Leadership in com biz - RSA

5 lessons in leadership from community business

Blog 3 Comments

  • Economic democracy
  • Enterprise
  • Social enterprise

A 'positive deviant' is someone who does the right thing despite being surrounded by the wrong institutions, the wrong processes and thoroughly uncooperative people.

I learnt this phrase from Sara Parkin, founder of Forum for the Future, who gives short shrift to anyone who thinks leadership is only for the likes of Obama, Gandhi, or Yousafzai and not for them.

Because leadership is not about being the top dog – or, at least, that is only one form of leadership (and one we’re witnessing the pitfalls of across the Pond). Leadership is an act; it is about a way of being and doing and in this it is something for everyone. At different times we all show leadership, and the skills involved are ones that we can all develop. It’s our Power to Create – be that to start a business or help shape the council’s plans for our street.

Positive Deviance is about going against the grain because you can see that change is necessary. It’s the kernel at the centre of new ideas. This is what I’m seeing from our Community Business Leaders and the organisations they are part of: from setting out to change the perceptions of an area to deciding their town can support a bookshop in spite of the commercial challenges, because having access to books is about more than the bottom line for a community.

This is the work that really moves the dial on the communities we live and work in. The leadership which enables a community to mobilise and put ideas into action for the benefit of everyone takes a special kind of approach.

The library on leadership theory is extensive, but comparatively little of it is developed from research based on communities or the voluntary sector (see 'Leadership development in the Third Sector' - Clore Social Leadership report, 2016. PDF, 780KB) especially when contrasted with the literature premised on the white, male and western corporation. Much of this theory is still useful, but we should be investigating community based leadership further.

5 aspects of community leadership:

The organisations we are working with on our community business leaders programme are showing us that these are key aspects of leadership in a community business setting.

Collaborative leadership

The focus on working and decision-making as a group applies not just within an organisation but between local players. For example, during a visit to Frome we learned how the Independent Councillor's and local enterprise’s approach to community redevelopment is harnessing local and community business, empowering new thinking to solve local challenges, and bringing energy and creativity to the town.

Onion Collective are working with their town to develop a community strategy, designed by the people for the people.

Mission-driven leadership

For organisations and individuals trying to solve the problems they see in their communities, knowing where to draw the line is key. Overstretching resources and losing sight of core goals are as much of a risk for these organisations as they are for traditional businesses, more, even, as they seek to be responsive to the needs around them.

Burton Street Foundation have gone from strength to strength, bringing new projects and initiatives to life, but always in order to enhance their core work supporting local adults with physical and learning disabilities.

Persistent leadership

People who set out to do this have courage. Often they are doing this in the face of considerable hurdles, constrained by limited resource and time as well as working within wider systems of finance, regulation and governance that were not designed with them in mind. These systems do not get what they are trying to do or know what box to put them into because community-based enterprise is new and emerging. The system says that if the commercial market won’t support a bookshop then it will fail. This new model says if the people of Crediton want the bookshop to succeed then they change the model to make it work.

Inclusive leadership

The leadership we are talking about is plural and diverse, and is being enacted by people in the roles of chief executive and volunteer, and everywhere in between. What unites them is their passion to make change for the better and to work with their communities to put collective ideas into action. In this leadership I include followership because we need to be able to recognise when the lone voice in the corner asking ‘what if we did this instead?’ is, in fact, the leader we should all be following.

From Plymouth Energy's community shares, to Coexist's consensus decision-making, and Oblong's flat management structures, these businesses are committed to being guided by their community.

Reflective leadership

Leadership is something that should never stop evolving because it should respond to context. It’s a process of learning and not always getting it right. Taking the time to reflect on leadership gives you the framework to ask, ‘what change did we influence?’ and ‘if it didn’t work, why not?’ It’s not easy, and if we don’t manage it then it we need to cultivate the presence of mind to (sometimes) not beat ourselves up about it.

Our leadership programme is designed to create this space for organisations to reflect on and share learning, to hear from each other and from other practitioners.

If this sounds like something your community business could benefit from, applications are open until May 15.

Apply for the Community Business Leaders programme


Get to know our community businesses from the South West and North cohorts of the programme.


Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • Thank you, Josie, for a really stimulating article. We need leaders who are prepared to do the right thing without always having the right resources, conditions or institutions to support them.

  • Hi Josie, I really like your view on leadership. I find it painful when there is a general view that title or position are the domains of leadership.

    I am developing a leadership program called "Influential Leadership" and it is fundamentally founded on behaviours and never on position, power, organisational role, etc.

    In the 21st Century we require a form of leadership that is enduring, 

Related articles

  • Uniting behind the mission: reconciling managers, shareholders and society

    Tony Greenham

    The interests of managers, shareholders and society can often come into conflict. Uniting behind a clearly articulated mission can help reconcile these conflicts, but we still need to have robust measurements to hold corporate executives to account.

  • 15 Steps To Community-led Regeneration

    Georgie Grant and Naomi Griffith

    From 4,000 visitors a year to 4,000 in one month; Georgie Grant and Naomi Griffith from Onion Collective tell us about their community's journey in redeveloping Watchet's Boat Museum.