Our function as community leaders is to enable people to be the best they can in the community that they have chosen to be a part of. Our job is to help our community members achieve their greatest ambitions, and to help them work with other community members to realize not only their own personal goals, but the goals of the community itself.
Trust Is Everything
At the heart of this enablement is trust. Trust is a critical component in gaining the support and confidence of your community members. When trust vanishes, words and promises lose their meaning. When trust is present, words and promises flourish in a world where they have purpose and potential.
Trust, though, is not something you can learn. You are either trusted or you are not. As my father-in-law said to my family one evening over dinner, “Live your life honestly—if you don’t, you always have to remember to not be yourself.” His words teach an important lesson: when trust is implicit in every step you take, you can always be confident in the transparency and openness of your actions. This is the most important aspect of community leadership, and of life itself.
Part of the reason why trust is so critical is that, as a community leader, you want to be emotionally close to everyone in your community. You want everyone in that community to think of you as an accessible, approachable, sensitive person, and trust is required for any of these roles. People will approach you for advice, for guidance, to discuss personal issues, to handle conflict, and more. Many of these situations will be complex, and will require a significant level of sensitivity and confidence.
The Value of Listening
Part of achieving that sense of trust and confidence is having a firm foundation of understanding and patience. You should be aware right now that some people are going to frustrate you. Some people will be too quick to act and opine on a subject, and some will be too timid and reluctant to put their hands up. Some people will obsess about the wrong things and regularly produce what appears to be a tempest in a teacup.
But then again, some people will inspire you with their sense of responsibility, their ability to react to situations with grace and elegance, and their willingness to care for the community. As a community leader you will experience all sides of human nature, from strength and innovation to weakness and uncertainty. Whatever you hear from your community, you should endeavor to be the best listener that you can.
When you can demonstrate trust and the capability to listen, your community will develop respect for you. They will be there to listen to you, work with you, to stand side-by-side with you in your battles and become a large extended family that you can rely on. This respect has an important function in reinforcing belief in your community. When community members have responsive positive interactions with community leaders, it makes the community feel more inclusive, which generates belief and, importantly, belonging. Respect is a wonderful gift, and you should cherish it and protect it at all costs. Getting that respect back after you lose it is a near-impossible task.
Avoid Ego, or Others Will Avoid You
Just as the right kind of inspiration can cause lasting effects, wrong decisions and approaches can cause lasting damage.
The biggest risk that can face any community leader is excessive ego. Unfortunately, ego is something that plagues a lot of people who assume a form of leadership.
Unfortunately, I have seen ego claim too many victims. I have seen community leaders who have commanded incredible respect and adoration from their legions of fans, but have washed it away when they assume a sense of entitlement. In any community, entitlement is an enemy: it values the person over the contribution, creating unrealistic expectations about how people should be treated. You can avoid the wrath of ego by always remembering that in your role as a community leader you are responsible to the team, not for the team.
Theory Versus Action: Action Wins
A subtler side effect of ego is one that doesn’t threaten reputation so much as how you prioritize what is important. The threat is based on a sense that your opinion, approach, and perspective are the only ones with merit. While arrogance is one outcome of these elements, a much more subtle risk that can bubble to the surface is becoming too focused on theory.
Theory has an important place in community leadership. The emphasis of our work should be on getting on the front lines and trying out ideas instead of burying our heads in a book. Sure, read and learn, but use reading and theory to help you decide where to focus your practical efforts. The most critical lesson here is that you should never replace practical experience with theory.
Part of the reason why I have filled this book with so many examples is that I believe that the most appropriate and effective form of teaching theory is sharing stories and experiences.
What makes a great community leader is experience: trying new ideas and concepts and learning from the successes and mistakes.
Use theory as a means to see the shapes in the chaos, but always ensure you focus your primary efforts on making the chaos less chaotic.
Your personality is the greatest asset that you have. Earlier we talked about how trust is the most critical component in being a great community leader. If you try to become someone who you are not, you will sacrifice that most important of traits. Be yourself. Identify your own traits, celebrate the good, and learn to improve the bad, but always be yourself; it will put you in good stead.
I believe that this commitment to being who you are is critical to being a great community leader. Not only should we aspire to lead a good and principled life, but if we live it in a way that is honest to who we really are, we never need to worry about maintaining the illusion.
If you take this approach in your work and manage to do a good job engaging and working with your community, you will never need to worry about trust, transparency, or respect; people will know that the words that come out of your mouth are your own, that your opinions are your own, and that your advice is your own.
This is particularly important when you are a professional community manager.
More from The Art of Community