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Citizen Toolkit

Rallying the Troops

Good leaders don't crave being The Leader. They're good at creating more leaders.

By Charles Dobson 11 Dec 2003 |
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Third of a ten part series from The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action

Good leaders are the key to large-scale community organizing. They don't tell other people what to do, but help others to take charge. They don't grab center stage, but nudge others into the limelight. They are not interested in being The Leader, but interested in creating more leaders. They recognize that only by creating more leaders can an organizing effort expand.

Every grassroots rebellion needs leaders. Here's how to be one.

Lead by creating an example to follow

Some leaders are larger-than-life heroes. Some deliver inspirational speeches. Others are excellent organizers. But many leaders inspire others to follow by setting an example. When Rosa Parks refused to give up a bus seat reserved for white people, others followed in such numbers that it blossomed into the civil rights movement.

Divide-up and delegate work

Divide-up tasks into bite-sized chunks, then discuss who will do each chunk. Make sure everyone has the ability to carry out their task, then let them carry it out in their own way. Have someone check on progress. People do not feel good about doing a job, if nobody cares whether it gets done.

Appreciate all contributions no matter how small

Recognize people's efforts in conversations, at meetings, in newsletters, with tokens of appreciation: thank-you notes, certificates and awards for special efforts.

Welcome criticism

Accepting criticism may be difficult for some leaders, but members need to feel they can be critical without being attacked.

Help people to believe in themselves

A leader builds people's confidence that they can accomplish what they have never accomplished before. The unflagging optimism of a good leader energizes everyone.

Inspire trust

People will not follow those they do not trust. Always maintain the highest standards of honesty. Good leaders air doubts about their own potential conflicts of interest, and about their own personal limitations.

Herald a higher purpose

People often volunteer to serve some higher purpose. A leader should be able to articulate this purpose, to hold it up as a glowing beacon whenever the occasion demands. A good leader will celebrate every grassroots victory as an example of what can happen when people work together for a common good.

Avoid doing most of the work

Don't try to run the whole show, or do most of the work. Others will become less involved. And you will burn out.

Are you a facilitator?

In keeping with the idea that the best leaders aren't necessarily ego-driven personalities who must be front and centre all the time, it pays to understand the art of facilitating. The facilitator's role is to help a group to its best thinking. A good facilitator is helpful when a group is trying to deal with new or difficult issues. In the main a facilitator helps people persevere as they confront the inevitable confusion and frustration associated with trying to integrate different views and approaches with their own.
The more people who learn to facilitate the better. If you accept the role of facilitator you must be neutral. You should also try to:

Watch group vibes

If people seem bored or inattentive, you may have to speed up the pace of the meeting. If people seem tense because of unvoiced disagreements, you may have to bring concerns out into the open.

Make sure everyone gets a chance to speak

Invite quiet people to speak. If necessary use the clock: "We have fifteen minutes left, I think we should hear form people who haven't spoken for a while." Another way to get quiet people to speak is to initiate a round. In a round you move around the table with everyone getting a few minutes to present their views.

Encourage open discussion

Try to encourage people to speak up if they seem reluctant to disagree with a speaker: "On difficult issues people disagree. Does anyone have a different point of view?" Another way to encourage open discussion is to ask participants to avoid using critical language for a period of time.

Draw people out with open ended questions

"We seem to be having trouble here. What do you think we should do?"
"Could you say more about that?"
"What do you mean when you say. . . ?"

Inject humour

Humour is one of the best ways of improving the tone of meetings. It makes meetings seem like a friendly get-togethers.


"Let me see if I'm understanding you. . ."

If paraphrasing doesn't convince a person they've been heard you may have to repeat what they have said verbatim.

Learn to deal with difficult behavior

Flare-ups. When two members get into a heated discussion summarize the points made by each, then turn the discussion back to the group.

Grand standing. Interrupt the one-man show with a statement that gives him credit for his contribution, but ask him to reserve his other points for later.

Broken recording. See paraphrasing, above.

Interrupting. Step in immediately. "Hold on, let Margaret finish what she has to say."

Continual criticizing. Legitimize negative feelings on difficult issues. You might say, "Yes, it will be tough to reduce traffic congestion on Main Street, but there are successful models we can look at."

Identify areas of common ground

Summarize differences in points of view, then note where there is common ground. For instance, you might begin, "It seems we agree that . . . "
Follow a procedure to reach closure

One procedure for large groups is ask the group to vote to vote. A better procedure for small groups is for the person in charge to:

  1. close the discussion
  2. clarify the proposal
  3. poll the group
  4. decide to a) make the decision or b) continue the discussion

Suggest options when time runs out

Identify areas of partial consensus, suggest tabling the question, or create a small subcommittee to deal with the matter at their convenience.

Consider a round at the end of the meeting

Going quickly around the whole group gives people a chance to bring up matters not on the agenda. You can also use a round to evaluate the meeting. With more than ten people, a round can become tedious.

Learn more about facilitating

Good facilitating is something to behold, but it's not magic. Learn more about facilitating by getting a good how-to on the subject such as Sam Kaner's Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making.

Next week: How to prevent grassroots wilt.

Charles Dobson teaches creative problem solving at the Emily Carr Insitute of Art & Design in Vancouver and is author of The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action, available from bookstores and New Society Publishers.  [Tyee]

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