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Section 8. Learning From and Contributing to Constituents

Learn how to effectively work with your organization’s members to create something greater than what individuals working alone could have thought possible.


  • The role of the leader

  • The role of constituents

  • Working together

Leadership is a transaction between leaders and followers. Neither could exist without the other. Leaders pay attention as well as catch it. Even though they are commanding figures, the interaction between leader and led is far more complicated than the simple command: they each bring out the best in the other. The new style of leadership is not arbitrary or unilateral, but rather an impressive and subtle sweeping back and forth of energy, whether between maestro and musicians or CEO and staff. The transaction creates unity. Conductor and orchestra are one....That unified focus flows from the communication of a vision.

-Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith, Learning to Lead

A lot has been written about leaders: growing them, grooming them, maintaining them, ousting them. But leadership doesn't occur in a vacuum. Presidents preside over people; speeches are given to spectators, else they remain unknown. And in many ways, it is the strength and actions of the people they lead that pave a leader's path to greatness.

In short, leadership is a two-way street. In the best of worlds, leaders and their constituents work together to get things done. By constituents, we mean those who follow the leader; the term includes both those who may work for or under the leader (for example, the staff of an organization) and also the target population the leader is trying to help. Together, the leader and her constituents create a synergistic whole; the one providing inspiration and guidance, the other the energy and power to accomplish things. And those qualities go both ways – sometimes the followers provide the inspiration. Different types of power might be provided by leaders and constituents in the same situation.

Also, the roles of leader and follower aren't set in stone. Instead, they follow a more fluid continuum. They change from situation to situation and from day to day. For example, the executive director of an organization may be a follower to the communications director when discussing the new newsletter, the leader at an organization-wide meeting discussing the group's action plan, and a follower in the cooking course she is taking at night.

In this section we will look closely at this relationship, and discuss ways to smooth out the wrinkles that will naturally occur. The relationship between a leader and his or her constituents has its peaks and valleys, its opportunities and challenges, as does any personal relationship. To better understand these, we'll look specifically at the leader's role in working with constituents, and we'll touch on the part those constituents play as well. Then, we'll round the section out with a discussion of how they can work together most effectively.

The role of the leader

As we've seen throughout this chapter, leadership is a complex phenomenon. It occurs on many levels, and involves many things. Many of the attributes of leadership are talked about in other sections of this chapter. For example, communicating a vision, identifying needs, and making decisions are all things that an effective leader does continuously.

Of course, a leader doesn't do all of this alone. By definition, a leader is someone who is followed by others. The leader needs someone to communicate the vision to; to identify the needs of people or of groups of people; and to make decisions that will affect his or her constituents.

As such, the leader is inexorably linked with the people who follow her. But how does that (or, perhaps more important, how should that) play out in day-to-day contact between individuals? What is the role of the leader when looked at in the context of working with her constituents? There are four things that we believe are central to the leader's work with her constituents:

  • Listening to constituents
  • Responding to their hopes and concerns
  • Inspiring constituents to thought and action with his or her own vision or ideals
  • Delegating work

How does a leader do these things? Let's look in some depth at each of them.

Listening to constituents

To lead, you need to first understand the people who will be led. And so learning to listen--and listen well – is a critically important attribute for a leader to have. As President Woodrow Wilson once said, "The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people."

Two techniques a leader can use to become a better listener are active listening and nonverbal communication.

Active listening

Most people can hear fairly well. Fewer, however, really know how to listen. Listening is simply a more active phase of hearing. It makes good communication and understanding possible. By active listening, we mean paying full attention to what a person is saying, thinking about their comments, and asking questions or making comments that reflect the thought you are putting into what they are saying. It's both an art and a skill, and it takes practice to do it effectively.

Tips for active listening:

  • Maintain eye contact. This is simple but very important; it's one of the most basic ways of showing attention.
  • Pay attention to your facial expressions and body language. They might be sending a message very different from the one you intend.
  • Try to start sentences with "I" instead of "You." This is less threatening to the listener.

Importance of using "I"

It is usually a good idea to start sentences with "I" instead of "You" when you want to get a point across. It offers a soft way for confrontation and correction. That's because "I" is perceived as being gentler than "you." For example, compare the following two statements:

You really aren't making any sense at all.
I'm having a very hard time understanding what you are talking about.

The second statement is easier for the listener to respond to, because it doesn't attack him directly. Of course, there are exceptions – for example, "I think you are stupid" probably will put the listener directly on the defensive. So be sure to watch your language in general, too.

