Leadership Skills and Principles

For a wide range of issues, from climate change to fighting corruption, the here and now of our local communities point to solutions to these challenges.…It can be difficult to see the opportunity amid the chaos and fear that abounds, but make no mistake: The next decade will belong to those who can take the bottom-up grassroots energy unleashed by radical connectivity and marry it with effective, engaged leadership to craft stable and responsive institutions….It will belong to those who gaze beyond the chaos. (Mele, 2013, p. 266)

What we need are more people who have the capacity and interest to take on the crises of a deteriorating economy and widening wealth gap. People who understand or are willing to learn how to gather a team and empower them effectively to build and organize a community or facility that could allow residents a better quality of life than they currently have. It’s our job to envision other possibilities. In a dreamer’s world, everyone has a place and a role. Yet our role is to take on gradually only the tasks we can manage.

To help the intentional communities movement approach its potential, we need to incorporate all the wisdom and balance we can. We need to learn from the mistakes of struggling and failed communities of the past. Leaders especially need to commit to share with others the power for all members to hold each other accountable, or they will likely create a dysfunctional culture that may harm more than it heals.

The very people who would make our most noble leaders are often the most likely to have imposter syndrome. You may need a lot of encouragement to take on that role. It may feel much easier to lead as a group of three to five individuals, and group format can have advantages of balancing any extreme tendencies. You’ll need to develop cohesion among yourselves first, both to move forward effectively and to set the groundwork for a culture of support and camaraderie.

Seth Godin (2008), in a free downloadable online book, invites you to lead, responsibly:

  • “Not all leadership involves getting in the face of the tribe. It takes just as much effort to successfully get out of the way” (p. 39).
  • “Generous and authentic leadership will always defeat the selfish efforts of someone doing it just because she can” (p. 17).
  • “Tribes are about faith—about belief in an idea and in a community. And they are grounded in respect and admiration for the leader of the tribe and for the other members as well” (p. 18).
  • “True fans are hard to find and precious. Just a few can change everything. What they demand, tho, is generosity and bravery” (p. 29).
  • “Consider any vibrant group—political activists, nonprofit volunteers, or brand fanatics. In each case, it’s the microleaders in the trenches and their enthusiastic followers who make the difference, not the honcho who is ostensibly running the group” (p. 38).
  • “Are there thousands of reasons why you, of all people, aren’t the right one to lead? Why you don’t have the resources or the authority or the genes or the momentum to lead? Probably. So what? You still get to make the choice” (p. 76)

Leadership is…

  • behaviors and skills, which can be learned even tho they come more naturally to some.
  • easier for those with an environment of mentoring, effective examples, and network with circles of influence
  • easier for those with genetics for high serotonin, high energy, high extroversion, low in some measures related to conscientiousness (they don’t get lost in details but rather persuade others to do the detail-oriented tasks), moderate in agreeableness (not querulous, but willing to take an unpopular stand)

Mike New, a project management consultant with a passion for ecovillages, has noticed three main difficulties that have caused failure of intentional communities: lack of professionalism, lack of funding, and toxic social dynamics (Future Thinkers, 2021, 31:50). Funding is the topic of a different page, but professionalism and social dynamics are discussed below. By lack of professionalism New means unwillingness to incorporate business structure or organizational management principles into the community, so there is a lack of designated responsibility and accountability. By toxic social dynamics, he means avoidance of conflict, and other dysfunctional ways of managing disagreement.


Decision-making can be better with a diversity of input from others who have different strengths and skill sets. People recognize others’ blind spots better than their own. But be aware of possible biases such as groupthink. Set processes can help. Experiment with holocracy’s decision-making model integrative decision-making. You might keep a supermajority vote as a backup decision-making strategy, especially for less consequential decisions, when a consensus-building strategy isn’t helping you move forward. When you feel stuck, seek help from mentors. Read Frisch’s (2008) article “When Teams Can’t Decide.” You will make so many decisions that if you don’t have processes for decisions, it will be easy to fall into immobilization from decision fatigue.

