An inspiring historical story is once again making the rounds at least partially because of its inclusion in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath. In it, Gladwell tells the story of the French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which became a safe haven for Jews in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Led by minister André Trocmé, the residents of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon saved between 3,000 and 3,500 Jews (in addition to others seeking refuge) from 1940 until the end of the war, bringing them into the community and hiding them from French and Nazi officials. By any measure, their actions were courageous and inspiring. They were also an example of the power of community in leadership.
We often think of leadership as a solitary task. Buying into Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” theory of history, we speak of leadership in solitary and personal terms. And certainly, history is filled with examples of men and women like Trocmé, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa who took bold individual action. But most real change — even the change driven by those aforementioned leaders — is community-driven and community-focused. Some of the greatest accomplishments in business, politics, and culture have come not from individual initiative alone but from those working in, with, and for community.
First, great leadership often starts in community. When facing great odds or forced to deal with unusual or trying circumstances, few of us are fortified enough to act alone, without counsel or support. This is a point often hammered home by Harvard Business School professor and former Medtronic CEO Bill George, who is a vocal advocate for what he calls “True North Groups.” These are gatherings of peers and mentors with whom we can share. They can counsel us as we face difficult problems and hold us accountable for acting in accordance with our values. Others have advocated similar constructs, such as a personal board of directors. And I’ve noted before the measurable benefits of mentorship. In short, no man is an island, and we are better leaders when we are rooted in a community empowered to counsel us, challenge us, and hold us accountable.
Similarly, great leaders often realize they must act not in isolation but with community. André Trocmé could never have shielded Jewish people in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon on his own; it took the collective efforts of the entire town. Few great changes happen until and unless a critical mass of community members collectively decides to own and execute the solution. William Wilberforce is often credited with leading the antislavery movement in the United Kingdom, for example, but would have accomplished far less without the broad-based support of Britain’s Clapham Sect and a number of antislavery organizations. Steve Jobs was a visionary when he started Apple, but his effectiveness suffered early in his career when he failed to mobilize his Board of Directors behind his vision. And any former management consultant can tell you that the easiest way to fail in a project is to come up with the “right” solution in isolation, without first worrying about getting the input of and ownership by the broader client organization. Ships have captains, but they are only turned when the entire crew works as a community to shift the ship’s direction. One of the easiest ways for a leader to fail is to forget that her power is limited in isolation and nearly endless if amplified throughout the collective intelligence and resources of the community.
Finally, the most inspiring leadership is that done for community. There are certainly moments when we do things purely for ourselves, and that’s not all bad. A distance runner racing to win a marathon is no less admirable if she is racing only to test her own boundaries and achieve an individual victory. But few will follow a leader who is focused solely on his own goals, and many of the most inspiring leadership victories are those done in service of a community.
This is obviously true in the world of nonprofits and human rights. Our greatest heroes are those who sacrificed themselves for the good of their communities — people like Clara Barton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Harriet Tubman. But it’s also true in business. Marketer Simon Sinek has noted that, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.” Many of the most motivated employee and customer bases are so motivated because they see an element of community service in the work their companies do. Whole Foods, for example, professes a motto of “Whole Foods, Whole Planet, Whole People,” framing their mission in terms of environmental purity and human wellness. They have engaged the employee base with a dedication to Whole Foods customers, to team members, and to outside charities. TOMS is famously founded on the premise of sharing its success (and the prosperity of its customers) with those in need. Zappos has built its reputation on providing excellent service for their customer community. People don’t like to follow leaders who are dedicated only to their own personal glory, but they will sacrifice everything for leaders and communities who give them a higher calling, a greater purpose. And whether in politics or business, leadership for community is almost always the most powerful.
These are old principles, but they are worth remembering. Lofty achievements like those of the little village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon are only achieved in community, with community, and for community. And the more we keep those principles front of mind, the greater chance we have to lead lives that do our communities a service.
blog posts by John Coleman HBR