10 Characteristics of Community Leaders

Traits of a good leader are common across disciplines, professions and geographical regions. Community leadership is unique in its approach and goals. Community leadership is not about managing or even coordinating. And it is certainly not about dictating or imposing your own ideas onto others.

In addition to traits of superior leadership in any discipline, such as integrity and responsibility, here are ten characteristics that are particular to excellent community leaders:

1. Maximize Individuals’ Strengths

Community leaders often work with volunteers. They may be elected by members of the community,  assigned to work with a group, or they simply step forward and want to help. In any case, community leaders rarely have the luxury of choosing who they work with.

Your job involves being able to identify the strengths and interests of each person on your leadership team and maximize those talents and skills in a way that keeps your team engaged in the work. Your fellow leaders need to feel that they are making a meaningful contribution to the group, the community and the work.

2. Balance the Needs of Your Leadership Group

Some individuals may have a strong need for control. Others may have a deep need to be appreciated for their time and service. As a community leader, your job is to balance everyone’s needs, as well as keep your sights focussed on the work that needs to be done for the group to move forward.

3. Work as a Team

Let’s face it, community leadership is slow work. It is much less efficient than, say, military leadership, where underlings simply obey the orders of their superior officers. Community leadership means that one person does not do it all.

It can be useful to teach your leadership team the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. An efficient leader will take a task away from someone who is not completing their work in a timely manner. An effective leader will ensure that the person gets the support they need to complete the task. Effectiveness often takes more time than efficiency. Community leadership is about building relationships and working together. Being patient with one another and supporting one another process builds capacity and relationships. But be forewarned, this takes much more time than simply being efficient.

4. Mobilize Others

Even a leadership team can not do it all. You will likely have to work with staff and volunteers to undertake big projects. Community leadership is part education, part inspiration, part motivation and part mobilization.

Mobilizing others is not about telling them what to do, barking orders at them or dictating  how things need to get done. It is about finding a balance between what needs to be done, who can do it, who is willing and has time to do it, assigning the work and then showing appreciation for others’ efforts. Learning to have some fun while you work together is an important aspect of mobilizing and motivating others.

5. Pitch In

There is a myth that leaders lead, and do-ers do. But in a community, leading by example is often the most effective way to get full buy-in for projects. Don’t schedule a community clean-up unless you are willing to get out there with a garbage bag yourself.

Community leaders are rarely have the luxury of focussing only on policy and governance. This kind of work involves arriving early, staying late, cleaning up, and generally rolling up your sleeves to pitch in.

6. Practice Stewardship

This is about getting people to take responsibility for their physical space and surroundings. This includes natural areas, structures and spaces. Stewardship means working together to protect, preserve and take care of your community. This involves renewing, repairing, rebuilding and constantly reviewing your physical community to ensure that it is healthy, strong and well-maintained.

7. Be Accountable to the Community

Above all else community leadership is about the people who live with you and near you. The people who form the community are the beneficiaries, but also those who whom you, as a leadership are accountable.

Community leadership is not just about policies, processes or procedures. More than anything, it is about people.

Often when I guide community leaders in my work, I will ask “What do you think will happen at the next Annual General Meeting if this does — or does not — move forward?” This keeps the leadership team focussed on why they are doing what they do, and why they are really making decisions.

8. Think forward

There is a saying in some Aboriginal communities about thinking five generations ahead. Being a community leader means not only thinking for today, or even tomorrow, but being able to make wise decisions that will still benefit the residents long after the current leadership team is gone.

9. Recruit and Mentor New Leaders

Speaking of the current leadership team being gone, community leaders often get so caught up in all the work that needs to be done today, that they forget to think about tomorrow. Planning for the future is an important aspect of community leadership. Having a healthy base of volunteers and having individuals ready to take on new positions are indicators of a healthy community.

Community leadership work means building a succession plan to keep the community strong as you move forward into the future.

10. Walk Beside, Don’t Lead From Above

In some models, leadership is a position in a hierarchy. Those at the top of the hierarchy have the power and make the decisions. Community leadership is about developing every persons capacity for leadership, starting with self-leadership and self-responsibility. Those who have positions of leadership must demonstrate principles and practices of good leadership by living the example. So, the community leader does not take the prime parking spot out of a sense of entitlement. There are no special privileges that put community leaders above others who live in the community. Every member of the community has responsibilities and rights. Community leaders walk beside others and listen to them.

A community leader’s job is not to take on all the problems of the world themselves and fix everything, but rather to work together with everyone in the community, to mobilize and guide others, to facilitate solutions and thing about the long-term health of the community and its people.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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