Balancing Powers

Posted on September 7, 2010 by
- 1 Comment

Author: Elizabeth Barrette
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #148

Power in community can work differently than in the mainstream. We acknowledge more types of power and value a wider set of skills. We move more fluidly through roles so that instead of “leaders” and “followers” we often have the same people playing both those roles in different contexts.


On a spring afternoon, the turnspit assembly team finally admits defeat: no spit-roasting today. The whole lamb carcass won’t fit in the oven. People stare dolefully at each other. “Okay, we need to cut this nice lamb into pieces,” I say. “I know some anatomy and I’ve helped butcher chickens. Raise your hand if you’ve ever done home butchering, or field-dressed game, or have any other relevant experience.” Several people volunteer. With much tugging and laughing and sharing of ideas, we divide the meat into small pieces.

In considering leadership, look at what a leader needs to be and do. Most concisely, a leader provides guidance and direction. Community leaders direct a particular settlement; task supervisors see that jobs get done; workshop facilitators teach numerous people new skills. So “leader” covers all the people who make things happen in intentional communities and lend their vision to get us where we’re going. Overall, people want leaders to create a sense of community, organize activities, provide services, and help in times of need. Leadership expectations break down into practical and personal roles, among others.

The practical sphere encompasses most group functions. Founders define a vision and create new communities. Event organizers dream up festivals and workshops, then make sure the activities run smoothly. Entertainers include our musicians, dancers, theatre troupes, and so forth. They add spice to the work we do—but they also transmit our culture. Networkers connect the dots into a vast web of human resources spanning the world. They make it possible to pull together people needed for a community, a publication, or a special project.

The personal sphere encompasses things that usually happen behind the scenes, but can intrude into group space. Greeters welcome new people and help them mesh. They make communities grow. Crash crew leaders are the people you turn to when disaster strikes. They clean up after messy divorces, personality meltdowns, and storm damage. Cheerleaders urge people to grow and try, providing encouragement after failures and applause for successes.

Qualities of a Good Leader
Each leader has a unique combination of leadership qualities. Skills may come from education or experience—ideally both, but don’t overlook someone who can do the job just because they only have one or the other. Different roles also call for different traits and skills. However, some things are essential for most or all leaders in community.

Determination—A leader provides the energy and focus to get people moving and keep them on track.

Competence—This includes not just the ability to do things correctly but the self-confidence to do so smoothly, in a way that reassures other people they’re in good hands.

Patience—Effective leaders allow for calm handling of delays and difficulties, as well as teaching people.

Honor—People can look up to a leader who is worthy of their respect and who behaves with integrity.

Vision—A leader illuminates a path from where we are to where we want to be, and inspires people to follow it even through the rough spots.

A sense of humor—This eases tensions, fosters connection, and discourages harmful forms of pride.

Communication—Necessary for most community functions, this is a fundamental ability to gather information, guide meetings, talk people into doing things, and mend misunderstandings.

Problem-solving—A good leader can recognize signs of trouble, identify the source, and take steps to fix it.

Resource management—This entails fundraising, gathering tools and supplies, finding volunteers, and using them efficiently to meet established goals.

A well-calibrated bullshit detector—A leader must be alert when people are trying to deceive her…or themselves.

Leadership Techniques

Leadership is not one skill but many. People sometimes learn the obvious ones but overlook more subtle aspects. Here are some useful techniques for community leadership:

● Learn what your neighbors do well. When assembling a team for a project, connect each task with a person who has relevant expertise.

● Find the work that needs to be done and take care of it. You know how people are always saying, “Somebody should do something about that”? Be “Somebody.”

● Always pad your budget and your timeframe. Things will go wrong; it’s your job to make sure the problems get buffered, so they don’t make matters worse.

● Watch for members whose skills are growing. Cheer for their progress. Offer them more responsibility.

● Watch for burnout. Be prepared to reduce or change someone’s tasks (including yours) to avoid this.

● Observe body language. If folks are leaning forward and nodding, you’re on the right track. If they’re fidgeting, it may be time to stop talking and switch to something else, like physical activities.

