The Langholm Initiative: A Collective Leadership Case Study

Langholm – Eskdale’s largest town – was once well renowned for its busy textile mills and growing population. Since the 1980s however, traditional industries have been in decline in Eskdale and as a result, Langholm’s population has rapidly decreased, and the economy is suffering.

The Langholm Initiative Community Development Trust was established in 1994 in response to a post-industrial crisis. The Trust was formed as a partnership between private and public sectors and was one of South Scotland’s very first development trusts.

The Langholm Initiative has been the driving force behind a number of projects which have made vital improvements to the local area.

In terms of leadership, the Langholm Initiative Community Development Trust operates using a collective leadership structure. Collective Leadership typically describes the distribution of power within an organisational structure. Collective leadership usually involves:

  • Participation from all members of a team without a clear leadership structure.
  • Consistent journaling and reflection.
  • Focus on the behavioural and relational aspects of an organisation.
  • Encouraging creativity and innovation.

Margaret Pool and Judith Johnson are the respective Chairperson and Project Manager of the Langholm Initiative.  They discussed how the trust was initially made up of a board of directors and then also an executive committee made up of lots of different local interest groups. Over the years, many of the groups became constituted organisations in their own right and developed their own projects. Now a SCIO (Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation), the Langholm Initiative secures funding for project officers to deliver actual projects rather than just being there to support, motivate and benefit the community in a broad way.

Judith has been with the Langholm Initiative for 25 years and has worked on a number of different projects in this time. Many of the projects have been concerned with employability and skills development.

Currently, Judith is about to conclude a project called ‘Textiles Eskdale’. Langholm has a long history of weaving and still has a small number of textile-related business left and new ones are emerging. The project is concerned with trying to support and encourage business development, skills development, intergenerational transfer of skills to younger people and revitalising that area of Langholm.

The Langholm Initiative board of Trustees is made up of individuals with a range of different skills and expertise. Judith believes that because the Langholm Initiative undertakes such worthwhile projects, this attracts people of a high calibre to join and stay on the board, particularly with the recent community buyout of part of the Langholm Moor. The Trustees are volunteers who give freely of their time. However, this hasn’t always been the case. According to Judith, there have been periods in the past when it has been really difficult to recruit trustees to the Board and believes this could have been due to a lack of clarity around the priorities and achievements of the organisation.

The work of the Board and staff is supported by a growing team of volunteers, some with regular duties e.g. in the Community and Tourist office, others on an ad hoc basis as required by the projects.

In May 2019 Langholm Initiative embarked on a huge project which is new for the South of Scotland in terms of community land ownership. They’ve raised over £4 million to purchase a major part of the Langholm Moor for sustainability, environmental developments and tourism. Judith recounts how this has required the full involvement of Trustees and volunteers to form a small Working Party to collaborate on the business plan and to be directly involved in the sort of meetings which might have previously been left to project managers.

The Langholm Initiative also takes a collective leadership approach to sharing tasks and responsibilities across the board. Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, staff members of the Langholm Initiative have been furloughed or working from home over the last 12 months. As a result, board members have had to pitch-in and take over HR, networking, and sourcing funding.  For a time, they changed from their regular monthly Board meetings, to meeting fortnightly.

In terms of success factors for this type of leadership structure, Margaret Pool appreciates the importance of face-to-face contact when it comes to collective leadership. Working in office spaces provides individuals with different skills and the opportunity to interact on a daily basis, making it easier to learn and adapt to new challenges.

Judith believes that the Langholm Initiative is the type of set up that is agile and can respond to challenges and opportunities. However, she stresses that there’s always the potential for individual differences, fallouts, lack of understanding and different priorities. Judith says that these types of issues are minimal within the Langholm initiative but that hasn’t always been the case.

Margaret agrees that the Langholm Initiative team works well together, and no individual personality is more dominant than the rest. She believes that if an organisation can get a good team together then they will be successful. However, when one person tries to dictate, this creates conflict and can impact negatively on community-led organisations like the Langholm Initiative.

In terms of reflection, Judith and Margaret both understand the importance of taking some time at the end of each project to look back on what worked and what didn’t. However, Judith considers that there is some room for improvement in that area. In the voluntary sector there is always a pressure to secure funding for the next project and this can mean that insufficient time is taken to reflect.

To learn more about the Langholm Initiative click here.

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