Community Leadership

If we can grow strong collaborative servant leaders, strong communities will automatically follow.

Community Leadership - Abstract


More and more within the modern world, there is a recognition that the concept of community is important; and yet in the quest towards greater urbanisation and globalisation, communities are breaking down.  The creation of good communities requires good leadership.

Community Leadership


In my early years as a manager, I would not have been able to differentiate between my managerial role and that of leadership.  I was not aware of the special qualities of a good leader that can change organisations, communities and whole nations.  Leadership was not something that was taught and not something that was clearly understood.  Hierachical dictatorial leadership was modelled by those around.

During my career, different leadership roles in various organisations brought a growing understanding of the importance of people in creating special futures; and of the unique personal relationship that is required to create commitment to vision.  This was further enforced by the year spent based at Duke University in the United States as a Harkness Fellow, interviewing key US leaders and identifying the special characteristics that have made them successful leaders.  A picture emerged of people who cared deeply about those around them; who built trust and commitment to a mutual vision.  In particular, I was taken with Robert Greenleaf’s model of servant leadership; the leader who is servant first.  As I have come to realise the unique importance of leadership in creating successful organisations, communities and nations, the study and practice of leadership has become a passion.


More and more within the modern world, there is a recognition that the concept of community is important; and yet in the quest towards greater urbanisation and globalisation, communities are breaking down.  The creation of good communities requires good leadership.  It is within this context that I have considered in this essay just how such leadership might be provided.

In Auckland today, local government is building a new future.  There is a vision about the type of city that we want to be, how we want to grow, and how we can support that growth with infrastructure, including integrated passenger transportation, roading, stormwater, water and waste water, and social and community initiatives.  We have also identified those who will be responsible for implementing the required development .  Based upon consensus, clear vision and strategy to make it happen, and underpinned by sound process, it is a far cry from the Auckland experience of the past, where dissension and disagreement were the norm.

The change has been brought about by leadership: but the leadership of many rather than a few.  It has been brought about by the recognition of the strength of partnership, and of working together rather than dividing and falling. Local authorities are working together through a variety of fora, including the Mayoral Forum of elected leaders, the CEO’s Forum which works as management team for Auckland, and the Regional Growth Forum and the Regional Land Transport committee which are coordinated by the Auckland Regional Council. The cooperative model is now being expanded further with a newly developed partnership that has been developed with central government.

But it is not a complete leadership model for a strong community.  There is still a tension between the sectors; a distance between the public and private sectors, and another gulf between these and the non profit sectors such as the universities. There is also a gap in the understanding between the many cultures who make up our region.  Leadership is required to build a whole community and this must be based upon a clear understanding of the common values of that community.

We are all aware of the catch cry in our communities today as people face the range of issues that confront them; from growing crime, to problems with the health sector, to transport gridlock.  There is a lament of a loss of values, and a call for strong leadership.  In New Zealand, traditional institutions, such as the church, around which communities were once based, no longer play the major role that they once did, and politicians no longer engender the instant respect that was once their expectation.  There is therefore a search for a new type of leadership.  But what is leadership?

Ask those who seek leadership and one will usually receive a description of a strong character who seeks direction for others to follow.  Unfortunately, it has been more often than not these same strong characters who have been at the centre of conflict  with other strong characters.   In our modern world, the conflict tends to be fought in a council chamber or a court room or in the media; with winners and losers and often little progress towards required community outcomes.  In Auckland for example, there was for too long a belief that “Auckland could not agree on anything”.  The region suffered from years of bickering and little focus upon common goals. The result was inadequate infrastructure, a shortage of regional community facilities and a number of often disconnected and discontented communities.  Opportunities for social and economic development were lost.

What sort of leadership is therefore required to enable a region such as that of Auckland to focus upon issues, and to work together in the democratic framework?  It must be leadership with a clear strategic direction and vision.  This has not been  “fashionable” in New Zealand in recent years, where strategic planning for the nation and its communities was considered to interfere with the pure function of the “market”.  And yet, how many major corporates, some with budgets greater than the New Zealand GDP, would think of advancing without a strategic plan?

The leadership must also be in the context of a commonly understood value base.  John Gardener[1], one of the foremost writers in leadership in the US states:

“ A community lives in the minds of it members – in shared assumptions, beliefs, customs, ideas that give meaning, ideas that motivate.  And among the ideas are norms and values.”    Values are the basis of society: we design our processes and systems around them, we live by them, we fight over them, and over time, we discard them.  Values are not a constant, but must be continually regenerated.

