Situational Leadership

Greg Owen never thought of himself as a leader; and I’m sure today he still doesn’t. But he a man who who saw an opportunity to help others in his community and took advantage it, for no other reason than he thought he could. His story is inspirational, aspirational and just plain unfathomable. It shows what a regular person, like you and I, can do if they choose to do it. Please, please read his story here.

In 1986, John Gage, then of Sun Microsytems, organized NetDay in California. NetDay was a historic grassroots effort in the classic American barn-raising tradition. Using volunteer labor, the goal was to install all the wiring needed to make five classrooms and a library or a computer lab in every school Internet-ready. If the same work was financed by taxpayers, it would cost more than $1,000 per classroom. Volunteers from businesses, education, and the community acquired the equipment, installed and tested it at each school site.

As a result, 20,000 volunteers helped to wire twenty percent of California schools to the Internet – all on one Saturday in March. By bringing together these diverse elements, NetDay established a framework for lasting partnerships among business, government, educational institutions, and local communities providing ongoing support for the schools to this day. In addition, by the end of 2001, just five years later­, NetDay events were held in 40 states and engaged more than 500,000 volunteers to wire more than 75,000 classrooms across the USA.

Stories like Greg Owen and John Gage are everywhere in our world. There’s teenagers Greta Thunberg and Billie Eilish providing the beacons of hope among their peers in a generation littered by uncertainty and crisis. Some we hear about, and some we don’t. Some are huge and affect our entire society … and some just a single neighborhood. Regardless the magnitude, regular people have enormous power to affect change, literally on their own.

No one elected these leaders to lead – they just stepped up and performed. And others around them saw the leadership in them and followed. This is the prescription for civic engagement and decentralized problem solving. The situation dictated that they were needed and they responded. There was no established hierarchy, nothing to inhibit true leaders rising to the top when their skills and drive dictated so. These are just people with a passion and an empathetic vested interest in the missions they chose to pursue.


Situational Leadership and the Power of Peers

Last month in the piece Consciousness of Community, I detailed a breakthrough comparison study that highlighted a group out of the University of Wisconsin who have theorized that consciousness is a function of foundational experiences we have that establish the architecture of our minds. I believe this theory can be extrapolated to describe underpinning working of our communities.

At the foundation of every community is its consciousness and what it stands for. This consciousness doesn’t come from governmental edict or legislation. It doesn’t come from its institutions. It comes from the values and expectations of its people and the norms that evolve from them. This foundation will determine a community’s actions and effectiveness of those actions as they address their needs and opportunities. This consciousness, the architecture, can either form on its own often through default from the actions of nefarious actors – or it can arise due to dedicated inclusive efforts of residents. These dedicated efforts are most effectively accomplished through the empowerment and nurture of well-meaning peer leaders and their use of Situational Leadership.

But how can we create the type of community consciousness that will help guide us in making the type of community we truly want to live in? Strategic micro-managing, haphazardly designed and implemented by politicians and civic officials, seldom lives up to the task and has proven time and time again to be bad policy. Even for those competent and well-intended, situations and circumstance change daily rendering even the best laid plans outdated almost immediately. While I don’t condone anarchy, there is a middle ground; one where a strategy is tempered with the realism of societal messiness and uncertainty. This is a direction that relies on the strengths of the entire community, not just a chosen few. It creates an infrastructure that nurtures the inherent talents of those in the community, across all socioeconomic levels and ages; and empowers them to rise and lead in a project-by-project manner. This situational leadership follows the example of Greg Owen, John Gage, Greta Thunberg and Billie Eilish.


Rhizomes and Civic Decentralization

How can we design our communities in a way that we encourage an inclusive journey of contribution and well-being for all our residents? How can we create environments where everyone has an opportunity to realize their place – whatever and wherever that may be? Resorting to traditional social and civic institutions and the hierarchies that reinforce them is not the solution. We need new alternatives – and what better place to look than in nature.

One of nature’s most effective means of sustainability is the rhizome. The rhizome is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes develop from axillary buds and grow perpendicular to the force of gravity. The rhizome also retains the ability to allow new shoots to grow upwards if resources permit. If a rhizome is separated into pieces, each piece may be able to give rise to a new plant – and a new node of above ground activity.

In 2016, during the construction of my blog series On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” I came across A Thousand Plateaus and the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari; specifically how rhizomes and their actions in nature can be extrapolated to visualize an alternative view of societal development.

“A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles … the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states … The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.” A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. (A Thousand Plateaus)

Deleuze and Guattari broke down their rhizomatic social philosophy into components. From these components we can engineer our version of a locally based civic engagement platform that nurtures inclusion, self-expression and permission on a community level.

