“Soft light, not the spotlight”: How to make a community-powered leader

June 1, 2023  

Community power calls for a new mould of leader. But what does this actually look like in practice? We asked some of our Stronger Things audience for their insights, advice and ice cream flavours.

Leadership is always a buzzy phrase. A quick scan of LinkedIn tells you it is a hot topic – from stepping up to lead, leading under pressure, or leading through change – everyone wants to lead (and be led) better. But what does leadership look like through a community-powered lens? How would a community powered leader do things differently? What values and behaviours do they have? Strengths? Goals? Weaknesses? What does ‘leading’ in a community-powered way even mean? 

At this year’s Stronger Things, in the Guildhall’s atmospheric Crypts, the seeds of New Local’s future work on leadership were sown. Bringing together people from across community groups, local authorities and health, we asked: “What does community powered leadership look like to you?”. Yes – literally look like. We asked people to pick up their pens, and draw community-powered leadership. Here are a couple of examples of what they produced: 

These pictures show the important of leading with people, of being in the community. And of embracing giant water slides. 

Pictures may speak a thousand words, but there’s nothing that New Local likes more than hearing from people. And so, we attempted to distil the behaviours and values that shape community-powered leadership. In 45 minutes.

This is what we learned: 

  • Community powered leadership is from the back.  

These leaders are not boastful or attention-seeking, but support others to shine. They turn up, every day, to encourage people – to celebrate the small wins, and to praise efforts of those who have contributed to the achievement. Nothing is done alone and a community-powered leader recognises that and empowers communities to take both the lead and the credit. As one participant summed: “It’s about the soft light, not the spotlight”.

  • Community-powered leadership is empathetic and honest.  

These leaders know when to devolve responsibility and are open to learning from failure. They are calm, and reflect – but listen. Hard. They show empathy for the circumstances and try to understand the root causes. They take pride in their role and value their sense of public duty, but give others the time and space to think. These leaders are interested in conversation AND action – being honest about what is possible but by establishing trust through doing.  

  • Community-powered leadership challenges the status quo – in the thinking and the doing.  

They are focused on change: to the system, to the organisation – to people’s lives, and to themselves. They value qualitative insights alongside the quantitative data and are prepared to try new approaches. Leaders recognise the inequitable distribution of power and money and stand up for what they believe in, role-modelling behaviours that signal a sea change.

The leadership workshop at Stronger Things 2023

One participant shared this quote from Alice Walker as a guiding principle: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” 

  • Community-powered leadership is connecting and convening – of ideas, of people and of action.  

It’s not about thinking in silos. It’s about being open to possibilities, spotting opportunities and connections for better working both vertically and horizontally. It’s about trusting communities, letting go of power and control (and responsibility and accountability) and being willing to embrace risk. It’s about enabling others around them to be truly in it together for the benefit of our communities.  

  • And finally, the BIG QUESTION: if community powered leadership was an ice-cream flavour it would be...

‘Neapolitan’, ‘popping candy’; ‘raspberry ripple’ ‘banana split’ – flavours which delight but antagonise your tastebuds, just the right amount. Others thought ‘vanilla’ – because it provided the base from which all the other flavours work. Community-powered leadership thus holds the delicate ability to be both relatable and comforting and surprising and innovative. And it comes with sprinkles. 

New Local will be exploring the topic of leadership further through our membership, research and practice offers. If you’d like to stay involved, please get in touch.

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