Developing leaders in a community requires a combination of boldness and humility, as well as a willingness to recognize how the strengths of other people can fill in gaps left by your own weaknesses. This was the message Paul Schmitz, CEO of Public Allies, Member of the White House Council on Community Solutions, and author Everyone Leads; Building Leadership from the Community Up, shared with more than 600 grantmakers, nonprofits, and advisors at Donors Forum's 38th Annual Luncheon on June 28. A key part of Mr. Schmitz’s message is that everyone has the potential to lead. “Leadership is like a muscle, and we all have it. It only gets stronger with exercise,” he said. “There are lots of people with undeveloped leadership muscles in our communities.”
Mr. Schmitz, who received a standing ovation after his talk, recommended that funders and nonprofit organizations take an asset-based approach to their work and not attempt to serve communities by bringing their perceived strengths to fill in a community’s perceived weaknesses. He said that people become cynical if leaders do not seem interested in what others think, if they do not engage others, and if they don’t admit their own mistakes. He added that a leader has two options — openly discuss their weaknesses with their community, or not admit their weaknesses and have their community discuss those weaknesses without them. The option they don’t have, he said, is to have their weaknesses go unnoticed.
Building up leaders requires seeing the potential in anyone, and recognizing that people from unconventional backgrounds can make significant contributions, Mr. Schmitz said. He shared stories of a single mother at a community college who rose to become a White House lawyer, and a deli clerk who is now a leader on disability rights. He also shared his own story of how he moved from odd jobs and dealing with depression as a teenager, to engaging with people who provided him with the ideas and opportunities he needed to play a role in his community. “I never imagined I would be an adviser to the president of the United States or a leader to 400 people. My own journey is what makes me passionate,” Mr. Schmitz said.
Building a community full of leaders is necessary, he added, because it is through such communities that real change happens. He added that crediting things such as the civil rights movement to a handful of individuals ignores the contributions of scores of leaders and the work they did to galvanize their community and to act as a bridge that helped groups build trust with national leaders. Without those people in communities, Mr. Schmitz said, significant change cannot happen. For example, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom did not draw 200,000 people simply on invitation of national leaders — it took work at all levels to call people together and work through networks that had been developed over decades, he said.
Mr. Schmitz then asked the audience to develop the blend of confidence and humility that prepares individuals for leadership in both the streets and the executive suites. He said organizations should ask themselves “What are you doing to invest in leadership as part of that solution? How are you working with your organization and other organizations to build leadership at every level? The solution requires leadership, and it’s all of our job.”
— Jason Hardy, Member Services Support