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Thoughts on Leadership: Community-led vs Traditional organisation-led

First circulated via NFA on Aug 6 th 2023

One of the key reasons for the community to do a buy-out apart from the democratic alignment one (which I see as a very important moral/ethical/values argument) is that community-led organisations (and aligned ownership structures) can be far more powerful, coherent, dynamic, vision aligned, financially successful, and effective, than traditionally led ones.

There is a moral/democratic argument - people should have decisions over their own lives, and choose the leaders they want, to do the things they want them to do – and there is an effectiveness argument.

As FF has just announced it is winding down after years of financial struggles I think this “effectiveness” argument is really important.

Right now, in my view, we face a choice.

As I see it, it is about a choice between the new versus the old ways, the old leadership model here, and the old way power has been brokered and deployed here, between organisations (and not even organisations really if you look deeper, but just a few people who are their trustees) versus a new way of doing power and leadership, which is the community led model.


A community led model, which will come with a community buy out*, is really a very different way of doing things. (*could also possibly come from FF turning itself into a member led Tier 2 SCIO, although that wouldn’t solve its debt issues and there are some big questions about if FF would really move towards the deep community-led leadership approach, even if it nominally changed form.)

It is a new way.

And of course, because it is a new way, some people who are happy with the old way, or the old power structures, will not be happy with that new way and will tend to resist it. And that is already happening. It’s just human nature. And it will bring up anxiety (and some valid fears too) because change and the new do that. To be clear, and this is important, focusing on a new way, is not to ignore all of the wonderful things that have been done in the past and are to be celebrated (such as Woodside and the other affordables), or such as all the incredible experiences guests have had over the years.

It’s about looking honestly at ourselves, being accountable, and saying how has this worked out? Can we do things better? Can we do things more effectively and more successfully (e.g., more core-spiritual-purpose- aligned-ly; more financially sustainably; more member engaged-ly; more nature-sensitively and enhancingly; more youth attractingly; more community-owned-in-perpetuity-affordable-housing-ly; more altogether-in-Common-Vision-ly)?!


The old way, which I call the organizational-led way or the trustee-led way (or the ‘very hard working and stretched volunteer loyal community servant over decades trustee’ way vs ‘few grandees who like power talking among themselves’ way, depending on your perspective!) is in real contrast to the new way, which engages the full community and all of their passions, talents and wisdom, to deliver the community’s vision.

Not just a few people on Boards, but all of us. Not orgs talking to orgs but direct democratic mandate and direct democracy. Inclusive and grass roots up, not just top down. Group wisdom not just one or two people. Self-organising groups at the frontlines following their own passions and creativity, adapted to their niches with detailed frontline knowledge, not command and control.

I am not saying this pejoratively, at least towards the individual personalities, because I know people with good hearts and intentions have done their very best, and lots of amazing things have been done here over the years, and people can be under-appreciated when in positions of power, and things can tend to grow up in tangly ways when they aren’t planned. Those in power or who have been can rightly be proud of the many things that have worked well over the years.

However, I don’t think it is controversial to say:

a) there have been financial struggles here for more than a decade

b) historically it has been hard to get things done here because of the complexity of all the organisations

c) members/residents/co-workers have often felt disempowered and not in charge so then tend to disengage

d) decisions haven’t felt particularly transparent (or inclusive or democratic)


All of the above are v.important but just focusing on one of them - on point b):

The more friction/transactional costs there are in the way we are organiSed and led (e.g., multiple meetings, multiple parties involved, multiple stakeholders of the multiple orgs with them all having to talk to each other and maybe then check back in with their constituents, then come meet again, by which time several have left and so new reps have to be brought up to speed, or someone else restarts a conversation that was handled 6 months ago, but they are new so block until they are caught up, or GDPR is used to stop a talking to b talking to c, or getting the info they need, etc., etc., ad infinitum) then the less energy, time, good will and resources are left for actual beautiful beneficial actions, that create the things we want – i.e., that tangible manifestation of Heaven to Earth.

I am pretty sure Eileen’s guidance and vision of Heaven to Earth wasn’t human personalities-in multiple, often fractious, organiSation collaboration meetings, getting not so much done slowly (although it may be good for biscuit and teabag sales at the Phoenix, so who knows?)!

The more frictional cost, the harder it is to get things done, to make this better world, that I am guessing most of us are here to help make.

This frictional cost is just the same in the material world of plumbing and wires – if you are running water through pipes or electricity through wires, the more friction you have (narrower pipes/narrower wires running over longer lengths with lots of turns and twists) the more that effort/energy gets wasted or slowed down. It’s just physics (and common sense).

I think we can all think of examples of this in our community:

e.g., say one organisation owning the roads, another receiving the tax to pay for the roads and a third having the responsibility for the roads, but reporting to the first, but the first not having bandwidth to supervise, but the money coming from the second, but the second not having real authority over the third to make sure its money (our tax money) is being spent well, so not really being able to supervise and hold the third accountable.

My view is, my argument is, this type of complexity is not a “beneficial” kind of complexity, or a “resilient-hyper efficient” type of layered complexity, such as you find in nature, it is a costly complexity. It is in fact a really ineffective model for leadership and for easeful, effective operations.

It sludges everything up.

It creaks along, just about, but it doesn’t for example ensure future planning and investment or technical accountability, with clear lines of authority, who gets to hire the technical supervisor, who listens to that supervisor, what action is taken to invest against what that technical supervisor says, etc.

A fragmented organisational led approach has enormous frictions built in and thus is really inefficient and costly. It hurts us as a community.

In the end I strongly suspect that it leads to financial collapse because so much energy is expended on transactional friction (meetings, etc) that none of the productivity (water, electricity, work, innovation, change, entrepreneurial effort) gets out the far end of the (tangled narrow) pipes.

We may not see it, because we haven’t experienced anything other than this rather painful way of doing things, but the decline over the last decades, and the failure to get simple things done, points to the costs.


There are so many examples but one close to many people’s hearts I expect is the Sanctuary. It was a very complicated discussion, and by the time it was resolved the prices had gone up significantly. Consider that scenario under a new way – a community owned and led way.

You would have one landholder, which would have been the same as the community who used the building, the same as the organisation that received the insurance money, this would have allowed quick sign off from that community to get that building done, and solved instantly who would pay the costs to insure and run that building in the future (the same community), etc. They would have all have been one. There would be coherence. Ok the design would still take some pulling off (and congrats for PET & co. for doing that). But it would just have been so much easier. It would be, if not frictionless, at least significantly less slowed down by organization level leadership tangles as opposed to direct people-led (community-led), where quick and direct decisions can be taken (after all if the entire country of Switzerland, or the world’s 5th biggest economy, California, can do direct democracy, you’d have thought a 300-600 person community might be able to!).

In other words, with proper alignment of residents, ownership, leadership and vision, which is what a community owned and led model is, the Sanctuary would have happened much quicker, and those additional costs (of money and also of the hours not spent meditating in our nice new sanctuary) would not have been incurred.

So, this kind of complexity, or what you might call organisational constipation, can be costly, on many levels. It is not at all always more resilient, which is the ecological argument I hear people making here against monoliths (which of course we are nowhere near to having unless you count the very few trustees on multiple orgs as monolithic power!!).

In fact, in our case, I would argue the organisational complexity combined with the very limited input of community members, makes us less resilient, because we are less nimble and adaptive (unlike nature which adapts and moves in a very timely way).

It leads to financial failures, it leads to talented people and capital and youth fleeing the place, because it feels so sludged up and without coherence, and they genuinely want to get on with creating a better world and bringing heaven to earth, and will put their energy into that.

I am speaking here about leadership and effectiveness in an organisational context (less complexity is better, more structural alignment is better) but you can also examine it on an even smaller scale.