See https://opentextbc.ca/socialpsychology/chapter/group-decision-making/


I know one intentional community leader whose fatal flaw is that she can’t resist having her finger in every pie. Much of her brilliance is wasted thru “shiny object syndrome.” The projects that would yield the most return have stagnated because her preference for novelty keeps her spinning her wheels starting new projects that never finish. She uses up her abundant energy and expertise in continually favoring the urgent or the immediate over the most important. Even when she finds others to pass a project over to, her lack of availability for guidance results in projects that have little chance of completion, especially because she makes herself a bottleneck by insisting that others consult with her and “overcommunicate” about all decisions. Principles of essentialism teach that accomplishing what is most important requires that we let go of a lot of less important tasks that take up our time and attention.

Humility Allows Learning

Don’t be daunted if some members decide after a time that it’s no longer workable for them to be on the team. Try to understand what is at the root of their decision. If you accept their stated reason at face value, or simply blame them, you may miss out on your most important learning opportunities. Ego can take you down, and if you’re evidencing it early on, you may build up an amazing organization that deteriorates a decade or two down the road due to leadership issues that were unresolved at the beginning. Leaders who own both their strengths and their weaknesses are respected for their contribution while appreciated for revealing their humanity.

Toxic Workplaces or Groups

One intuitive and empathic type described how he survived his workplace that had the typical bullying tactics of pressure, labeling, exclusion, and domination.

Most of my life I worked for a major corporation. I was just a cog….I went through a lot of being manipulated and pushed by management to do more….I had some supervisors who determined that I wasn’t the right kind of guy to work there….I was threatened with being fired, and when things got really intense like that, it seems like they tend to use peer pressure. Pressure is one of their tools. If they can get the people you work with to judge you harshly and harass you….and during those times I would just sort of shut down and back up. I didn’t even feel like I was in my body. I would just back up and look at the bigger picture, and I would just sit there and stay calm. “Separate yourself from this. These people don’t know what they’re saying. They don’t know how harmful they are,” and I would just back up and step away from it, and somehow over all those years I never got fired. I never lost any wages. I always moved on to better jobs, better places, better supervisors, and everything worked out well. It’s hard to do, but it’s really the only way to survive. Corporate America is brutal, and it’s like a pyramid. The people at the bottom are producing all, doing pretty much all the work….and the same goes for government. (IANDS, 2019, 11:40)

It is critical for intentional communities to not re-create cultures that encourage or tolerate these toxic social dynamics. It unfortunately happens. If you learn to recognize it, you can save yourself a lot of grief, and possibly others.

CEO coach Jerry Colonna (2019) focuses on the leadership in organizations, more than the organizational culture, because he believes the unexamined baggage of a leader will be passed along unintentionally thru the rest of the organization. The organization starts to mirror the idiosyncrasies and dysfunction of the leader. He believes radical self-inquiry and honesty is critical to professional success and healthy relationships.

The idealistic types drawn to social change tend to be helpful, agreeable, and quick to question themselves, while slower to challenge their leaders. Intentional communities can combine the dysfunctions of the workplace cultures with the aspirations and devotion of religious groups.

Avoid Secrets

Transparency in communicating with the group prevents gossip, which can be troublesome because it is frequently exaggerated and offers a one-sided perspective. It’s also helpful to be involved in the larger community, so that they understand from your perspective what you’re about, rather than from rumors. Leadership skills and principles aren’t for manipulation or power over. The most effective leadership will be when your entire leadership team shares the responsibility and power of decision-making. This sets the stage for bringing in others to your community as you find those who are a good fit, and helping them level up. If your goal is to bring others up to your level as soon as they prove themselves trustworthy, there are few secrets you’ll need to keep.

Leadership Style

Here are some principles by which to identify pro-social versus self-serving leadership:

Leadership is…  Group-servingSelf-serving
motivating and coordinating the cooperation of others based on…identifying strengths and interestscoercion
persuasiveness is based on…honesty, sincerityexaggeration
based on a capacity to and willingness to benefit others, which is…broadly distributed and passed along among membersexclusive to in-groups or distributed in exchange for favors outside of agreed-on protocols
an attractive “occupation” for extroverts who…value affiliationvalue status
driven by…a vision of a better futureunmet and sometimes unexamined psychological needs
use of others’ vulnerability to…increase group cohesion and identify areas for growthtake advantage of followers who are (a) too trusting or (b) unable to determine how to avoid harm or tolerate exclusion

It is important to recognize that any leader can have a combination of beneficial and exploitative behaviors. In fact, it seems reasonable that few would exemplify either category exclusively. Imperfect leaders are effective when they have the humility to allow others to point out when they seem to be self-serving. Leaders can share power in a way that curbs their own excesses.