  • Using disclosure. Sometimes, it can be helpful to show the listener that you understand where they are coming from. For example, if they are describing a problem in their office, it can be helpful to explain how you have worked through the same difficulties.
  • Use statements that validate and support what the person is talking about. Comments such as "I can tell you have put a lot of thought into this proposal," or "It sounds like you are doing a good job in a very difficult situation," can help people feel more comfortable in talking about what's on their minds.
  • Be quiet. It seems obvious, but remember – you can't talk and listen at the same time.
  • Remove distractions – don't doodle, tap your pen, or shuffle papers.
  • Try to put yourself in the other person's place. How would you feel in the same situation? Try to understand their point of view.
  • Be patient. Some people talk very quickly; others will open up more slowly. Allow people the time to say what they need to say, and try not to interrupt.
  • Hold your temper. By arguing or criticizing people, you will most likely just put the talker on the defensive.
  • Ask questions. This encourages the talker to continue, helps you get a better grasp of what he or she thinks, and, of course, it will demonstrate that you are really listening and trying to understand what you have heard.
  • Summarize what you have heard. Again, this very simple technique can result in a huge payoff. Sometimes, just repeating back the gist of what someone has said can help them to clarify what they are thinking.
  • Use "minimal encouragers." These are small comments that let the listener know you are "with them" without interrupting the flow of what you are saying. Examples are "Aha," "I see," "Go on," and, "Mm-hhmm."

Nonverbal communication

Another important part of listening is hearing what people don't say – that is, what their body language tells you. Nonverbal communication is always present – we're always telling people things with our expressions, how we move our arms, et cetera, even if we don't realize what we are doing. And even if it's not done consciously, people pay attention. Some research suggests that 70, 80, even up to 90 percent of what we communicate to others is said without words. And so, by paying attention to the basics of nonverbal communication, leaders can listen to their followers much more thoroughly than if they just hear the words.

What are some of the characteristics of nonverbal communication? First of all, it's important to remember that much of it is culturally derived – what people do varies in meaning from culture to culture. For example, in American culture, we find people "suspicious" or think that they are hiding something if they don't look us in the eye. However, in some Asian cultures, direct eye contact when you are speaking with someone is considered to be very rude.

It's also almost impossible not to use nonverbal communication. (Have you ever tried to quit blushing?) Whether we like it or not, it's an everyday part of the way we "talk" as well as "listen."

One of the challenges with nonverbal communication is that there isn't a dictionary. You can't look something up to see what it means, and it may be difficult to ask for clarification. It can also be embarrassing, because you can't always control it. For example, we may start to sweat when we're nervous – certainly not something we're trying to do!

Responding to constituents' hopes and concerns

Once the leader has listened and tried to understand what followers think and want, the next step is to respond to these hopes and concerns. A couple of points are particularly important here.

First, leaders need to be very careful to wield their influence wisely and honorably. The power a leader has gives the capability to do a lot of harm as well as good. She will make decisions that affect many people, for better or worse. Therefore, she will need to be thoughtful and careful in her actions, making sure she helps people for the right reasons, and that she understands as well as possible the side effects her actions will have.

Second, a leader will often be in the position of needing to chose between competing wants and desires. For example, in a group with a limited amount of money (and very few community groups don't fall under that umbrella), the group's leader may need to decide between different equipment needed by different staff members. How can she best make this decision?

Part of this, of course, is using influence carefully, as we discussed above. Another partial answer might be to try to make the decision in a group, with all of the people involved discussing what would be best for the organization. The leader might also ask what sacrifices the would-be winner might be willing to make in exchange for obtaining this resource.

These are, of course, only part of the story. Responding to hopes and concerns is one of the challenges of leadership. It is sometimes pretty easy (and enjoyable, if you can give people what they want!), and sometimes more difficult. Unfortunately, however, there aren't any set guidelines or easy answers as to how to do it. By working justly with constituents and through good old-fashioned practice, though, it should start to come together for you.

Inspiring constituents to thought and action with his or her own vision or ideals

Another part of the leader's role with his or her constituents is inspiring them to thought and action. How can a leader inspire others – get the fire going under them and convince them to do the hard work necessary to achieve success?

One way is through personal modeling of the behavior that you would like to see constituents undertake. It's the old idea of leading by example. For example, if you really want people to come in on Saturdays, you probably should do it yourself. If you really want to organize the neighborhood, you might want to be out on the streets mixing it up with people.

A good example is the story of Herb Kelleher, the CEO of Southwest Airlines. It's said that he will work the baggage claim for the airline on Thanksgiving and Christmas. More local examples are a volunteer crisis clinic where the director works hard -to-fill shifts on holidays, or the head of an organization who is the first to sign up to give blood in a local drive.

