Follower Leaders

All of us who want to make a difference need to learn how to be follower leaders — to use our positions and our privilege and access to money in a way that actually bolsters the initiative that the families take. But not to lead. It’s hard to stand back and trust families. But this change in perspective — to respect poor people — is what this country needs right now.” David Bornstein

In this New York Times column author David Bornstein gives us a glimpse of what it takes to move from despair to contentment. The larger argument made is this, if you approach people with a “one size fits all” solution people will inevitably shift their narrative to suit the criteria. Thus in matters of poverty a family living without resources or hope will shape the narrative they tell themselves and others to receive the largest benefit. The author makes the point that the outcome of such a delivery of programs to assist the poor is persons and families believing they are without talent, without ideas and without initiative. If a system offers you only one way out of your troubles and the system tells you that THEY know best and demands you conform to it the only conclusion can be that THEY have the answers and I do not.

The solution favoured by this column is clear, bring people together, see what they are doing that works and share the successes with the larger group you are trying to assist. The idea is that success breeds success, if someone in poverty hears that a neighbor is trying X and it is working s/he will likely do likewise. And what that neighbor does that makes a difference can be shared with another, and so on. The human condition is to adapt and experiment with what works. In the approach of this column the government is less the solution maker and decider and more a facilitator and communicator. Governments can provide resources to those who need something to make THEIR idea come to fruition. But the government is not providing the answers, only sharing what works and helping people live into their ideas.

There is also a strong statement about leadership, that leaders in this approach are not people who impose their solutions, they “stand back” and allow solutions to emerge and then facilitate the living out and the sharing of these ideas. Such a leader would not be recognized as a leader in our current culture, we value persons who impose their will, make thing happens, compete to get what they want. “Follower leaders” are not weak and easily led, rather they are listeners, making themselves aware of what good ideas are already in the room. Follower leaders are not people who put their finger in the air or procrastinators who wait for things to happen, they actively search for ideas, record ideas, find out what ideas are working and for whom, let others know what is working and then encourage people facing challenges to try what others in the office, in the neighbourhood, are doing.

The ideas, the solutions, are there in our communities, what is required from leaders is to find out which ones are working and celebrate them, resource them, encourage them.