If we put this question of what is effective leadership and effective organisational structure into an even simpler context – a good meal in the CC tends to happen with a good focaliser, a clear and coherent menu, willing workers enjoying working together, with relevant skills (or if without cooking skills assigned/choosing the right alternative skill context so they still enjoy contributing what they can, maybe it is artistic skill rather than cooking and so they do a beautiful menu board for example), the focaliser is open to ideas and intuition, spotting talent where there is some in the team and freeing that talent to do their amazing dish say, but not so much openness that the soup tastes of a horrible mixture of Indian, Japanese, Italian spices and gets burnt because no-one knows who is in charge.


One thing I like about community-led approaches is they tend to do what just happened with the Alternative Call for Ideas. They tend to delegate power out to the frontlines, to the people with passions and skills and the niche knowledge, and allow them and in fact encourage them, to self-organise.

You don’t have to have ownership and membership aligned for that to happen, sure, but it makes any of that kind of work far more effective, because those self-organizing groups actually have some say over their own assets, so they can take real action (planning action or building action or event action or hat have you). And it is a style of organizing that fits very well with a community led, community owned model, much more so than with a traditional command and control, trustee, org-led model. It amplifies and accelerates the self-organising model when what is being self-organised over is actually owned by the people in the first place. Then their plans and their whiteboards can turn into real manifesting action, not just a talking shop without any real power.

In the community context how this works is you would do a big community visioning event, where people write up what they wanted to see and create, and then those with passion and skills in a particular area would sign their name up to that group/ thread/ workstream…gather with others who shared that ….. and then get supported by leaders, with a budget, to make it happen. The leaders serve, choreograph, conduct the orchestra yes, but essentially set people free to do their thing. (And you see this all the time in say parents self- organising carpools or children events and shared childcare at the playground etc). It is a very inclusive, delegated model of power and leadership and it mimics nature – people in specific niches who know those niches well, follow their passion and use their knowledge to create amazing things.

To finish with - here's one example of the tremendous creative and joyful benefits that come from front-line delegation to self-organising groups or people following their passions, the kind of leadership I love and that very naturally comes with a community owned and led leadership model.


Look at how much life and vibrancy here in the Park over the last month or two has been created at the Phoenix café and how that is building on itself, because of a passionate person on the frontline doing her music and event loving and creating thing, and a passionate servant leader above her supporting and going with that energy, delegating control down to that passionate person as opposed to trying to control, block or manage from the top.

We all benefit from that model of servant leadership and servant power, unleashing the grass roots to create their passions. (Sara Wilder doing the amazing series of musical events, Katya focused on helping the Phoenix give the community some of what the CC once did, and Edward at the top of the leadership chain supporting this creativity with investments in things like silent disco headphones). This is the opposite of command and control.


My bet is that the more examples of this, where people get empowered and take on creating things, the more morale is raised, and this creates a virtuous spiral upwards of more vibrancy and dynamism, a “Yes We Can” approach. (And I may write at some point about my experience of the power of this when I worked for the Obama campaign in California and Texas).

So, forgive the 2600 word essay, but I wanted to lay out transparently why I am so passionate about the community owning and leading itself, about community-led leadership models and delegated power self-organising models and what I think that can bring in terms of reigniting/rekindling (yikes?!):

Life, creativity, dynamism, vibrancy, young people, joy, energised spiritual practice in action, coherence, entrepreneurship, innovation, being world leading again, empowerment, engagement and last but not least financial success here!

Three hundred engaged passionate souls running their own community or six hundred if you take the wider NFA or the thousands if you take the global FF diaspora, are so much more likely to be successful when engaged and plugged in, and sourced from, than a few orgs in tangles and a few very overstretched volunteer Trustees.

So that’s what I believe community ownership and leadership unleashes.

That’s the evolution / ‘reloveolution’ I believe in and why I am throwing myself into this community buyout opportunity! Yes We Can!

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