The leader should also be an ethical model for the people he/she is working with. The leader might make independent moral choices, even very courageous ones, and stick with them. For example, he might choose to support a very unpopular candidate for city government because he believes that candidate will do the best job, even if that support could harm his own reputation. Or she might go out of her way for someone, doing things that are above and beyond the call of duty. For example, if a trusted volunteer has applied for a job where the leader knows people, she might independently call friends at that organization to recommend hiring that volunteer.

Delegating work

Delegation – the sharing of work among people at the organization – is at the very heart of working with constituents. But by delegate, we don't just mean the leader says, "do this," or, "do that." Rather, the idea that we want to get across is that when you apportion the work, you want to do so in a way that strengthens and empowers the person who will be doing the task to the full extent that is possible. A good leader uses opportunities to share work to strengthen his or her team, and to help members grow in their work without unduly pressuring them with tasks they can't handle.

It's not easy. There's a fine line between "too much" and "not enough" work and responsibility. The leader needs to walk a careful tightrope here. However, by following the step-by-step method outlined below, it's more likely that the process will be successful.

Find out what needs to be done

For example, perhaps the organization wants to become financially sustainable. The leader knows that this will include developing a strategic plan that will help the group generate a constant flow of revenue.

Divide work into manageable tasks

The leader doesn't need to do this alone; instead, it makes sense that she might discuss with others what makes most sense. The first step is very broad; but how does the organization actually want to become financially sustainable? Through grants? By offering some services on a fee-for -service basis? Through investments?

In this case, the organization's leader might work together with members of his board or financial sustainability committee to decide on the best strategies for the organization, and what specifically needs to be done to carry them out.

Decide who would be the best person to tackle each task

This, too, is often done together with others, as part of a work group; the leader doesn't have to go it alone here. You might identify several people who would be a good fit for each job before you ask them to help. That way, you're ready with a back-up plan if your first choice doesn't work out. It also allows some breathing room – if the person can't or doesn't want to do the job, there is less pressure on them to do it anyway.

When deciding whom to ask, consider people with some experience, but who would be "stretched" by the opportunity as well. That allows growth, and keeps people from getting bored with their work and the organization.

Communicate that decision to the chosen person(s), using all of your infinite tact and charm

Depending on the organization this may be an order or, more often, it will take the form of request. In either case, reciprocity may be an important part of it.

Explain completely what you are asking the person to do

Here, the leader should be specific and give a lot of details. This will include what you want them to do, by when they should do it, what support is available, and why you want them to do it.

Help the person(s) best do the job possible

If you are asking someone to do something that will be challenging to them, there is certainly a chance that they will fail. And that failure can lead to discouragement, which could lead to future failures as well. By giving appropriate support, you minimize the chances of that happening. Not only will that help your group in the short term, you are also effectively increasing the capacity of your organization to do more and better things in the future. You are enabling that person, and by extension your organization, to move towards even greater success.

How can you best support the person in his or her work? The following four suggestions can help:

  • Make sure that the original instructions you give are clear, easily followed, and complete.
  • Stay in touch with that person, in a friendly and supportive way. An effective leader doesn't simply delegate work and disappear – she sticks around and helps the person throughout the entire process.
  • Ensure or create the right conditions for optimal task performance. For example, make sure people have a pleasant work space, plenty of supplies, enough time, flexibility, accessibility to you or others who can be helpful, and that they are allowed some individual decision-making.
  • Monitor performance, and adjust your instructions as necessary. But be careful not to overdo this, so that you become heavy-handed; nor to under-do it, so that things get sloppy. It's finding and maintaining the right balance that is the mark of a leader who is skilled at working with constituents, an accomplishment that requires finely-honed sensitivity, as well as grace.

How else can you, as a leader, support your followers in their work?

Thank them!

Everyone likes to be appreciated. When someone has done a good job or really put a lot of effort into their work, be sure to let them know how much their work means to the organization. You can thank people in many ways--by saying thanks, by giving them a small gift, or taking them out to lunch, to give three examples.

Spread out the work

Don't ask the same people over and over again. Instead, try to offer different opportunities to a variety of individuals. Again, this keeps work interesting for people, and enhances the capacity of the organization as a whole.

The role of constituents

The terms constituents and followers sometimes have negative connotations in our society. We often think of those who follow blindly; who timidly accept without question what others tell them. Nazi Germany is perhaps the most brutal example of this phenomenon; others exist as well. Think of cult members stuffing their pockets with quarters before committing suicide; of other Americans simply watching quietly as Japanese-Americans were placed in interment camps during World War II. Followership, as it may be termed, doesn't seem to have a very good name.

