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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Weber

Community Leadership: Putting the pieces together

Updated: Dec 23, 2022

As published on Chief Learning Officer (12/07/2022)


Nowadays, it appears we are spending more time trying to understand how to best lead our teams. In an endless realm of ideas and leadership styles, how do we create a sense of community within the ever-changing dynamics of work? The answer will always come back to the relationships we have with those in our care.

For many, building a sense of community can seem like putting together a puzzle. Trying to figure out what pieces go where. There are some we can place immediately, and others take time. No matter the amount of time it should take, our role as leaders is to constantly evaluate the placement of each employee, or piece to the puzzle. How can we “rotate” them to find the right fit and leverage their strengths? What if a piece does not fit? Do we have them in the right part of the puzzle? For leaders, this is the journey we embark on when leading teams.

At a conference in 1999, American educator and businessman Stephen R. Covey spoke on the topic of servant leadership and community leadership in the 21st Century. In his talk, Covey discussed his four roles of leadership. Role one is to simply be an example, role two is pathfinding, role three is alignment and role four is empowerment. Each of these “roles” were timely, but also genuinely timeless — as they summarize many of the strategies that have been shared over the past few years on how we can maintain or re-develop relationships with our employees.

To bring these roles to life let’s go deeper into each of them.

Role One – Be an example

“The first role is simply to be an example, a model: one whose life has credibility with others, has integrity, diligence, humility, the spirit of servant-leadership, of contribution.” — Stephen R. Covey

We can be an example through first understanding who we are. Many of the top elements of team effectiveness, such as trust, responsibility, communication, etc., begin with the self. If we cannot trust ourselves, then we are going to struggle with trusting others. The same applies to developing relationships with those we interact with, including in the workplace.

Building a relationship does not need to be a complex process. We are all human and we all want the same things. We want to belong. We want to have connections with others. It really can be as simple as asking someone, “tell me more about yourself.” We build community through relationships. If we are not willing to commit to those within the space we operate, the idea of community building will struggle to take hold.

Role Two – Pathfinding

“For true pathfinding, you must always study what the needs of the people are. You must try to discern what the value systems are and how you can come up with a strategic plan within those values to meet those needs.” — Stephen R. Covey

For many organizations, values are created through the organizational lens. Yes, organizational values are needed as they give you the big picture of what is expected. However, as leaders we need to have the ability to ask our employees what their values are. What do they stand for? What do they expect of themselves? Remember, when we provide values for a company, we are saying, “this is how our company will operate.”

We then need to have conversations with our employees in which we ask them how they see the values coming to life in the work they do. How do they interpret the values? How will their behaviors bring the values to life? Values do not conflict — they enhance. To be a pathfinder, we must know and understand the values that each of our employees bring. Once we have that understanding, we can then create the vision to where we want to go.

Role Three – Alignment

“Once you have chosen the words that define what your vision, your mission, your values are, then you have to make sure that all of the structures and systems inside the organization reflect that.” — Stephen R. Covey

How do you create sustainability? Having values, a mission and a vision are helpful, but often these are left as statements or promises. They become words on a page to be distributed across an organization; words that tend to lose importance when employees transition in and out of the organization.

If we genuinely want to create a sense of community within our teams and organizations, we must go deeper than words. We need to be intentional about ensuring our policies and procedures reflect the mission, vision and values. A mistake observed many times over is that success is connected to a person.

However, people come and go, and this is where frustration sets in for employees. A leader is present, and they set the mission, vision and values. But they are only in their position for a few years and when it is time for them to depart, they watch as their mission, vision and values are modified to fit the mission, vision and values of the next leader. The cycle continues. It’s not right or wrong, it is just the way we do things.

We need innovative ideas, fresh insight and a change in how work is done. This is how we can remain competitive in our markets. But what if we looked at the idea of community in a broader sense?

At its most basic level, what is an organization? Put simply, it’s a group of people. Nothing more, nothing less. While we know leaders can have a tremendous impact on how we look at decisions and processes, it is the employees who make the work happen. When we spend the time asking for feedback and ideas around the mission, vision, and values, we need to ensure our employees — the community — are allowed to bring them to life.

For example, if we say empowerment is a value we will live by, yet an active process is that employees must get approval from their supervisor to make a decision, then we do not truly value empowerment. We must ensure our own processes and internal structures are not blocking us from bringing the mission, vision and values to life. This is where trust, accountability, communication and all those other essential elements needed to have an effective team come into play.

Role Four – Empowerment

“The fourth role is essentially the fruit of the first three… [when you have the structures and systems in place] you can focus instead on vision and values and release the enormous human creativity, the human ingenuity, the resourcefulness, the intelligence of people to the accomplishment of those purposes. Everything connects: the quality of the relationships, the common purpose, and values.” — Stephen R. Covey

It has been said many times over that empowerment is needed for teams to reach their full potential and for employees to feel connected and engaged to their work. But what if a leader cannot fully get behind empowering their employees? There is a level of self-awareness each leader needs to have when committing to empowering their employees. Empowerment brings to life trust, accountability, communication and all the other key topics discussed daily. As leaders, we must clearly state what our concerns are with fully empowering our employees. Within these concerns, each of the elements discussed should come to life.

Living these roles in your organization

Are you worried employees will make a mistake? Role one – be an example. What has happened when you have made a mistake? How did you learn from the mistake to become better? How did you respond when a leader was critical of your mistakes? Which would you prefer? How can you become an example that others want to follow?

Are you worried employees will act in a manner of which you do not approve? Role two – pathfinding. Within the pathfinding role, we establish our mission, vision and values. Behaviors are connected to each of these. If you are questioning whether your employees will act in a manner that positively represents the organization, you need to go deeper and communicate more of what your mission, vision and values look like across the organization.

Are you worried employees will behave in a manner that does not foster creativity and innovation? Role three – alignment. Do the systems and processes you employ allow for employees to own their work, or do they prevent them from doing their work? If we are not living the words we are saying and ensuring the systems and processes allow for creativity and innovation, then we are going to be met with immediate resistance and our employees will become stuck.

Now we are left with role four – empowerment. According to Covey, “The true test of leadership is the one that Bob Greenleaf described: You model these four roles of leadership so that others around you are empowered to find their own paths, and they in turn are inspired to help even more people find their path.” It is not easy. However, someone must start. Someone must be the change catalyst who creates a community where employees are empowered to bring their best selves every day.

Remember, leadership — especially team leadership — is like putting together a puzzle. We start with an unorganized pile of pieces that we can easily become overwhelmed with — yet we believe that each piece has a place. We believe if we can rotate and move each piece around enough times, it will find its place. A place that brings together the vision we had from the beginning.

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