Even tho typically each project has a founder who is the prime motivator, it’s important to institute both policies and norms for shared governance. Without this, leaders can (even unintentionally) take advantage of the empathic nature of others.

Egalitarianism (participatory leadership)

Leadership is best when participatory, for several reasons:

  • All of us have faults. If there are no checks on a leader’s power, even the seemingly most engaged and mission-aligned leaders can operate dysfunctionally.
  • Too much pressure is placed on the leader, and not enuf responsibility is placed on team members for them to feel invested and add their best work to it.
  • The project won’t fall apart if an unexpected occurrence takes the leader out.

The following are popular participatory leadership models that have proven functionality and many descriptions to support their implementation:

  • Board meeting roles and protocols are used in many contexts worldwide, including many intentional communities, so this might be a familiar format to start with.
  • Holocracy is a proven model that is growing, even in the corporate world. It is suitable for even a small startup team and ideal if there is not one clear leader and the team wants to keep it that way. See https://www.holacracy.org/explore/why-practice-holacracy
  • Sociocracy is an excellent and proven model, but it’s designed for representatives of subgroups to meet up to report to main groups. As a startup, you’ll likely be too small for that at first.

Egalitarianism does not necessitate purely consensus-based decisions on all matters. In fact, Christian (2013) insists that decision processes can break down from weariness if meetings are too prolonged. Having a majority vote as a backup, after trying consensus for a set amount of time, can help alleviate decision fatigue.

The following are resources for developing self-organizing systems and participatory leadership:

  • Leadermorphosis podcast presents interviews with leaders who are innovating around shared and egalitarian forms of decision-making and profit-sharing
  • A consulting firm: https://amara.fi/stories/
  • Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations
  • Badass democracy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYES81Ibj4A
  • Loomio is decision-making software and web services designed to assist groups with
    collaborative, consensus-focused processes for proposals and ongoing

Christian, D. L. (2013). Busting the myth that consensus with unanimity is
good for communities. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-03-20/busting-the-myth-that-consensus-with-unanimity-is-good-for-communities-part-ii

Domet, S. (2020). A Q&A with collaborative leadership
facilitator Miki Kashtan.

Succession Planning

Burja (2020) notes, “A system can be functional in the founding generation, but rapidly dissolve after the founders are gone” (p. 179). As we borrow, restore, and invent governance practices that work for our particular communities, we serve the next generation by recording what works. We do well to borrow, restore, and invent rituals for disseminating this understanding.

Technology is the systematic application of knowledge, achieving goals that would otherwise be impossible. But not all technologies are material. The ability to organize human relationships, actions, and groups in organized and effective ways is itself a specialized form of knowledge called social technology. Like material technologies, people can develop social technologies to facilitate the flourishing of society and its people…. If there are sociological principles that are true in sufficiently large sets of possible conditions, then that knowledge can be reacquired. (Burja, 2020, pp. 174, 179)

How do we make sure our communities are not vulnerable to takeover by those intent on self-serving solutions? How can we protect ourselves from those who would take advantage of our work, to our detriment? We each must answer that ourselves, thru developing our intuition and seeking experienced sources of guidance. If we were to agree on and disseminate a prescription for how to protect ourselves, it would be used against us. Any system of protection could be gamed. You can’t go too far wrong if your intent is consistently for the greatest good; you’ll attract the help you need. But you can put in place protections that enable a balance of power and transmission of values. You have paved the way, are paving the way. Help the newer ones level up. Experienced community leaders would do well to let in new ideas, while new community members would do well to respect the the “tried and true.” Elders are obligated to share power in order to train the next generations.


References cited in this page are noted here.