The intentional community movement offers numerous models of leadership. Some communities have one leader, or a small group of leaders. Some try to avoid the temptation of putting anyone in charge, instead sharing responsibility equally. How does your community assign (or withdraw) authority? Who organizes things, and why? What do members expect of the person(s) in charge? What do the leaders get, and what do they give? How well does your system work for you? Discussing these and related topics can help a community fine-tune their leadership structure so that it works for everyone.


Several friends gather to disassemble a fallen tree. A chainsaw growls in the background as we work on breaking up the smaller twigs and branches for kindling. Sometimes I help hold the bigger branches to be cut by handsaw or chainsaw. Upon request I fetch and carry gloves, earplugs, and water bottles. Later, I retire early to the house and start supper for the team.

People often discuss leadership without ever touching on followship. Followers are as essential as leaders, because leaders can’t lead if nobody follows. Similarly, if the leaders outnumber the followers, nothing gets done because of too many arguments over who’s in charge. Ideally, people have both leadership and followship skills so that they can switch roles.

Good followers enable leaders to accomplish great things. The leader supplies the direction, and the followers provide the motile power. Bad followers don’t provide enough power, or pull in different directions, or support wretched ideas as well as good ideas. So a leader really depends on having good followers. Many communities teach and reward that kind of teamwork, which helps expand our skills.

Qualities of a Good Follower

Leaders and followers share some of the same virtues, while others differ. A follower’s qualities should complement those of a leader. Not all followers necessarily show all of these qualities, and there are other qualities, but these can help identify people with followship potential.

Humility—A humble follower helps leaders relax, because they don’t have to worry about that person trying to take over their position. The modern mainstream culture pushes success to excess, often pressuring people to “get ahead” and “be a star” even if they hate being the center of attention or being in charge. Humility means deriving contentment from who you are and what you do without feeling compelled to reach for the pinnacle. Not everyone is, can be, or should be a leader. If people’s personality, skills, and desires suit them to be followers, they should take satisfaction in that. Explore until they find a level and area of responsibility that feels comfortable.

Loyalty—Loyal followers support a chosen cause or leader through good times and bad times. They stick around when others leave, and won’t switch sides as long as the cause is just or the leader honorable. This helps minimize turnover, which can strain communities.

Honesty—The best followers display excellent communication skills. They speak the truth gently if possible, firmly if necessary. They give an honest opinion of ideas and people.

Integrity—Good followers can be trusted to carry large sums of money or use equipment responsibly. They will keep an embarrassing secret, but not one that could harm innocents. They carry out honorable instructions in honorable ways; they won’t lie, steal, or cheat to accomplish goals.

Reliability—This means getting things done right, on time. Be organized. Only promise what can be delivered, and always deliver it. If necessary, find a substitute to cover responsibilities.

Utility—The most useful followers are competent, confident, and good at diverse skills. They avoid false modesty and their community knows what they do well.

Flexibility—An effective follower finds ways to make things work. Be willing to implement whatever is assigned. Be prepared; expect the unexpected. Adapt to changing circumstances.

Synergy—This precious ability enables a follower to combine the available people and resources to best effect, creating a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. The synergist may be an expert teambuilder or ceremony coordinator, unifying what the leader provides.

Followship Techniques

Like leadership, followship spans a variety of skills and methods. By learning and teaching these, we can expand the pool of good followers in community. Here are some things you can do as a follower.

● Support your leader’s ideas. Voice agreement; also use body language by nodding or leaning forward. Speak well of your leader to others.

● Accept direction from your leader. When asked to do something reasonable, do it without hesitation. This helps avoid the awkward scenario caused by everyone waiting for someone else to move first.

● When volunteers are requested and your skills match, step forward. Volunteering strengthens community bonds.

● Ask the right questions. If you don’t understand what is needed, seek to clarify the needs and processes. If a proposal is under discussion, ask questions to reveal its strengths and weaknesses.

● Disagree constructively. Don’t let a bad plan or improper request pass unremarked. In problem-solving sessions, open, vigorous discussion promotes effective solutions—even if people argue a lot before reaching conclusions. Otherwise, it’s usually best to deliver criticism in private, and praise in public. Avoid saying things publicly that could discredit your leader or their plans, unless the situation poses a danger. Save face as much as practical without allowing real harm, because when people feel threatened they tend to switch from problem-solving to defensiveness.

