3 skills leaders need to develop to avoid losing their communities

Jaime Arredondo
June 28, 2022

How can we avoid losing communities that trust us?

In 2014, Makerbot was the fastest-growing open-source 3D printing startup, made possible because they were riding on the back of their strong and generous open-source community that they had built. The community was sharing new innovations, freely available in open source, and Makerbot was integrating them into their 3D printers, making the company one of the most innovative in the field at the time, and making it possible for the contributors to get what they had created in the form of a finished product.

But after inviting investors to fund the startup's growth, there was a fatal turning point in their story that caused the community to turn its back on the company. To protect their business, Makerbot was patenting ideas that were born in the community.  

Understandably, this created massive amounts of outrage. The community moved to more hacker-friendly competition, draining the competitive advantage the company had enjoyed through this alliance with hackers who had provided innovation, support, and marketing. Since then, Makerbot has been unable to keep up with its more hacker-friendly competition and was forced to lay off 20% of its employees in 2015 and 30% in 2017.

Sadly, this phenomenon goes beyond geeks and technology. The political movement fostered by the 2008 Obama Campaign similarly showcases the tragic arc of initial collective collaboration, followed by the decline of its crowd's trust in the original organization or movement.

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he won the presidency after a highly participatory campaign that helped mobilize record numbers of volunteers under the motto: "Respect. Empower. Include." The campaign grew exponentially because it gave volunteer leaders real responsibility and incentives to recruit and develop their own local teams.

This grassroots community campaign helped a relatively unknown Obama raise hundreds of millions in small donations and win resoundingly in the general election, eclipsing the powerful and well-oiled apparatus of Hillary Clinton’s campaign with her established network of large-sum donors.

Obama's campaign was highly participatory and highly structured. Everyone had a role with which they could participate. As an Obama volunteer, one had room for creativity, had a clear brief, and had agency and accountability, all of which was summed up in the epic 280-page organizing manual developed by the campaign.

After winning the elections, Obama promised the more than 14 million Americans who had contributed in some way to his victory, that they would then enter government with him.

But after he was elected to office, this highly structured and directed approach to involving the people became more of a straitjacket than a supercharger.  

Obama failed to build a genuine movement to help him govern, to help elect his successor, or to create a sustained and local grassroots movement to support his political party win up and down the ticket. The missed opportunity for Obama was that he had no transition plan for his community. Once elected, all the energy and commitment that people had felt had nowhere to go next.

The administration then made the fateful decision to fold its organizing infrastructure—renamed Organizing for America (OFA)—and its more than 13 million members into the Democratic National Committee, making it part of the official party machine. This alienated the many political independents, moderate republicans, and far-left types who had connected with Obama, but had no interest in being part of the formal political infrastructure of the Democratic Party.

Obama's supporters wanted to do more than offer a pledge. Had Obama invested heavily in enabling his supporters to launch local efforts—giving them the freedom to organize in support of him—he might have built a strong, locally grounded progressive movement to last. This could have been a powerful counterforce to the rise of the Tea Party, especially outside of the major cities in which Democratic support tends to cluster.

Many political movements in the US and Europe can be seen going through the same transition, such as Podemos in Spain or Macron's party in France. They initially gathered robust crowds, then after settling into the comforts of the old guard, reverted back to traditional top-down ways of operating, by associating themselves with their support-base in well-publicized but in insubstantial ways.

In a previous article, we spoke about how organizations could move from centralized power to collaborating with crowds. If you're considering collaborating with communities, consider with equal measure ways of avoiding losing that hard-earned trust you've built with yours.

Whether you lead a movement that's political, artistic, religious, entrepreneurial or anything else, leading (and keeping) a decentralized movement is a complex task. It is one that demands a unique set of skills. Pope Francis, an unlikely movement leader, can teach us a lot about what is required.

So how to avoid this fate?

Here are three skills you can practice to keep the communities you lead engaged. Let's dive in:

Signaling: SHOW, don't TELL your crowd it is powerful

Signaling is how a leader makes a crowd feel more powerful through their speech, gestures, or actions.

Obama's message of "we are the ones we have been waiting for" was classic signaling, designed to stoke his supporters' sense of agency and their willingness to participate.

Pope Francis' request for (rather than the bestowal of) prayers, works in the same way.

Pope Francis has been using signaling through a series of highly public and highly charged symbolic gestures, each of which affirms his values.

When he became Pope, one of his first actions was to trade the papal Mercedes-Benz for a well-loved Ford Focus. Other exemplary gestures include when he stayed in St. Peter's Square to bless and embrace a severely disfigured man, or when he washed the feet of refugees.

All these signals send an unambiguous message to his followers, the cardinals, and his congregation as to how they ought to carry themselves in relation to those less powerful. In this sense, he becomes a "walking parable" that others can emulate.

Conversely, when Makerbot started patenting its community's inventions, their signal broke down, causing their community to turn their backs on them.

