Community Leaders Have a Different Kind of Power

It’s good to be reminded that sometimes people really do get it.

I recently met one of them, a young woman who lives in a small northern community.  Working in the health sector in a community development capacity, she is aware and concerned about growing health concerns in her hometown. 

Despite much that is good in town, including a strong economy and even a surplus of jobs, a recent survey of residents showed higher than average levels of obesity, addictions and mental health issues. Even life expectancies are significantly less than the provincial average. And yet, instead of doing more to encourage citizens to get physically and socially active in the community, elected officials actually did the opposite.

Overruling their own by-law, Council allowed a developer to build an entire subdivision without sidewalks thus making it impossible for residents to walk safely in their own neighbourhood. Ironically, they did ensure that residents would have access to a trail for all-terrain vehicles.

For the young woman, it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Too many community leaders were making too many short-sighted decisions. Despite not having any political experience, she stepped up to the plate and ran for Council during last week’s municipal elections in Alberta.

She is just one of a number of emerging leaders I recently met who, as part of Alberta Active Communities, are ready to do their part to make the world, or at least Alberta, a better place.

Very few of them have what experts would call “formal” or “legitimate” power in terms of a position and title within their respective organizations. And yet, not having the instant authority that typically comes with a title hasn’t stopped them from emerging as leaders within their communities. 

Neither do they have what the experts might call “coercive” power, meaning the ability to sanction others for failure to comply, or the “reward” power that would allow them to give something of value for performance.

What they do have are three different kinds of power that have nothing to do with being in a formal position of authority or being able to hand out rewards or punishment.

Without exception, they have “expert”, “referent”, and “information” power.

The emerging leaders I met have “expert” power. For sure they are smart about their community and how it works and people turn to them for advice and guidance.

They also have “information” power. Not only do they know a lot, they are willing and eager to share it with others.

But the power they all seem to have in abundance is “referent” power or what others describe as substance. It is one of the most effective styles of power and it is serving them well within their communities. People identify with them, admire what they stand for, and generally feel better when they are around them. They have a storehouse of what some scholars call “social capital.” People trust them to walk their talk and they choose to follow them.

There were many who thought a young woman from the health sector without any political experience didn’t have a chance of being elected particularly when she built her campaign on a platform of quality of life and active communities.

To the surprise of many, including herself, she was elected last week. Not only was she elected, she did it in style by topping the polls. She garnered more votes than the Mayor and received more votes than any councillor in the history of the town. 

Maybe the cynics are wrong after all….sometimes the good guys do finish first. 


Posted on 10-21-07

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