● Build consensus. Bolster teamwork. Seek suitable people and encourage them to get involved.

● When following instructions, pay attention to the spirit as well as the letter of the instructions. Deliver what your leader wants and needs, not just what they said.

● Pay attention to everything around you. Be observant. Report interesting details, task progress, potential problems, and possible solutions.

● Listen actively. Serve as a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on. Good listeners are valuable.

● Take care of your leader. Many leaders are “big picture” people who easily forget small details while focused on wider issues. If necessary, pick up cell phones, ensure notes are in order, or remind your leader to eat and sleep regularly. Divert unnecessary distractions; encourage people to handle things within their own responsibility.

● Remember that your leader is only human. Allow for some mistakes and flaws; accept apologies with grace. Do what you can to compensate for weaknesses and encourage improvement. Be patient with growth processes.

As you did with leadership, now think about followship in your community. Who are the followers? How are they chosen? Are the followers good at what they do? Are they always the same people? Do they want more responsibility, or do they prefer following to leading? What does your community do to thank people who take this role? By discussing these and similar topics, you can help make sure that people feel satisfied with their role in community and that they have opportunities to shift around so they don’t get bored.

Developing Skills

The drums make pleasant thunder as we strive to stay in rhythm, one eye on our neighbors, one eye on the workshop leader. He guides us only by hand signals, not words—we respond by intuition, speeding or slowing. Afterward he explains how this type of drum workshop builds teamwork skills.

Intentional communities depend on the membership having a good balance of leadership and followship skills. Because our values may differ from those of the mainstream, people haven’t always had a chance to learn the interpersonal and organizational skills needed in community. In order to meet our needs, we need to teach those skills so that residents and guests can get along and accomplish their goals. Conferences, festivals, and workshops provide formal opportunities to learn both leadership and followship skills. However, a lot of education in community happens on a casual, everyday basis.

Understand that there are better and poorer ways of teaching, and that not all methods work equally well for all teachers, students, or topics. One mistake is to let people volunteer to lead a project without providing any guidance, which can lead to fumbling and failure. A better approach is to pair a new volunteer with an experienced member who can teach what they wish to learn. As people gain experience, they may take on new responsibilities so that they remain challenged and invested in their work. Also remember that leaders may get tired and want to let someone else take charge for a while. That’s a good time for them to focus on a followship skill they want to improve.

For best results, learn from both good and bad examples. Which classes or workshops have you enjoyed the most? Which ones did you hate? What techniques do you find most effective? What gets in the way of learning, community, productivity, or just plain fun? How can you avoid making the same mistakes that you’ve seen other people make? How can you make skill development enjoyable and effective? Do your members know how to lead and how to follow? Do they know how to get things done in an egalitarian group? When planning educational activities or pairing teachers and students in your community, discuss these points together.

As a general rule, treat other people with respect, whether they serve as leaders or followers or both. Consider how they wish to be treated; for instance, some people like attention while others don’t. Also think about how you prefer to be treated; it may not always be the same as other people’s preferences, but it’s a good starting point. Avoid doing things to others that annoy you when someone does them to you.

Look for ways to strengthen community ties. If you admire an experienced person, ask them to teach you something. If you’re organizing a project, invite skilled people to help with it. Get together and discuss your community’s skill set. What’s missing? Where could your members gain those skills? Reach out to your friends in other communities—whatever it is, somebody knows how to do it!

One Reply to “Balancing Powers”


This article is a great beginning, and I appreciate your taking the time to share your learnings. I felt a sense of relief in imagining the possibilities of having better leaders in my own community.

I can also see there is much more possible. There’s no space here to go into _what_ the possibilities are, but here are some qualities those possibilities might include. A great leader’s toolset:

–is useable by people on the left or the right
–increases effectiveness, not simply profits (if a business tool) or not simply temporary “good feeling,” but of both simultaneously and lastingly
–leaves you with more energy after you used it than you started with

If our leaders’ tools don’t meet all these criteria, we can look for better ones. They’re out there. Seem impossible? I wouldn’t have believed it until I found them, but now I have and I’m amazed at what I’ve found.

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