It is not uncommon for leaders to allow little or no space for dissenters within their  organizations; the result often being an erosion of any sense of community. 

A radically different approach to effective leadership has been proposed by Parker Palmer in his book The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work Creativity, and Caring (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), in which he suggests that Jesus exemplifies such leadership.

Jesus exercises the only kind of leadership that can evoke authentic community- a leadership that risks failure (and even crucifixion) by making space for other people to act.  When a leader takes up all the space and preempts all the action, he or she may make something happen, but the something is not community.  Nor is it abundance, because the leader is only one person, and one person’s resources invariably run out.  But, when a leader is willing to trust the abundance that people have and can generate together, willing to take the risk of inviting people to share from that abundance, then and only then may true community emerge. (p. 138).

The type of effective leadership that Palmer points us towards has two major characteristics.

Benefiting from the Gifts of Others, Including Dissenters

An effective leader starts with a vision for her organization. But if she attempts to implement that vision on her own she will likely fail because she has not enabled others in her organization to embrace her vision, or, better yet, to collectively embrace an improved version of her vision because of their respective gifts.

In other words, if she proceeds as a “Lone Ranger,” the contours of her vision and the quality of its implementation will only be as good as she is. If she dares to provide a safe space for others in her organization to help her to refine her vision and then help her to  implement that vision (with enthusiasm because it is a shared vision), then the results will be as good as the collective giftedness as all members of the organization.

Such a collaborative (collegial) process absolutely needs dissenters, those whose vantage point leads them to suggest that the original vision and/or the original plans for implementation are flawed. A safe space must be created that allows all voices to be given a fair hearing in the process of refining an original vision and implementation plan.

Fostering True Community

A pernicious myth is that if dissenters are given a safe space to express their disagreements, this will have an adverse effect on a sense of community within the organization. My experience suggests just the opposite. It is when dissenters are stifled that a sense of community erodes.

As messy as it is, it is when all members of an organization feel that they have been consulted and have had an opportunity to express their perspectives in conversations involving all who are potentially affected by the decisions that are made that a true sense of community is enhanced.

On Being a Strong Leader

Some leaders who want to be perceived as strong leaders are actually very weak leaders. They perceive strength as “being in charge,” deciding, in the confines of their office, without talking to anyone, what needs to be done, and the just doing it. That is not a sign of strength. Rather, it is a sign of weakness and insecurity, and reveals a lack of trust in the giftedness of others.  

A truly strong leader creates a safe space for others to express their points of view and to exercise their gifts, trusting that to do so will lead to results that are better than she can accomplish by herself. It is a sign of strength, not weakness to “give up total control,” daring to believe that working together as a true community will ultimately yield the best results.