Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Another Riff on Leadership and Community Resilience

How important are leaders to community resilience? If we look at historians before 1850 (think Thomas Carlyle, for example), leaders are to history what pathfinders were to the pioneers – pointing the way forward even in trackless wastelands. At critical moments, these historians taught that leaders changed the trajectory of events often in startling ways. Leadership was seen as an essential ingredient of great advances.

Starting in 1850, historians began to take a different view of leadership, particularly in Europe. Leaders were no longer pathfinders blazing new trails, but more like railroad switchmen – sometimes changing the train’s path but circumscribed by the greater society in which they lived. In this view, leaders were much less important, in fact merely the expression of a collective will.

This week we watched (withstood? endured?) the spectacle of the first presidential debate. In some ways, the contenders epitomized these two views of leadership. Mr Romney exhibited those qualities expected of a leader – confidence, command of ideas, and coherence of vision – who can change the course of events. The President came across as more pushed by than promoting a vision of the future, thus more as one who saw himself as the expression of an historical imperative.

Current views of the role of leadership within communities lay along a line marked out by these same two extremes. Some will say that everyone must have a say – the role of community leaders is merely to get all of the people together and collectively “the community” will do the rest. Others say that by itself the community can develop neither a coherent vision nor the will to make that vision a reality, the leader is thus the essential catalyst for action.

Resolving these viewpoints is critical to understanding how a community gains resilience. Gaining resilience means transforming the community – either in the face of adversity or, more rarely, finding the opportunity in events to become something more than it was.

I must admit I find myself much closer to the idea of leaders as pathfinders. Would Charleston have come back from Hurricane Hugo if not for Mayor Riley? Probably, but not as fast or as far. However Charleston would certainly not have been strong enough to withstand the closing of its naval base as easily as it did. It would not have transformed itself from fusty matron to sassy debutante in the way that it did.

Similarly, the progress made in New Orleans to recover from Katrina since Mitch Landrieu became mayor dwarfs everything done before. The recovery of Joplin under the leadership of its mayor; the re-invention of Charlotte by Hugh McColl (and others); what the Mayor of Greensburg, KS, is trying to do; the transformation of Pittsburgh led by its business leaders after the downfall of the steel industry…and the list goes on.

What I find missing in the collectivist view of leadership is recognition of the internal conflicts, the multitude of agendas, the ease with which we talk past and not to each other in many communities. Leaders don’t lead because of a collective will – often there is no collective will discernible. In the best cases, leaders succeed because they form the disparate views in a community into a common vision and then channel the community’s energies into making the vision a reality.

Becoming more resilient requires change. Without a leader, it is unlikely that a community will change. Leadership is thus an essential element of becoming more resilient.