support this group’s recognition (illustration pdf of such an agenda item).

As it happened, I received an urgent call some days before the meeting. It was from a member of the action oriented group saying the group no longer wanted recognition. They had discovered their chosen leader was also the leader of a right wing group.  Not only this, they said they had been advised (by police) that this leader was implicated in the fire bombing of the local school.

Whatever the facts, the result was people were “scared.” The group didn’t want to be seen to be going against the leader they had chosen. Although there was not, at least to my knowledge, any explicit threat, a few people said to me that they didn’t want to take action “that might result in a fire bomb in their back yard.”

Some members of the group came to the Community Board meeting and formally asked for recognition, while, informally one group member pleaded with me NOT to support formal recognition of their group.

At the meeting I spoke against recognition of the group. I was the only local government representative who did. I made publicly known the affiliation of the leader, and the implications of this on representation of all residents. I was publicly told off for bringing up what was regarded as a private matter. However, in private, many said they agreed with my action.

The group was not recognised and  soon disbanded.

I still shudder when I hear plaintive pleadings for a “strong leader” or witness the election of a leader (an outsider) people know nothing about.

I also feel disappointed when I see how time goes by while people wait hopefully for the next election and the next leader or leaders to lead the way and how this holds them from looking into what they themselves can do in their community.

The above said, I do have sympathy with the group who got frustrated by a lot of talk and who wanted action.

I would like to see more attention and research and resources given to developing new processes of effective communication, which lead to effective participatory forms of engagement. I think our future depends on it. What do you think?

See also Theory Café conversation on sociological ways of thinking about charismatic leadership,  drawing on the example of US president Barack Obama.

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