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  • Palma Joy Strand

From Civity Leaders to Civity Leadership


When we seed civity in a community, we start with a workshop for leaders in which participants practice being authentic and putting difference on the table. We follow up with support and coaching that assists these leaders as they incorporate civity into their groups and organizations.


The root of seeding civity is awareness of the value of relationships.


Most leaders we encounter are already deep into relationship-building, and yet a good number of them remark at the end of the workshop that one of the most important things they got out of it was permission to be relational. This implies that they came in feeling constrained – that in general they do not feel comfortable being explicit or intentional about relationships.


There has been a shift in recent decades in our understanding of what it means to be a leader. Margaret Wheatley and Debbie Frieze ground this shift in awareness of complexity: “We live in a world of complex systems whose very existence means they are inherently uncontrollable.” Who is in charge of schools, housing, jobs, the environment? “No one is in charge! These systems are emergent phenomena – the result of thousands of small, local actions that converged to create powerful systems.”


In these systems, Wheatley and Frieze assert in Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host, “all parts of the system need to be invited to participate and contribute.” The trope of the leader as hero – in control and with all the answers – is simply inadequate, because the systems are not susceptible to control, and no one person can generate the answers.


Wheatley and Frieze introduce the leader as host. “Leaders-as-hosts invest in meaningful conversations among people from many parts of the system as the most productive way to engender new insights and possibilities for action. They trust that people are willing to contribute.”


The complex challenges we face in our communities are created when all of us interact through the tangled web of relationships that connect us. Addressing those challenges calls all of us to reimagine our interactions and act on that transformed vision.


In these systems, in these webs, leadership that is effective operates relationally. Relationships enable meaningful conversations. Relationships form the basis for trust. Relationships connect people from different places in the system to make possible new ways of addressing entrenched issues.


Leaders who recognize the importance of relationships also recognize that their role is primarily to create an environment that facilitates relationships among others. A great host doesn’t try to insert herself in every conversation at the party; a great host skillfully creates a setting in which people meet and engage with each other.


At this kind of a party, where people are mingling and striking up new conversations with new people, it’s not only the official host who ends up playing that role. The person closest to the door will open it when the doorbell rings. Someone in a group who goes to replenish her glass will offer to replenish others’. Different people will introduce those they have just met to those they already know. Hospitality – spirit and action – is extended by many rather than by one.


Relational leadership works the same way.“Host” leaders who intentionally engage relationally invite and empower others to engage relationally in turn. Others take the initiative: They begin themselves to exercise leadership by engaging relationally.


What civity leaders do, then, is invite and elicit others to join them in engaging relationally across difference. Civity leaders invite and elicit others to exercise civity leadership.


The beauty of this kind of leadership is that it is something all of us can engage in. We can all take action in our spheres of influence to encourage and facilitate relationships that open the lines of communication and bridge social divides.


We don’t need to be in a position of power or authority to exercise this kind of leadership. All we need to do is act as though the success of the party depends on all of us – because it does.

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