Signaling is about equalizing one's status with the crowd, allowing the community to be as responsible as the leader for the common change they seek to make. It's about sharing and exemplifying this power through the leader’s every action.

Structuring for participation

As Jeremy Heimans presents it, structuring is how a leader inviting mass participation, puts in place structures and practices that enable the participation and agency they seek to build. This structuring is typically much harder work than signaling. Obama's 2008 campaign created a wide range of ways people could engage and not just feel ownership, but take it.

TED talks has designed its structure to make it easy for people to participate in TEDx events, in the translation of the talks, or in the nomination of speakers.

But this is not something only modern organizations can do. This structuring can also be imbued into millennia-old institutions. Pope Francis' tenure beyond his signaling efforts, has been defined by his ambitious reforms to overhaul the Vatican’s bank structure, placing reformers in key positions, and bringing greater transparency into the Vatican administration as a whole.

On one level, this can be seen as a necessary reaction to corruption and calcification within the church. But it also speaks to his belief that the church should act as an "inverted pyramid," with the clergy ministering to the people, not living on clouds above them.

To realize this inversion, Francis has sought to push power away from Rome and toward local leaders and their communities instead.

A great example comes from the 2015 Synod on the Family. A synod is typically a gathering behind closed doors of bishops to discuss changes in doctrine and approach. This time though, Francis mandated that questionnaires first be distributed throughout the Catholic world with the goal of "engaging families themselves, listening to their joys and their hopes, their sorrows, and their anguish.” "To my knowledge," said Dr. Thomas Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College, "it's the first time in the history of the magisterium [that they] have genuinely attempted to consult the laity."

By empowering parishioners, priests, and bishops, Francis is structuring for participation, creating ways to lead their local efforts.

Shaping: when the leader's actions set the unspoken norms

Shaping is how a new power leader sets the overall norms and direction of their crowd, especially in ways beyond their formal authority. When a leader is successful, these norms become so well understood that they are adopted and upheld by the crowd itself and no longer require the leader for continual guidance or direction.

The ultimate aspiration of the octogenarian Pope Francis is to shift his church's norms in ways that will last well beyond his tenure.

When asked about his stance on the church's position on homosexuality, he replied, "Who am I to judge?". These became the most famous five words of Pope Francis' papacy because of the implications and the ripples created, communicating what's expected from church leaders and followers alike.

It is through such statements that Francis sets the direction for the church without actually creating new doctrine. (Note that this has also been a criticism of him.) Shaping the norms of his flock is a subtler task than the traditional exercise of authority.

Pope Francis wants his church to expend its energy (and to capture the public's imagination) through its core work of serving the poor and becoming a "home for all."

He attempts to transport his church away from a hierarchical paradigm, defined by the clergy handing down judgments on their people, chastising their behaviors, dividing them into saints and sinners, the included and excluded. He is gradually shaping a church that focuses less on inward debates about rules and more on outward demonstrations of its core values. As he has noted, "Mercy is doctrine." By shaping new norms and setting an example for not just its leaders, but for the church’s millions of followers, the rules and values become inherent within the entire structure.

An example of a community leader failing to act following the norms he had set comes in the story of CrossFit. Even if it can be seen as a gym, Crossfit has become a form of church for many of its members.

"My CrossFit box [gym] is everything to me. I've met my boyfriend and some of my very best friends through CrossFit. When [we] started apartment hunting this spring, we immediately zeroed in on the neighborhood closest to our [CrossFit] box—even though it would increase our commute to work. We did this because we couldn't bear to leave our community. At our box, we have babies and little kids crawling around everywhere, and it has been an amazing experience to watch those little ones grow up." report a member in Casper ter Kuile's book The Power of Ritual.

"CrossFit is family, laughter, love, and community. I can't imagine my life without the people I've met through it." adds another member.

Crossfit is a community that has developed a strong sense of what it stands for and what makes it come together.

When Crossfit's CEO, Greg Glassman made some dismissive comments on Twitter and Zoom regarding George Floyd's death and the call against systemic racism, his tweets unleashed a wave of public outcry that pushed Reebok and other brand partners, including gyms, to distance themselves from CrossFit.

Even though Glassman apologized and walked back the tweets saying that he and CrossFit "will not stand for racism", the harm had already been done; he was no longer seen as a legitimate leader for the community he had created.

In Conclusion:

All participatory communities that thrive practice the three skills of signaling, structuring, and shaping at some point. But when political or cultural movements such as the Obama presidency, the Podemos Movement, Crossfit, or Makerbot forget to apply one or more of these skills, that's when they fall or simply stagnate.

Communities don't belong to leaders. They wait for someone like us to lead and gather the family, but they will ultimately go elsewhere if we fail them.

Pope Francis shows us that with the proper leader or leaders, even a calcified organization can change itself and rebuild the trust it has lost. This leadership can come from anywhere in the organization. It's just a matter of seeking and nurturing it.

Source: New Power

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Written by:
Jaime Arredondo
Creator at Bold & Open. Deconstructing how to turn radical ideas into transformative impact.

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