Aug. 17, 2011

Local Sustainability Leaders course attracts the numbers

It started with a sociograph. Stand close to people you know was the instruction from Grahame Collier As people did this a cluster diagram started to form. There was one large clump, a smaller clump, a two-person cluster and two unassociated individuals.

This was activity one of day one of the four-Saturday afternoon course.

"It's geographic", said one woman when Grahame asked what the clusters suggested. It was that - the largest cluster was mainly people from Sydney's eastern suburbs, but it was something more than that, something which strongly suggested the importance of community-based networks in bringing people together.

The Eastern Melange

Those in that eastern suburbs cluster were a melange from the regional Transition Sydney group and its local node, Transition Bondi, a community garden and the local permaculture pod. Many of these people are electronically linked via social networks, however they also link in person because the eastern suburbs is not of such a scale as to make cross-participation in the activities of community groups difficult, and the region has sufficient density of population to make local groups viable and to support a diverse regional culture. The fact that some from the region rode bicycles to the Local Sustainability Leaders course was proof of this geographical proximity.

The 3-Council Ecological Footprint program, with its associated activities like the successful Compost Revolution, has brought together not only the bioregion's local government sustainability educators but many community group participitants, as was apparent as the clusters formed around the sociograph.

Cross-council collaboration for community-based sustainability education has enabled a degree of specialisation, with Waverley Council offering training in a workshop format and Randwick Council focusing more on courses and training of community leaders. The Local Sustainability Leaders course, offered over four Saturday afternoons, is one of Randwick Council's in-depth training opportunities for the region's sustainability educators and advocates and is supplemented with another community leadership course focusing on group facilitation and participatory techniques.

In the sociograph, those outside the eastern suburbs cluster came from the inner west and the northern beaches, the latter quite some distant from the city's east although people from that part of town have attended events on previous occasions at the Randwick Sustainability Education Hub, where the Local Sustainability Leaders course is taking place.


Exploring Leadership

This first session of the four-meeting course was on understanding what leadership is about. It offered the opportinity to explore styles of leadership and some of the thinking that has gone on around it.

Grahame Collier, perhaps Sydney's most experienced sustainability educator, took us through the traits of leadership - trust, cooperation, knowledge and education (though not necessarily academic) the need for an understanding of economics that is often a requirement of effective leadership and the reality that leaders are always busy.

The knot exercise, in which people join hands across the circle and attempt to unravel the ensuing knot, demonstrated that leadership can be situational - can be a response to a specific circumstance - and can at the same time be fluid, passing from one person to another as people gain insights on how to solve the problem.

The activity also emphasised the importance for leaders in making challenges as clear as possible at the start, and making tasks as easy to perform as possible.

While The knot problem was an example of situational leadership - a response to a specific problem by those involved in it - other leadership styles explored included:

  • leadership by contingency, that occurs when leaders emerge because they are needed at the time and in the circumstances although the leader that emerges did not plan to assume the rol
  • the tasks and outcome leader who sets a goal and the path to it
  • the behavioural leader who maintains a leadership aura in all circumstances
  • the relational leader who leads in interpersonal relationships
  • the leadership by management model in which those in management roles can take on leadership
  • and the participatory leader who leads by engaging others, a type of bottom-up leadership.

Strategic thinking, Grahame said in responding to a question,  can occur in any of the leadership styles as it is about the process of leadership. Leadership can be about the big picture as well as smaller components within it.


A timely course

Why is it that leadership is so important to community orgnisations?

One reason is that community organisations often lack the clear cut decision making and command and control structures of government and business organisations, even though within those organisations the structures are often ineffective and fail to bring into decision making the knowledge and experience of staff.

There are other reasons for community organisations to spend time thinking about leadership. The evidence for this is found in the number of dysfunctional, strife-ridden and collapsed community groups over the years.

There are many reasons that groups are damaged or are forced to shut down, and leadership style, or a lack of leadership is frequently at the core. Among leadership malfunctions are:

  • dominance by knowledge... which occurs when a person with a deep knowledge of something probably inadvertently dominates a group by exercising that knowledge; at worst, this becomes the 'know-it-all' approach that fails provide space for those who know less and who may well drift away
  • dominance by volume... when dominant personalities squeeze out participation by the less-voluble; these can be 'difficult people’ with a personality disorder
  • dominance by organisational role... when a person occupies an official role in an organisation for too long, perhaps because no one else wants to do it; the person becomes the de-facto authority, denying others the opportunity to participate fully with their ideas.

All too often, these and other leadership styles alienate people in the organisation and they leave, weakening the organisation through attrition or personality clash. You see this even in what seem the least likely organisations, including community gardens where the horticulturally or scientifically trained can become leaders and dominate by knowledge, rather that having the leadership skill of self-reflection and self-discipline and assuming a role of advisor rather than leader.

Leadership is a tricky business and, after the first of the four sessions of the Local Sustainability Leaders course, participants are starting to gain an insight into the process.

About the course

The Local Sustainability Leaders course is funded by the NSW government. It is one of a linked quartet of courses held at the Randwick Sustainability Education Hub that includes the Living Smart course in sustainable living and community action, the Sustainable Gardening course for home and community food gardeners and those interested in other plants, the bushcare course for people interested in native ecosystems and plants and the professional development course in sustainability for early childhood teachers and parents.

The courses are free and can be booked through the website of the City East Community College.


Written by Russ Grayson.

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