The Un-natural Community Leader

For those who don’t know me, I’m one of the organizers of the BC Gov Design Community, a volunteer-run community for anyone doing — or…

The Un-natural Community Leader
Photo by Oleg Laptev on Unsplash

For those who don’t know me, I’m one of the organizers of the BC Gov Design Community, a volunteer-run community for anyone doing — or interested in — design in the BC government. This includes any type of designer (services designers, UX designers, interaction designers) as well as design researchers and content designers. Although I try to avoid the L word, people often refer to me as the community leader because I am the person who runs many of the calls as well as our Teams channel and planning work.

A few months ago, someone referred to me as a ‘natural community leader’ for my work with this community. This person said this with kindness, to recognize my hard work and contributions. But nonetheless, something about it didn’t sit well and has been rattling around in my head ever since.

I’m not a natural community leader.

I do have some of the traits that I think characterize a good community leader: Empathy, dedication, flexibility, a strong desire to serve and empower others.

But I’m also missing a few things that I think are also really important to being a leader: Interpersonal skills, charisma, a natural ability to lead an impromptu conversation, the kind of personality that is ok with being put on the spot or having any kind of attention on me.

Here’s a thing about me: Many people are naturally ok with being the centre of attention, but I was born to be backstage crew. I’ve always been most comfortable as the quiet workhorse behind the scenes that makes things happen, but doesn’t have to stand in the spotlight at the final bow. My favourite place to be at a party is in another room, where I’m able to listen to the buzz and feel connected to the people, but where no one is going to call on me to do a toast and I don’t have to make endless small talk. Is that just who I am, or is it a long-term effect of low self-confidence? I don’t know and maybe it doesn’t matter.

Nowhere is it written that you have to be extroverted or charismatic to be a community leader. But I have a hypothesis that it really helps. Putting yourself out there is probably easier when you’re comfortable with the attention that comes from being in the centre.

There’s also another more important aspect of being a community leader that I’m uncomfortable with: as a white person with a fair bit of power and privilege, I don’t want to be seen as the figurehead or the person who “owns” a community and I don’t feel it’s right for me to hold that space indefinitely. I want my legacy to be that I elevated less-dominant voices and shared power with those who feel they don’t have much. So, I worry that if I continue to occupy the ‘leader’ role, there won’t be enough room on the staircase for someone else to step up.

So, what?

I’m writing this as a way to share my personal experience and work through my complicated feelings about my community leader role, but also because I want to start working toward figuring out what’s next for leadership in our community. It feels like I’ve been running the show for a while now and I want to see what others may have to add.

Ideally, someone else (or a few people) could take over the leadership role, and I could support them from the background. But there are a few issues with this that I’m having trouble moving past:

  • It’s extra unpaid work on top of their jobs so I’m struggling to figure out if this really is a good opportunity for others, or if handing over responsibility is an unfair burden on someone else (it’s interesting to me that I am ok with myself taking on what might be an “unfair burden” but I feel bad about someone else taking it on.)
  • I don’t know how to approach handing things over and shifting power in an equitable way. Do we ask people to volunteer? Do we nominate? How should this (or could this) work? Should leaders rotate? How often? Etc.
  • And, I’m not sure what kinds of leadership models work best for a community. Do we even need leaders? Is there another model for organizing a community that isn’t hierarchical? How can we organize in a way that maximizes our impact, but also distributes our power and decision-making?

I’m incredibly grateful to this community for trusting me to facilitate it, and humbled by the confidence they have in me. I think the potential of what we’re doing is enormous and I’m excited to see where all of us can take this, together.