“We are the people we were waiting for!”

“Everyone leads” and “We are the people we have been waiting for” are the two most compelling and appealing phrases in the book “Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up” that very well reflect its content. The author, Paul Schmitz walks the reader through the process of leadership – that’s right process not the role – and how to make the most out of people connecting their assets, organize communities and create a space for talented individuals willing and able to engage in responsibilities and drive change together.

Marshal Ganz defined the role of a leader as the one to “accept responsibility for enabling others to achieve their purposes.“ Leadership does not have to be encountered within an institutional or organized structure. Leadership is found in every moment of life and starts with an urge as simple as “I will go, come with me.” The way leadership is described in this book resonates more with the concept of active citizenship. Community participation is a notion associated with democracy that dates back in history, and translates as human empowerment in the 21st century, both on a social and political level. As a matter of fact a steadily increasing number of governments and organizations across the globe, are looking for ways to empower citizens to participate in various ways, such as building environmental awareness to drive eco-friendly habits, reinforcing a community sense to instill collaboration, or prompting citizens and employees to express their opinion and participate in political and corporate decision-making respectively.

For this participatory trend to scale up, it is important to understand that the progress of a community does not rely on the skills of its citizens but on their values.  This statement raises two questions, why of its citizens instead of its leaders and why their values instead of their skills. To answer the first one, assuming that everyone is inherently a leader as the books advocates, then every individual is capable of making a difference. The second is explained through the author’s referral to the military governance structure, and the statement that the biggest problems in team projects arise not because of the participants’ lacking skills but due to their behavior; thus making values crucial. Of course that is not to say that skills, such as interpersonal, conceptual, technical and tactical, are unimportant, but those can be developed and advanced with experience.

The former CEO of Fortune 500, Bill George describes the characteristic of a true leader and acknowledges personal experiences and difficult phases in life as the best teachers to form values and behaviors. In his view it is imperative for leaders to reconcile with the past, live in present, rely on their team and plan for the future. Leaders must become stronger from internal gratification rather than external attributes. He combines the elements of his theory on a “leadership compass,” where he accurately demonstrates that everything in leadership and assuming responsibility is interrelated; starting from values, to family, to the people you work with, to your motivation.

On this basis, this book is much more than a narration of personal life events and stories. It is an inspiration for citizens rather than social entrepreneurs because as Schmitz rightly points, people do not just wake up one day and say that they will become a social entrepreneur. People simply just go out and do it. This book makes titles and positions more outdated than ever because people should not be defined by their social status, academic marks or the bad decisions they have made, but from what assets they have to offer. Public Allies are working to recognize and bring together this diverse talent, enable individuals to capitalize on their strengths, and become useful to their community. The Public Allies mission is expressed in the five core values of the organization:

  • Asset based community development
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Collaboration
  • Continuous learning
  • Integrity

Through sharing his personal story Schmitz reinforces the argument that failure is a lesson and that leadership is a process. Having a vision and being prepared to recognize and grasp the opportunities that arise is another important lesson the author communicated through his own experiences and the shared life examples of some of his mentors, affiliates and peers throughout the book.

One of most stirring stories to me, was that of the young man who was grazed by a bullet while playing sports in the premises of a Boys and Girls Club and chose not report the incident to the police but seek advice and help from the people at the Public Allies office. The underlying message of this story conveys that a) people have lost faith in the government and institutionalism in general, and b) people are more likely to complain than to take action. These two facts make obvious that, if institutions are there to serve a purpose and respond to the needs of citizens, but citizens don’t use them – then something must change to rationalize the reason of their existence at first place. Moreover, if people continue to settle with complaints then nothing will change. The problem will not go away unless you do something about it. Personal interest can drive active behavior; therefore there is hope for institutional and societal change in light of the right incentives.

Last November I was slightly grazed myself, this time by a car (instead of a bullet) on my way to school. My first reaction was similar to that of the young man in the Boys and Girls Club. I complained and expected everyone to do something about it. Most of the people just tried to comfort me saying, “it will be ok”. This was no surprise. The month before my accident, there were numerous other accidents in my neighborhood and although petitions were circulated, I never took the time to learn more or sign them, because I was too busy to deal with what was “not my problem”. This time though, it was very much so, and I decided to take the responsibility and organize my school community using technology and social media, to raise awareness. Less than a week later, we gathered enough signatures to make a case in the local authorities and demand action.