James O’Toole[2], in the Executive’s Compass, based upon the teachings of the Aspen Institute in Colorado, discusses the values quadrant of the good society. Reading the teachings of the great masters, those attending the Aspen Institute explore the development of values in our society.  And for each value, there is an equal and opposite.  With liberty on one end of axis and equality on the other: with efficiency at one end of the other axis and community at the other.  And in the middle, lies the good society; a mix of values, and the policies and actions that each represents.  For those who espouse the market driven model of liberty (personal freedom) and efficiency (market efficiency), there is the need to also recognise that equality (such as equal access to education for all) and community (such as a sustainable future) have equal validity. Only when we understand the values of others can we truly have a conversation that establishes a common value base from which we can all operate.  Too often, we have argued in New Zealand from entrenched values; not accepting that there are other values which also have validity.

The sort of leader who can provide community leadership within this values context is one with emotional intelligence.  He or she must be able to create a high level of trust and then to lead people by modelling the way; by coaching, empowering and persuading.  Essentially, this is servant leadership.

Good leadership is much sought after but rare.  Too often, there is not an understanding of the essential characteristics of a servant leader.  There is too much ego and self promotion.  This may be considered acceptable in a hierarchical model of leadership, but does not sit well with the need to create community leadership.  This requires a basic premise of humility, to enable consensus building.  It also assists in the building of trust, which is the basis requirement of true leadership anywhere.

To meet the leadership challenges of a new and evolving community with its global economic pressures, its migration of people in and out and the pressures and challenges that come from immigration and growing urbanisation is not easy.

In New Zealand in the current day, local government is a key to community leadership.  Elected democratically by the local population, councillors are responsible for planning for the community and its infrastructure, for protecting the environment and for providing a range of services.  They are also responsible for advocacy.  But no matter how strong the consensus and cooperation that has now been enabled between the different local authorities, they cannot provide leadership on their own.  The collaborative model needs to be extended to the whole community.

Community leadership needs to involve collaboration between the dispersed segments that make up our city.  We need to identify the gifted leaders of these groups who can represent their different spheres of interest but can work collaboratively; who can listen and understand the values of others and who can negotiate and mediate solutions.  They need to work together to identify preferred outcomes, and to commit to reach them.

They will need to be able to engage the community at large and to build trust with them; and they will in turn need to have well developed systems of consultation to ensure that they keep in touch with the community’s viewpoints.  Because disconnection from the community itself will lead to the downfall of leadership.

There is also a need to think carefully of the organisational forms that will allow this form of community leadership.  They will vary dependent upon the purpose, which could range from a focus upon social inequity to a focus upon economic development; or a concern with the city at large.  The Atlanta project for example in the US engaged leaders from all sectors, with presidential support, to focus upon a five year war against poverty.[3]

Current structures of local and central government are not enough.  Government processes tend to be too slow to keep pace with a world that is changing daily.  Legislation and regulation are too often a reflection of the past rather than a response to the needs of the future.  We need to invent new and flexible leadership structures that are able to harness dispersed leadership, that can reform quickly to meet changing needs and that can focus upon different outcomes.  These can work with government to meet the needs of the day.  We need to put some time into thinking about the organisational framework within which such community structures can work.

Finally, as a community, we need to understand the nature of leadership that works and we need to be encouraging and nurturing it.  We need to be encouraging and rewarding young leaders in every aspect of community life.  For if we can grow strong collaborative servant leaders, strong communities will automatically follow.

[1] John W Gardner, 1990: On Leadership, The Free Press, New York, P13.

[2] James O’Toole, 1993: The Executive’s Compass: Business and the Good Society, Oxford University Press Inc, New York.

[3] John W Gardner, 1999: Leadership in the Cities: in Leader to Leader P361, Eds Frances Hesselbein & Paul M Cohen, The Peter F Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management, New York.

Jo Brosnahan

CEO of the Auckland Regional Council

Jo Brosnahan has been Chief Executive of the Auckland Regional Council for the past seven years. The Auckland Regional Council has just been granted a silver award in the New Zealand Business Excellence Awards, the top award given in New Zealand this year. Jo has a background in transport and development, working for New Zealand Railways and the Northland Harbour Board and later running her own consultancy business before becoming CEO of Northland Regional Council.
Jo was awarded a Harkness Fellowship to study leadership in the US from 1995 - 1996, based at Duke University. She is also an Aspen Scholar. She has subsequently been involved with speaking on the issue of leadership and organisational change in New Zealand, the US, South Africa, France and Australia. She is currently involved with the establishment of a new organisation, Leadership New Zealand.
Jo has had various political roles and has served on the Board of NIWA and Northpower, and as Chairman of CIT in New Zealand. She is currently on the Boards of NZIM, Asia 2000, the EEO Trust and Netball North Harbour.

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