  • Rhizome: Rather than using the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the single origin of “things” and towards its conclusion, a rhizome continually establishes connections between threads of meaningful communication, organizations of power, and other influences (including arts, sciences, and social struggles). The planar movement of rhizomes resists chronology and formal organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and proliferation. In this model, influence spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or in the application of a community – maximizing the resources available to it, regardless of type.
  • Nomad: Nomadism is a way of life that exists outside of the traditional organizational or societal norm (at least in modern times). The nomad is a way of being in the middle or between points. It is characterized by movement and change unfettered by systems of organization. The goal of the nomad is only to continue to move within the “intermezzo.” (the journey rather than the destination). This constant state activity prevents itself from existing for the sake of existing as conventional organizations and institutions most often do. Its purpose is to make things happen, to find opportunities and solutions; not just to “be.” This nomadic behavior also lends itself best to the individual, focusing on what interests them and where they can contribute most, rather than working within the constraints of a pre-defined, often inefficient, role or job. In short, being a nomad can greatly enhance ones sense of engagement and well-being. Or according to Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard – being the evolved man.”
  • Smooth Space: The platform or naked infrastructure on which the community and in turn the array of “need and opportunity based activities” operate is called the Smooth Space. This platform is not formally defined, but rather takes the form of the influences and experiences that inhabit it. These influences can include meaningful communications as well as social norms, ideals and community expectations. In the context of Community 3.0, the Smooth Space emanates from the Front Porches network, through members of the community who frequent them as they create the community’s societal norms. What a community does and creates with its Smooth Space will determine the well-being of its populace. It’s the Smooth Space that defines the community’s consciousness and personality created from the intangible, serendipitous, sensual and tactical engagements of all the members of its community (i.e. empathy, creativity, collaboration and self-actualization).
  • Body Without Organs: Body Without Organs is what happens on the Smooth Space. It is the result of what the rhizome social philosophy using the nomadic actions of its components (residents) operating on the Smooth Space. In itself the Body Without Organs has no form until the variables of the community are injected into it. The community’s overall state of well-being are the results of the interactions between its members, businesses and other organizations; it’s the Body Without Organs. It can take a conservative form or a progressive one. NIMBYism and gated communities or more communal. Tolerant and welcoming or closed and silos. Wall Street or Main Street. These actions built on the consciousness contained in its Smooth Space is who your community truly is.


Constructing the Smooth Space and Changing Attitudes

In the Billie Eilish piece I wrote a couple weeks ago, I introduced us to her as an example of what we should be looking for in our influencers and peer leaders. She advocates for the normalization of mental health, lead by example in the war against the sexualization of teenage girls, and worked with the mayor of Los Angeles to register and get out the young vote; all the time using empathy, connection and most of all love as her conduit to do it.

Billie, along with Greg Owen, are the exact people we need to nurture and protect in our communities. They show us examples of the Situational Leadership we need to break our addiction to institutional malaise. Neither Billie or Greg are probably cut out to be a governor or president or even a mayor – but no one wants them to be, least of which are them. But for the roles they’re playing – they are perfection. That is very definition of Situational Leadership.

Much discussion, especially in liberal circles, has been put into empowering the masses. This vision is that if everyone is given a chance these same “everyones” will rise up and create an equitable society. It’s a admirable cause, a bit utopian, but admirable nonetheless. But the truth is – not everyone has the potential or even the desire to rise up and be the next Greg Owen. Instead of focusing on only empowering everyone, how about we also focus on identifying the true impact players — and help them lead the way in their own idiosyncratic manner to better the world for all of us. What we should be doing is ferreting out those people, especially young people, who show themselves in unique ways to be able to rise and inspire others – instead of rewarding conformity and their ability to stay in the lane society has chosen for them. It should be everyone’s job to find these leaders among us and they get the support they need.

We need to reassess what we value as a society and in our communities. This will take a hard look at ourselves and what and who we have traditionally put on a pedestal. Our traditional norms and expectations are going to have to be challenged – since they too often don’t align with true leadership. We can’t continually fall prey to the inertia of hierarchy. We have to let the power of the consciousness of the Smooth Space and Situation Leadership take over.


Minions cartoon

Creating a Situational Leadership ecosystem


Determining Your Community’s Consciousness Vision

At the core of the transformation to Situational Leadership-based community is the vision or tenets. Laid out by a core group of you and fellow changemakers; it’s not so much a plan as it is a set of desired observations. How you get there will be dependent upon the foundational conscious or Smooth Space our community creates and the actions and engagements (Body Without Organs) that are laid on top of it. The development of both the Smooth Space and Body Without Organs will be spearheaded by the peer leaders in your communities we uncover and nurture. Components of your community’s conscious vision should include (but not limited to): empathy; inclusion; creative expression; designed and serendipitous engagement; and a permission to pursue for all residents, regardless of socioeconomic level, age or any other demographic labeling.