This personal experience brings me to the next point that impressed me in this book. The author meticulously manages to bridge the debate gap on whether or not technology plays an integral part in enabling people to organize and become effective as a team. He achieves that, simply by comparing the famous “I have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King and the era of digital revolution. Back then it took the King’s supporting team a good 7 weeks to mobilize two hundred thousand people across the country and bring them before the charismatic leader. Nowadays if they were to do the same, it would just take a few days if not hours to create the same impact. Technology allows for speed in empowerment rather than empowerment itself. This example raises another good point, beyond technology: What would a leader be without his team? Imagine the delivery of the historic speech without the audience. Obviously the impact would not be the same and that proves that a leader is nothing without the team.

Bottom up leadership has never been more possible for reasons such as people passionately engaging with causes, or technology that reduces the span of time to get things done.  In 2011 the world witnessed a revolution wave, and reasonably Time Magazine declared “The Protestor” as the person of the year. Would the revolutions not have happened if it weren’t for technology? Eventually they would, it would just take longer to see the results. The revolutions however would not have happened if people did not engage in ideals worthy of fighting for, especially when those concern national governance issues.

Within this framework it is fair to agree with the author when he talks about institutions working for the community instead of with the community are at least ineffective. Traditional institutional structures as well as the notion of hierarchy and representation are obsolete, since everyone can lead and have a voice that can be heard and spread via technology. Grassroots movements enjoy increasing popularity, and those constantly address issues institutions fail to respond to. Nowadays, people and organizations have the capacity and tools to track the impact of their actions; to exchange ideas, to learn from each other and work to bridge their differences. Participation, collaboration and measurable results present a clear benefit to the overall community. Institutions are called to open up and integrate the voices of the people who financially support them, if it is for them to be viable in the long run. After all, “lasting solutions are not deriving from isolated services.”

Another useful acknowledgment in Schmitz’s work is the differentiation between mobilizing and organizing communities. In the first case you urge people to act individually and create an imminent short-term impact whereas in the second you encourage people to participate and lead by forming relations and scale the impact in a long-term horizon. Leveraging social capital can be achieved by the implementation of the Public Allies’ five core values, which are analyzed in the second half of the book.

My objective as a social entrepreneur is to initiate transformational and sustainable change in the Greek public sector, and I believe this book gave me the insights and knowledge necessary to start doing so. For instance, ABCD or Asset-Based Community Development is key to identify talent and especially when forming a team of coworkers. This book also helped me understand how to engage people in a vision and guide to them to take responsibility as well as the importance of relationships in this process.

The most appealing out of the five Public Allies’ core values to me is diversity and inclusion. Inclusion and participation are the answers to form a solid viable political system and a functional public sector. In addition, diversity is a constant factor to keep in mind despite Greece being a relatively homogenous society, as far as demographics are concerned. Though, Greeks have vivid personal interest in a number of political or social issues, and this is what makes them a diverse community. This is an opportunity to organize the community and teach people how to make a difference according to their beliefs in a constructive way, without relying on anyone else but themselves. Furthermore, Robert Putnam in his research on public participation found that the relationship between diversity and civic engagement is inverse; and this must change. The “responsibility virus” must be defeated, for people to take the lead and address these communication gaps in society.

Inevitably an attempt to carry out this task will face many challenges; with the main ones being the two we have seen earlier: no trust toward institutions and no motivation to take action. Indeed, in the current political environment in Greece, citizens have lost their trust to the government and the overall system, mainly because they feel excluded or that their voice is not considered. From a cultural perspective, Greeks have a natural tendency to voice their concerns, but the expression of their frustration rarely results to actions – and that was especially true in the pre-crisis period – because the general perception is that nothing will change regardless.

Since 2008 there have been multiple mobilization initiatives mainly in Athens, which led to significant outbursts and rallies those had several imminent outcomes, both negative and positive. Almost 5 years into the crisis, Greek people need not to be mobilized, but to become organized and take responsibility to effectively address the diversity of their interests through an inclusive process that will result to long term benefits for all. Forming a social move of this kind, requires a team of devoted individuals from diverse backgrounds to engage with the different interest groups and spread the values.

Leading the transformation of the Greek public sector obviously will not solely depend on the work and engagement of leaders in the community. It will be defined by the willingness and openness of the government to allow citizens to take action to improve their country as a whole. “Sector isolation is a major problem for the community progress thus it is important to build bridges, connect and collaborate between institutions and society.”

The organization I am looking to launch requires a long-term plan and technology will be a major pillar of this initiative. “Code for Greece” will provide a virtual space for citizens to share their technical skills, time and insights to participate in the creation of digital platforms that will contribute to a more transparent and cost efficient government system. From the digitalization of public files, to the optimization and automation of processes, to new online citizen service platforms, to smart-phone applications to report community needs; this will be a diverse multi-leadership project where everyone within and beyond national borders will be invited to participate and donate their time and expertise to make the country viable. This will only be the beginning of a social move, it will not be enough, but it will be a beginning. Everyone leads.

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