09 November 2008

President as Community Organizer - A New, 21st Century Model?

Every successful candidate allows allows the polity to project upon him as he (or she) nods and smiles. So, to interpret Obama now is as much a confession of hope as it is analysis. My confession? I rather hope that Obama re-defines the presidency along the lines of community organizer.

I find it curious that so little has been made of Obama’s background as a community organizer. Personally, I think that it offers a delightful model for modern leadership.

A community organizer has no formal power. The older I get, the more I think that formal power is a joke. Employees, citizens, players on a team … they all tend to do what they want. I realize that my own personality is ambivalent about formal authority, but I think more people are like me than not. Leaders have to work with people – not dictate to them. Formal power is gradually going the way of thumb screws.

A community organizer has a goal that transcends the organizations in that community. If you live in a good community, that suggests things about the families that live there, the jobs available, the aesthetic, the health care, the options for entertainment and engagement … it suggests a great deal that transcends any one institution or group. A community shows up in the spaces between traditional organizations – not within them.

A community organizer has to use conversation as a starting point for creating commitments. A community organizer needs to talk about consequences and the impact of one group upon another. A community organizer needs to create visibility – making visible the impact of polluting to industry and the impact of job loss to the environmentalists.

It’ll be interesting to see how Obama draws from his experience as a community organizer. I quite like the idea of his using the position – not as a bully pulpit so much as a local pub where everyone can gather to discuss what kind of a community we want to create.

Obama pioneered the use of the Internet, texting, and email for campaigning in ways that will be talked about for decades. Now he can be to the Internet what FDR was to the radio in his presidency - using new technology to enable virtual communities to emerge and impact real policy and physical communities.

And perhaps what I find most alluring about this model is the notion that a conversation about something bigger than any one industry or school could emerge. We have an array of possibilities that are still largely untapped because we take as a given that, to quote Lilly Tomlin, “We’re all in this alone.” What if someone actually could again make us a community instead of a collection of competing special interest groups and individuals trying to make it alone?

We live in a time of massive interdependency. This suggests the need for more coordination and unifying goals than ever. And yet the real measure of progress is autonomy – allowing each individual more freedom of choice about how to live. The one way I can think of to reconcile these two competing needs is through leadership that looks more like community organizer than elected dictator.

Let’s hope that Obama remembers his roots.


David said...

This is where you shine my friend. If Barack will stop "changing" his Change America web site you could send in a copy of this. Brilliant.

Ron Davison said...

Thank you for this, Davos.