Creating Your Community’s Infrastructure

  • Front Porch network: Identify locally owned centers of current activity (commercial and other) that can be transformed into civic hubs of engagement working from peer leader efforts. Very often these will be small businesses. Enlist participation from prospective Front Porches through a combination of direct sales (via evangelists and peer leaders), public relations announcements and referrals through guerilla marketing efforts. Leverage the Front Porch owners (managers), employees and patrons to build your network’s Member base (specifically peer leader targets).
  • Member base: Build your community participant base via the efforts of your Front Porch network. Provide Member acquisition, training and guidance to Front Porch management and employees. Reach out to and organize in local high schools and colleges seeding younger generation volunteer movements (e.g. green and conservation actions). Use social media and public relations to identify specific community needs, opportunities to build cause actions around – and in turn act as Member recruiting vehicles. Use the Community 3.0 Member health and well-being Assessment (Three Pillars of Health) as a conduit to attract and spur Member participation – both individually and collectively.
  • Solutions (volunteer projects): Develop Solutions that address the components of the Vision Statement as well as building off the strengths and focuses of peer leaders (both enlisted and targets). Use your Front Porch network as the physical presence and base for Solution implementation as well bringing in a diverse offering of participants. Create a clearinghouse for Solution ideas from all people in your community to be implemented now and later as appropriate. Make dedicated efforts to diversify input socioeconomically and generationally. Use the The Art of Collaboration as a guide to flesh out the ideas and develop implementation strategies. Engage with other communities adopting the Community 3.0 model by sharing Solution ideas and execution techniques — as well as creating cross-community collaboration (regional and beyond).


Building the Peer Leader Team

Often hidden in weeds are the true leaders of your community – the ones people really follow. These are are your team of evangelists you will need to anchor your ground-up civic engagement efforts. Fight the urge to fall back on community icons from the status quo; instead identify key community segments (often underserved). Ferret out the influencers and solicit their input. The goal is finding that one key member that will contribute in outsized proportions.

  • Breakdown target segments and research peer leader prospects — connecting with the Solution project you’ve identified.
  • Identify the referral sources (Sourcers): Find people in public access position who see what is happening in the community. These aren’t necessary peer leaders as they are eyes to the community. Focus on referrals from the Front Porch network.
  • Recruit the referrals: Meet people where they are using their physical hubs (Front Porches). Offer the access to the system with the blessing of the entire Community 3.0 network.


Nurturing the Talent and Working the System

Journey of Engagements: Imagine a journey of permission and incremental engagements that specifically aim benefit each individual and the collective health and well-being of the community. This is not rigidly following a plan or adhering to a predetermined destination. It is recognizing the flow that arises from our appreciation for situational awareness and adjustments constantly needed due to the dynamic nature of our relationships.

  • Unique solutions: There are no “best case” solutions (since there is no one context); only engagements specific to one of multiple contexts and delivered in a decentralized manner. The specifics of the engagements that prove most beneficial are the ones most applicable to the parties involved and the situation at the time.
  • Stories of engagements provide context: Proper context is best arrived at through stories and anecdotes of our engagements as they depict unique situational alternatives that lay on the matrix of our community’s Smooth Space. And it’s with these stories we can manage the relationship that make up our community’s every-changing intermezzo.
  • The bleedingEDGE system: Enlist a personalized communication platform that nurtures these engagements. The platform uses the information gained from the Assessment upon Member onboarding and periodic updates and uses it to best direct the most applicable engagement suggestions (including where they come from) to each Member


Creating a Society Within Itself

“It is not necessary to tear down the old system … but rather to create a second system to which to flourish in.” ~ Nelson Mandela

“Current models for encouraging citizens to participate in civic life are geared around citizens influencing decisions making or servicing delivery, rather than individually or collectively making change themselves. This needs to change. Participation must enable citizens to take action rather than just have a conversation.” – Tessy Britton

Now the question is how do we build this new society, one that can function and flourish within the bounds of the greater one we see as grossly inadequate? And how do we build it by reestablishing the neighborhoods and communities that worked effectively in the past, yet rebuilding them on a base firmly planted in the technological world we live in now? However we have to look past how things have always been done. No longer should government and traditional institutions be looked at as the first line defense … rather should be looked at only as a last resort. Power must be decentralized, “Unlocking the Productivity of the People.” It won’t be the ones in power that voluntarily give it to us though. In fact, those in power will do everything to prevent that. Power must be acquired by “solving our community’s problems” in a situational manner, working around the “system” rather than tearing it down leaving only chaos in the aftermath.

We can make the change we need — but it won’t be by thinking the way we’ve always thought and doing what we’ve always done — the way we’ve always been done it.


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2 thoughts on “Situational Leadership

  1. Dear Clay,

    Wow. There’s a lot to unpack in your reflections. I hope that we can do some of that in our call. I was particularly struck by the metaphor of the rhizone. It’s a beautiful image for how we could build our communities. In a recent interview I had with a friend about his work in Colombia, he talked about the importance of “embodied language”. By that he meant the need to bring our language into our bodies and earth. I feel that in your invitation to build new societies it could be interesting to play with that idea. I often say that “knowing is not enough” when it comes to these complex situations. Thinking and acting differently requires us to be different which can raise all sorts of emotional reactions IF we are not grounded. That’s why I think another element to perhaps consider is the need to ground these conversations in “embodied language”.

    Your post also reminded me of a couple of things that I wanted to share with you and your readers in case you find them interesting: This group’s approach to community building resonates with your writing. If you don’t know of them, check it out. – I love how Lois and Fred frame community as an activity and not a place. I think that’s key for creating new types of activities/communities with each other. It’s also a way to build with what is instead of destroy it. – One of my favorite poems about treasuring the journey!

    Thank you for inviting us in your journey and being in ours.


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