On the 1st of March 2022, the Rural SE Hub hosted a session at the Illuminating Leadership Festival, a virtual, week-long event hosted by Collective Leadership for Scotland, with a focus on the topic of collective, systems- and place-based leadership. The name of the session was ‘Communities leading Collectively’.
Collective Leadership was a subject that had been of interest to the Rural SE Hub for some time as it became evident that despite many community-led organisations operating using some aspects of a collective approach to leadership, often these organisations did not actually realise they were working this way and there was limited research into this specific area.
After conducting some research into the area of collective leadership from a community-led perspective, we decided to showcase our findings during an hour-long session as part of the festival programme. You can find a summary of these findings below.
Research Method A: Case Studies
The first round of our research was dedicated to collecting a series of case studies which highlighted collective leadership within community-led organisations and delved into the main characteristics of a structure of this type of leadership and the success factors and challenges associated with it.
Seven community-led organisations from across rural Scotland contributed to the case studies which can be accessed here. These organisations were: the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust, the Langholm Initiative, South Ayrshire Community Transport Hub, the Embo Trust, Assynt Development Trust, the West Harris Trust and a faith-based organisation that preferred to remain anonymous.
Within the case studies, a number of key themes emerged over the course of the research. One theme which was prominent in each of the examples was that organisations using a collective leadership structure often work with a range of individuals with different skills and expertise. Some of these skills include, finance, law, design, admin, joinery etc. Organisations with a collective leadership structure are not confined to specific roles but rather work across the team in areas where they may be able to contribute.
Another key theme which emerged from this research was inclusion. Many of these organisations are run by staff, volunteers, and community members. Community consultation is a key theme amongst these organisations and is important to ensure everyone is getting their say.
Striving to get young people involved was another theme which became evident. Almost every organisation mentioned in the case studies aimed to get younger generations involved in their projects. However, unfortunately for many of these communities, rural depopulation is a major issue, especially in the younger age group. As a result, it can be very difficult to get younger people to participate in these areas. This means that many of these groups are unable to get a young person’s perspective when it comes to decision making.
The theme of reflection was also discussed in detail by most of the organisations who contributed to the case studies. Most did make time for semi-regular, informal reflection periods but some admitted that there was room for improvement in that area. They understood the importance of looking back at previous projects and analysing what worked and what didn’t. It was said by a few organisations that they struggled to fit in the time to reflect in between projects as they were often very busy.
In terms of success factors, many organisations stressed the importance of everyone involved being focused on the same goal. In addition, clear communication, motivated staff and a wide range of skills were listed as being imperative in ensuring the success of a collective approach to leadership within rural social enterprises. A few organisations also discussed the necessity of having a coordinator there to guide and oversee activity.
When discussing challenges to this way of working, it was said that with these types of structures can make getting a decision a lengthy process. Additionally, at times the wrong people are involved, which can cause difficulties. A few organisations mentioned this problem when asked about challenges to collective leadership. Sometimes individuals would come on board with big personalities and different agendas from the rest of the group. This would lead to disagreements and the groups losing focus on their goals. Having clearly agreed objectives and guiding principles can assist in ensuring one voice doesn’t skew the process.
Research Method B: Virtual Workshop
After completing our first round of research, we considered other methods that could be used in order to look deeper into the topic of collective leadership from a community-led perspective. The concept of a virtual workshop which focused on the lessons learnt from the case studies was suggested by Cathy Sharp from Collective Leadership for Scotland. The workshop would be held via Zoom and would be attended by those who contributed to the case studies.
It was our hope that by uniting these individuals in a setting where they could discuss their shared experiences of collective leadership, that new learning and ideas would emerge. While not every contributor was able to attend the session, 4/6 confirmed that they would take part in the workshop. The structure of the session was quite simple, attendees would be asked 4 questions about the case studies. This did require some prior knowledge of all the case studies, so attendees were asked to become familiar with the resources beforehand.
So when asked, ‘When you read the case studies, what is there that you want to celebrate in them?’ the attendees said that it was inspiring to hear of people in local communities seeing a need and addressing it, often filling in the gaps where previously local authorities would have addressed these issues. There was a shared feeling over the past few years – especially during Covid-19 – that communities were basically left to get on with it.
It was also mentioned that the love and passion that people feel for their communities and local areas was evident, recognising the hard work and effort put in by people. This was clear through the achievements that people had made using their collective strength, skills and resources.
Sometimes individuals found it difficult as there was so much work to be done and despite some small victories, there isn’t really time to celebrate. It was agreed that sometimes we feel hesitant about celebrating those small victories, but it is essential in understanding how far we’ve come.
The attendees were then asked, ‘What surprises, puzzles or makes you curious when you read the case studies?’ One person mentioned that they were surprised by the resilience within small communities because the sheer determination of the people in rural areas who persist in following through with their dreams was encouraging.
One participant said that they were surprised at the similarities between the case studies. As when you work for a community organisation you sometimes think that the challenges you face are unique to your community. But there are definitely similar situations which are shared by many community organisations.
One attendee brought up a point about generational shifts and their curiosity at the focus on young people within the case studies. All the case studies reference including young people and it is interesting to consider how you sustain something over another generation. Particularly in these rural areas where younger people are leaving and how that can be reduced.
Another participant quoted a line from one of the case studies – ‘If one person is left to make decisions, it can become quite personal’ and was interested in the facts that if we practice collective leadership both the credit and the blame is a shared responsibility.
Finally, there was some surprise at the different approach that some organisations take to reflection. Some take quite a bit of time for reflection and others don’t. And noted that it would be interesting to know what effect that actually has on the future projects.
The next question put to the attendees was – ‘In relation to the practice of collective leadership, what would we like to have more of the time?’ One participant noted that collective leadership is something that should be celebrated throughout the country and recognised by central government and local authorities. It would be wonderful if these groups could see the importance of community bodies and the work they do.
Another said that it would be nice to see some more cooperation from all members of a team as sometimes there are sometimes power dynamics within a team which make it difficult to work collectively.
More trust was mentioned as a big thing that participants would like to see more of the time, particularly from local authorities. During the Pandemic, these community organisations took on a tremendous amount of responsibility but now, post pandemic there is a sense that the trust has to be earned again.
Lastly, more resources, workshops and sharing of experiences would be beneficial as there are people scattered throughout the country who are attempting to do their best for their communities and sharing experiences can be useful, the more they come together the more they can share.
The final question asked of the participants was – ‘What kind of action, however small, might be real and possible for each of us?’ It was agreed by the group that we need to put more focus on the need for change. All actions are related to change, change in approach, change in how we do business and change in how we look after each other.
Another point raised was that we need to become more accustomed to looking at our problems as a whole. We are always set up to deal with single issues. But these issues generally aren’t problems which sit on their own, they usually have implications for other things. With collective leadership you can bring all of these issues together and look at them as a whole rather than separate issues.
Finally, the importance of being mindful and aware of our strengths, weaknesses, capabilities and triggers. Mainly to just be acknowledge that we are human, we do make mistakes but that we can also create amazing things.