Assistant Program Leader of Economic and Community Development, Purdue Extension Senior Associate, Purdue Center for Regional Development
“Take me to your leader.” This cartoon and movie catchphrase, or something close to it, has been uttered by fictional extraterrestrial visitors demanding to see the president or a general, to negotiate some terms before annihilating our planet.
Leadership is a concept we talk about a lot in the context of our communities. Our cities have mayors and other elected officials. Many of our towns and neighborhoods have formal and informal leaders to whom we look to help shepherd us forward.
With some of the kinds of issues we face in communities, it is pretty clear who the leader is in a particular issue. This summer in my community, a large infrastructure project has been going on to fix some stormwater drainage issues. The head of the street department is the city leader who is called upon to take care of this community issue.
Ron Heifetz of Harvard University, along with colleague Riley Sinder, has studied leadership as it relates to public problems; they classify problems into three types. They describe the street drainage problem as a "Type 1" public problem in which both the problem and solution are clear, and there is a clear leader "in charge" of addressing the problem.
Heifetz and Sinder also point out, however, most of the really big problems our communities face are of the Type 2 and 3 varieties in which either the problem is clear but the solution is unclear (Type 2), or both the problem and solution are unclear (Type 3). Leadership for these types of problems is a little less cut and dried.
If the issue in our community is related to economic growth, for instance, raising graduation rates or reducing neighborhood violent crime, what one individual do we go to? If instructed, "take me to your leader" in one of these contexts, where do we go? Heifetz and Sinder contend that there are no single leaders for Type of Type 2 and Type 3 public problems.
What makes these issues even more complex is the fact that we are trained to think of the world in hierarchies, looking up and down some real or imagined pyramid-like organizational chart for the fix to our problems.
There is not, however, anyone at the top of those organizational charts. Who is in charge of assuring all our kids graduate from high school; that everyone has the skills and opportunity to work in jobs that pay a living wage; or that each child has the support they need to maintain a healthy weight?
Heifetz and Sinder's answer to who is in charge of these issues is that we all are. There are no true experts with specialized know-how to fix these public problems. It takes, rather, the collective effort of all of us.
How does a community address these messes when nobody is in charge? The very first step is to move away from the hierarchy mentality of looking up and down, and, instead, adopt network thinking, requiring us to look out to our left and right, forward and backward.
These horizontal networks are how we best organize ourselves to address complex issues. A network is powerful because it optimizes the number of connections that can be made among the member of a network, many more connections than are made in a hierarchy.
Think about a hierarchy with 10 people. One at the top who directs the actions of three people, each of whom directs two people. That's a total of nine connections. Now arrange those same 10 people in a horizontal circle where they can each connect to the other eight. You end up with 45 connections.
The only chance for our communities to address their most pressing problems is to adopt network thinking, harnessing the power of all the connections that can result. No single person or organization has the knowledge, resources or power to address these issues, but a network of people does.
So, if aliens shows up on your street insisting that you take them to your leader, don't head for city hall. Instead, shake their hand, tentacle, or whatever, and then have your neighbors form a receiving line right behind you.