Leadership Under the Bridge

The acknowledged leader (chief) of a homeless encampment in Providence, Rhode Island, was happy to step down when some in the group of 50 or so challenged his leadership. After all, he’d never been elected. It was just that the 55-year-old former factory supervisor had always been seen by those who gathered around him under the condemned freeway overpass by the river as the leader. However, the American assumption is that followers have a say in who will lead.

It wasn’t long before fights broke out among those who had taken up residence in the little tent city. Food was stolen. Soon this once ousted leader was voted back in as the chief and the community created a compact that included a five-member leadership council and rules to guide the little community. By July, it had grown to 80 people with its own organization (tents of young single people and substance abusers are near the road so emergency vehicles won’t have to go through the rest of the camp).

While this community is temporary (the overpass will be torn down) it shows how the right kinds of leadership are critical to the health of any group. It may even suggest that the symbolic value of the identified leader is essential to the process. Their compact declares that “no person shall be greater than the will of the whole,” but it seems that having the executive function located with one chief person provides a kind of security that ensures the safety of the process.

Do you think leadership responsibilities should be taken on by one sole chief or carried out by a group of organizational members, especially during times of conflict? Why?

- Doug Riddle


About Doug Riddle

I'm responsible for the portfolio of coaching services and assessments CCL has developed to meet the leadership development needs of organizations all over the world. The CCL coaching team includes 600 of the best executive and team coaches anywhere and are located in 30 countries. All are evaluated regularly and closely supervised to ensure great results. I'm currently focussed on helping organizations integrate the whole gamut of socratic leadership tools (coaching, mentoring, advising) cost-effectively to benefit their talent strategy. I coach a few top teams and executive leaders each year.
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One Response to Leadership Under the Bridge

  1. avatar Lishka says:

    The article reminds me again that effective change works best when groups decide for themselves what they want and then work to achieve it; not when a person or organization comes in and tells people what to do. So often, charities operate in the latter manner and can easily end up with an ego. We need more of the former, both in the non-profit and corporate worlds.

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