Monday, May 5, 2014

When Founders Founder

I was recently approached by a facilitation friend, asking what advice I could give a community founder who was struggling with the question of their best role after 20+ years in the saddle. These were the conditions he was struggling with:

—Mission drift: a gradual degradation of the cohesion that characterized the original group, which included a strong sense of friendship and vision.
—A lack of understanding among newer members about the need to be creating cooperative culture, in contrast with the mainstream's competitive culture.
—How much participation is still needed from him in order to have "balanced" meetings?
—On the one hand, he sometimes is the only one holding the big picture; on the other, he's tired of having that role, and wishes the younger generation would step up more fully (with more awareness).
—Feeling lonely. Down to a shrinking pool of founders remaining, one founder recently left and another struggles with a drinking problem.
—It's hard for him to see promising young people come and not stay.

In ways, starting an intentional community is a lot like parenting. If you succeed (and why would anybody start a community they hoped would fail?), the community's future is trying to figure out how to make it work without you. Sometimes that happens sooner, sometimes later, but it always happens if the community lasts.

If you step back a bit and look at the trajectory of parenting, you're more or less preparing for your kids to do without you from the moment they're born. Sure, this unfolds over a couple of decades, but that's your future from from the outset. On the one hand, you want to pass along to them the lessons you've found to be profound over the course of your life; on the other, it's unwise to expect that your progeny will find all of your lessons profound, or even sound.

To some extent, they'll want to make their own choices and part of growing up is differentiating from one's parents. The same happens in communities. For better or worse, the newer people will be different and they will make different choices. Will they be better choices? Maybe, maybe not. But their day is inexorably coming—you may as well prepare for it, rather than lament its arrival.

Here are thoughts about the specific questions posed above:

1. CohesionOften, the experience of start-up itself is uniquely bonding for those present for the pioneer phase of a new community. It can be a crazy, exhilarating period (when there's no end of things you're doing for the first time) and participants forge a precious connection through having gone through it together. Further, it's something that can never be repeated for that group. Later arrivals can never be founders.

The trick here is building genuine connection between pioneers and settlers that does not depend on the settlers venerating the pioneers, being clones of the people they are replacing, or agreeing without reservation with the priorities and policies of the group when they arrive. New people will not feel welcomed by regular reminders of the good old pioneering days, or having their qualities compared  (often unfavorably) with those of the dearly departed.

Further, it is on the pioneers to take the lead in extending the welcome. Don't make the settlers beat down the door. This means taking the time to genuinely get to know them, their interests, their strengths, and their preferences.

2. Culture Change
A lot of people get it that they are not thriving in competitive culture, and yearn for more community (belonging, neighborliness, safety). Being accurate about what they need, however, does not necessarily guarantee that they'll have the skills to live well in a cooperative environment, or even that they'll understand the need to do personal work to undo decades of deep conditioning to respond competitively when challenged.

There are different things that can help with this. First, you can screen for it when assessing prospective members. Second, you can discuss moments when people respond well under pressure (reinforcing what you want) and you can debrief moments that don't go so well (gently pointing out how a more curious, open response would work better).

3. Leadership Transition
It is not easy knowing when your voice is no longer needed in a group (partly because it's hard to trust that someone else will contribute what you'd say). Yet you still need to let go. You've essentially only got two options in this regard: a) purposefully stepping back (through delegating, replacing yourself as manager, resigning responsibilities, going fishing on meeting day… ); or b) exiting the group, either by walking out or being carried out in a pine box.

It's not unusual for leaders to think that prospective replacements aren't as talented as they are. While that may or may not be accurate, you need to be thinking about how to address that so that you're not stuck in the role, or worse, irreplaceable. Get other opinions about the capacity of those who might take your place. Try to quantify the qualities you want from a person filling a leadership role and then actively work to develop them in the prospective pool. You might set up a mentor/apprentice program. You have to be willing to slow down enough to train and explain—even when it's faster to do it yourself.

The goal here, I think, is not to find people who will carry on your tradition as you would; it's that they be inspired but what you (and other founders) have accomplished to carry forward as they feel called.

4. Holding the Big Picture
This is an aspect of leadership, but not all leaders—or all founders—have the ability to do this. One of the benefits of occasionally engaging in strategic planning is to find out who has a feel for the wider, long-term perspective; who can be relied upon to insert it appropriately in group conversations.

Caution: Don't confuse big picture with your picture. Others can be thinking every bit as strategically as you yet come up with different conclusions or different perspectives. Are you allowing for that?

5. Peers
This is a tough one. No one wants to be alone, or feel isolated in their experience or their understanding. As you age, you're not going to retroactively manifest more founders, yet it's possible  to find others who share essential elements of your reality and perspective. Find those. Perhaps peers at other communities, or among local nonprofits. Perhaps others in the community of a similar age who have a background elsewhere that is similar enough to understand the moccasins you're walking in.

6. Membership Retention
My answer here parallels what I wrote under Leadership Transition. Often (though by no means always) new members with leadership potential get discouraged by a perceived lack of openness among existing leadership to share power and then move on. To be sure, it can be delicate sorting out how much the newer folks are impatient, and how much the older members are resistant to sharing; how much the newer folks need to learn, and how much the older members are unwilling to let go of being needed.

Also, as I said under Cohesion, it's primarily the responsibility of the longer-term members to welcome the new folks and integrate them into the community. More weeds grow in less cultivated gardens, and the fruit is smaller come harvest.

No comments: