The healthy communities movement has high aspirations. We want inclusive, multidisciplinary partnerships. We want real, ongoing engagement of struggling residents in low-income neighborhoods. We want shared priorities and measures of success. We want bold, innovative experiments and careful plans. We want data-driven change, policy and environmental change, sustainable and scalable change. We want equity and social justice in a time of growing inequality. We then expect partnerships to navigate the tensions these demands can generate and create healthier communities.
For these things to happen, we will need a special kind of leadership. A recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review called “The Dawn of System Leadership” describes what it takes to grow this collective leadership. It explores the core capabilities of a systems leader, the gateways to becoming one, and some guides for moving along the path.
What shines through the article’s narrative (and my own experience working with leaders) is the depth of character, commitment and emotional maturity that leaders need for successful systems change. Some vital qualities are: courage, patience, discipline, vulnerability, self-awareness, open-mindedness, deep listening, respect across differences and a commitment to personal growth. Each of these qualities needs to be expressed widely in a partnership in order for the work to be transformational.
This is a tall order for people who are often tired and/or stressed, working with limited time and resources or who are bound to represent their organization’s interests. Even so, partnerships all over the country have recognized the importance of system leadership and are trying to cobble together and cultivate these leadership qualities.
One often-overlooked type of leader is the so-called retired or semi-retired person. I have had the privilege of working with wonderful, mature leaders who bring to healthy community partnerships their accumulated wisdom and character, flexible schedules and independence, commitment to a cause, and desire for personal growth.
For example, in one clinical-community partnership called Healthy Cottage Grove Community in Greensboro, NC, Rev. Beth McKee-Huger and Skip Crowe (pictured above, top right) are bringing these assets and helping lay the groundwork for collective leadership. Together with strong emerging leaders, they’re building a resident-driven, well-balanced collaboration that demonstrates many, if not all, of the qualities I’ve mentioned above. Some of those leaders include individuals representing Cone Health, the Mustard Seed Community Health, the Cottage Grove Neighborhood Association, the Greensboro Housing Coalition, the Cottage Grove Initiative, Hampton Elementary School, the New Hope Community Development Group at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, Guilford County Health and Human Services, UNC-Greensboro’s Center for Housing and Community Studies and the neighborhood at large.
Over the past year, I’ve seen Beth and Skip consistently seek to engage the strengths of other leaders and find ways to root their work more deeply in inclusive community dialogue and a shared vision. They are busy bringing diverse people and organizations into the partnership, providing leadership development opportunities, and building stronger relationships and networks. They are fostering honest discussion about the Cottage Grove neighborhood’s challenges and opportunities. They are seizing every opportunity to help raise the needed funds for the work to advance and for other leaders to succeed. The result is a partnership that is growing better prepared to tackle a range of neighborhood priorities, including safety, transportation, healthy housing, and access to healthy foods and affordable health care.
Mature and independent volunteer leaders already exist in many communities, and they are a great resource for healthy community partnerships as well as models of active aging. Let’s remember to think of their expertise when we look for local system leadership.