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Developing Leadership


What do we mean by this process?

Developing Leadership is a process of enabling, enhancing, focusing, and sustaining engagement of people in a common purpose. This process creates opportunities for people affected by a problem and other stakeholders to participate, build relationships, and have influence on the change effort. Sometimes leaders are full-time paid staff responsible for organizing and managing partnership activities. In grassroots initiatives, leaders may be volunteers who organize and mobilize community members around a common concern. When groups engage in Developing Leadership, they enable diverse individuals and organizations to be involved in a range of program activities (e.g., planning, implementation, evaluation) to work together toward common goals.

Developing Leadership is a key process to help communities mobilize for targeted action and intervention.

How It Works

Developing Leadership is central to mobilizing sustainable efforts for change and improvement (Foster-Fishman, Berkowitz, Lounsbury, Jacobson, & Allen, 2001). Leadership is often reported as the most critical organizational factor for a partnership's effectiveness in creating community and system change (Roussos & Fawcett, 2000). Overall, Developing Leadership can help create (a) community buy-in, ("I want to be part of this") (b) Community empowerment ("We can bring about change and improvement"), (c) a sense of inclusiveness ("We are in this together"), and (d) a sense of personal efficacy ("I can change things") and collective efficacy ("Together, we can make a difference").

Although the functional mechanisms have not been explicitly tested, Developing Leadership may help groups to:

  • Activate community residents and organizations to support and become involved in subsequent action (Hogan & Murphey, 2002; Merzel & D'Affliti, 2003; Kegler & Wyatt, 2003; Parker et al., 1998). Diverse representation and involvement can enable different types of member contributions to the variety of tasks needed over time (Kreuter, Lezin, & Young, 2000).
  • Increase access to and enable oppressed, stigmatized, and/or hidden populations to contribute to defining and addressing socially-important problems (Minkler & Wallerstein, 2003; Schultz et al., 2003; Cheatam & Shen, 2003).
  • Develop a sense of community ownership for shared responsibility and action (Kegler & Wyatt, 2003).
  • Engage other leaders by framing and communicating the vision and mission of the partnership to a broad range of stakeholders (e.g., Nezlek & Galano, 1993).
  • Diversify the leadership team to include a variety of people and skills that can represent and address community needs and be less vulnerable to manipulation or dissolution (e.g., Kegler, Steckler, Malek, & McLeroy, 1998: Ploeg et al., 1996). For example, too many professionals can result in efforts that delay local action; whereas, groups that are not sufficiently broad-based may have difficulties overcoming vested interests.
  • Increase the penetration and reach of interventions by connecting more people to intervention programs, thereby improving chances for tapping into existing social networks (Kegler & Wyatt, 2003) and achieving a population-level impact (Merzel & D'Affliti, 2003).
  • Increase member satisfaction, broaden community participation, and improve overall functioning of the initiative by using democratic and consensus decision-making methods (e.g., Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998; Rogers et al., 1993).
  • Sustain rates of community change (Roussos & Fawcett, 2000). Studies also indicate an increase in community change when new leadership has strong social ties to affected communities (Lewis et al., 1999).

Empirical and Experiential Evidence

Leadership - activated across people and organizations - is a critical factor associated with successful community initiatives. Continuity of leadership has been consistently associated with high levels of community change (Fawcett et al., 1997; Roussos & Fawcett, 2000). By contrast, a change in leadership to those with strong social ties to affected communities may also facilitate change (Lewis et al., 1999).

In a study among five neighborhood partnerships addressing youth development, the three projects with no leadership opportunities for participants did not survive into the second implementation year. By contrast, those with shared leadership for adults and youth to lead different activities had the highest levels of mobilization (e.g., meetings, attendance, member input into action plan) (Kegler & Wyatt, 2003). In another study, the San Francisco Transgender Community Health Project relied on community members' involvement to develop protocols and assessment instruments to document social problems such as suicide and high levels of HIV infection, and also identify and activate community strengths. As a result, the project helped secure funding for new health and prevention services, improve protection against gender discrimination, change gender categories on existing data collection forms, and pave the way for a San Francisco Health Department resolution to improve that system's sensitivity for handling the health care needs for transgender people (Clements-Nolle & Bachrach, 2003).

In a study of public-private partnerships in the Community Care Network (CCN), Shortell et al. (2002) examined factors accounting for progress and successful implementation. In addition to focus (See Establishing Vision and Mission) as well as partnership management and operations (See Defining Organizational Structure and Operating Mechanisms), investigators identified three components of leadership that tended to differentiate sites making the most progress from those making the least progress: (1) Committed core leadership, (2) A consistent "organizational driver," and (3) Subsidiary leadership. Sites making the most progress had a dedicated executive director and an organization that provided stability and legitimacy for the effort. They also regularly delegated to people and groups closest to a given problem the authority and resources to address needs and concerns. For example, in a Midwest partnership, (a) the executive director provided strong and established connections to community partners, (b) directors of the local hospital and health department convened different sectors of the community and negotiated terms of collaboration and handling conflict, and (c) other members designed and implemented key projects such as an intensive case management program. By contrast, partnerships that lacked the ability to make progress toward their vision lacked one or multiple components of leadership. One southern partnership experienced three different coordinators over a three-year period. No single person appeared to lead the effort. I addition, in the first year, organizational leadership changed from a one-county community agency to a nine-county university. Amidst potential expansion and lack of applied focus, tasks became predominantly staff driven, and subsidiary leadership withdrew from the effort.

Implications for Research and Practice

At present, much of the information available on Developing Leadership does not explicitly manipulate or test this process and its effects on community change and improvement. Although this process has been identified as a key ingredient for advancing change, there is a need for more systematic evaluations of its implementation and effects. Such research would provide a better understanding of the factors that enable communities to come together and address shared problems and goals.

Some key research questions include: (a) What strategies enable stigmatized and vulnerable populations to participate in community change and improvement efforts? (b) What is the optimal configuration of a leadership team (e.g., community members, agency and organizational leaders, youth) for addressing different community change missions (e.g., service provision, policy change)? And (c) Under what conditions do lead or sponsoring organizations enable community change and improvement?

Overall Recommendation for Practice

Based on research and experience, we highly recommend Developing Leadership as a key process to advance community change and improvement.