But it doesn't have to be that way. What author Ira Chaleff calls "the courageous follower" is a role of distinction. All of us are followers in some parts of our lives. And so, we should try to fulfill that role, as we do our role as leaders, with enthusiasm and grace. Some things that can be done to be a courageous follower are:

  • Show initiative. The French political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel said, "A society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves." As followers, we must be active, not passive, in working to hold leaders accountable and to help them in obtaining mutually-agreed upon goals.
  • Assume responsibility. This includes personal responsibility – doing what you say you will do – as well as responsibility for the group as whole. As members we are also accountable for what the group does.
  • Hold leadership accountable. Challenge the leader's policies or behaviors if they are harmful to the common purpose. A good example of a group of citizens who do this is the membership of Common Cause. Common Cause works for open, accountable government and the right of all citizens to be involved in shaping our nation's public policies.
  • Recognize that leaders are human. They will make mistakes. It's true that we should hold our leaders accountable. At the same time, we need to recognize the humanity that binds us together. We cannot expect perfection from our leaders any more than we can expect it from ourselves.
  • Take on a leadership role, when appropriate. The trick, of course, is knowing when to slip from the role of an active follower to leader. There's not a definite point at which this should be done, but it makes sense that when something needs to be done and you are capable (not only in terms of skills, but also in terms of having the time and energy to do so), you should step up.
  • Leave, when necessary. There are times when, as a follower, you find the organization or your leaders going in a very different direction from that which you believe in. As a conscientious follower, you can and should speak up, and offer your view of "the way things should be." But sometimes, that's not going to change things. It's important to realize that there may be a moment when, because of your beliefs or views, you will be unable in good conscience to continue following a leader. At this point, it may well be time to make a break, and do what you feel needs to be done.

Working together

When an organization is effective, there exists a type of symbiosis between the leader and his or her followers. But even more that that, when the leader listens, responds, inspires, and delegates well, there's a kind of synergy that occurs. Leader and follower can each bring out the best in the other; they can elevate each other – both in terms of spirit and in terms of the work they do. Leadership of this kind can elevate us behaviorally, in terms of our moral and spiritual development, too. It becomes leadership of the highest order.

When looking at our common work, several things are apparently very important in understanding the duality of this relationship:

  • An understanding that each role shapes the other. That is, what the leader does will affect followers’ thoughts and actions, and vice versa. The two roles aren't independent; as in a marriage, each individual will feed and grow off what the other does.
  • The importance of seeing the other as a human being, not simply in respect to her role. It's important that we understand there is a person behind the "boss" or the "disgruntled employee." By looking at the whole person, we have a better view of what's really going on when he says or does something.
  • The importance of working together in a climate of mutual respect. Although one person may have some control or authority over the other, it's important that respect goes both ways. If the leader doesn't hold followers in high regard, two things are lost. First, chances are good that the followers will hold the leader in less high esteem, too. Also, the leader is robbing herself of followers’ gifts and skills that she will never know about.
  • An appropriate level of decision making. How much structure should there be in the relationship? How much autonomy should followers have? There are no easy answers to these questions; individual situations will call for different responses from both leaders and constituents.

Leaders might do well to remember, however, that Americans, in particular, tend to be distrustful of authority; in many cases, a lighter hand and/or more group decision making are often effective choices.

  • An understanding of the common purpose that draws them together. As the saying goes, "keep your eyes on the prize." By remembering our goals – what we are working together to achieve – we can find it easier to get beyond the everyday frustrations that naturally occur as we work with other people.

In Summary

Working with constituents is one of the most challenging tasks of leadership. It is also, however, one of the most rewarding. A leader who understands how to effectively work with constituents is able to create something magical--something greater than what individuals working alone could have thought possible.

Jenette Nagy

Online Resources

Common Cause is a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen's lobbying organization promoting open, honest, and accountable government. Supported by the dues and contributions of over 250,000 members in every state across the nation, Common Cause represents the unified voice of the people against corruption in government and big money special interests.

Print Resources

Berkowitz, W. R., & Wolff, T. J. (1999). The spirit of the coalition. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association.

Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Chaleff, I. (1995). The courageous follower. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Covey, S. R. (1992). Principle-centered leadership. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Gardner, J.W. (1989). On leadership. New York, NY: Free Press.

Matusak, L. R. (1997). Finding your voice: Learning to lead...Anywhere you want to make a difference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.