You are a member or participant of a community or an organization (or even a country) and you suddenly see an opportunity where you can solve a problem, perhaps multiple problems, and make things better for others. What are the steps you need to take to gain the trust and be accepted as the leader, even though you don’t have the title and are not the ‘recognized’ leader? Can a self-appointed leader overcome the odds and bring about positive change?
Outlined below is a real life scenario that made me think about the role of the self-appointed leader as an implementer of effective solutions. When working in developing countries, positive change is not something that can be legislated or imposed from the outside, and it doesn’t happen fast. Change needs to be embraced by leadership within the community; this can be a self-appointed leader, an individual who is not the recognized traditional leader such as the chief.
No clean water
The problem in my real life scenario was that there was no clean drinking water in a village in Sierra Leone. The solution was improved sanitation, and rainwater harvesting (the latter contribution from our team was a water focused non-profit). The first part of the solution was far more challenging, and was implemented by a partner organization on the ground who taught the value of sanitation, which enabled the community to embrace and adopt safe sanitation habits & practices, which were new and very foreign to the community, but of life saving importance.
It starts with a self-appointed leader in the community, our partner organization said, and I asked “how do you recognize this self appointed leader?” They said it starts with a certain look in the eye…. an ‘aha’ moment… a moment of recognition that the idea from us outsiders will be a positive move for the community. Safe sanitation was the first step, and a very strong incentive, to earn the opportunity to build the critical rainwater harvesting infrastructure.
The village in question was required to ‘earn’ their clean water, by implementing the use of latrines in the village. “Safe Sanitation First” was the slogan of the partner organization, and a foot note here: if a community doesn’t understand how to practice safe sanitation, then it is more than likely they will contaminate any clean water made available to them.
I next asked why the actual chief was not the logical person to lead the community. The chiefs are usually chiefs for life (in the particular area of Sierra Leone) they told me, and the chief’s goal might be more about accumulating wealth for himself, than focused on doing the greatest good for the village! The chief’s expectation might be a latrine built for himself exclusively (by a benevolent western charity) for which he can charge the villagers to use…. Situations like this are incentive for a self-appointed leader to take control!
Our candidate, with a glint in the eye, talked to his inner circle of cronies, those with whom he already has some level of trust; then these groups of individuals spread the word within their groups of trusted friends and relatives, eventually bringing about buy-in of the whole community. Think of it as a ripple effect of trust and communication.
The focus of our partners was to have universal buy-in by everyone in the community.
Where you don’t have a universal buy-in, something like this happens; money was donated (by a benevolent western charity), to install 200 latrines in a rural community in India. The follow-up 14 months later revealed that 80% of the latrines were not being used as intended; instead, the individual household latrines were being used to store household valuables, as a safe, dry closet! That’s what can happen with solutions from outside, when there is no leadership, no real understanding of the need, and no buy-in from the community itself!
Here are some of the steps a self-appointed leader climbs to take effective control:
- The Problem: It all starts with a problem, one which maybe quite obvious, however it’s much more important to understand the “WHY’ of the problem, which is seldom as obvious. In the case of our real life example, everyone understood the lack of safe clean water, but the connection had not been made between it and the predominantly non-hygienic conditions.
- The solution: The proposed solution is often obvious, however the “HOW” and the “WHEN” are both crucial ingredients, which perhaps only a visionary or someone ‘owning’ the leadership role can bring to the mix. The self appointed Leader in the village in Sierra Leone did have the skill and foresight to communicate the importance of the latrine program to his village. He explained clearly how this was an incentive for clean water.
- Communication: If you don’t have trust, then you can’t expect people to listen or take what you say seriously. In the case of the self appointed Leader above, it seemed there was trust first; the glint in his eye was the revelation that at some level he knew he would be able to get the message across!
- Trust: This might be an existing trust between people who are known to each other or have credibility, or it might be something built from scratch based around the discussion of the problem/solution.
- Acceptance: This is the spark that lights the fire of action!. The first small group shows the acceptance of the idea by building the first latrine in the village.
- Implementation: When the acceptance of an idea or solution gains momentum, everyone pitches in and goes with the program. The team visited villages where there was nearly 100% compliance with the “Safe Sanitation First” initiative, and the difference was immediately noticeable as “pride in ownership”, manifested as a clean environment, with a safe water source, resulting in improved quality of life, especially the health component!
- Success: Success manifests itself in many different ways based on the problem solved. In the case of safe drinking water in an African village, sustainability becomes an important part of the focus. Once implementation is completed, will the positive results continue, and who will be there to insure that they do? Will this be the self-appointed leader, or will the village chief take over the leadership in sustaining the improved quality of life?
We are frequently frustrated with traditional leadership and complain loudly when it has failed to solve problems. Perhaps there are already those in our midst not in a traditional leadership position but who are capable, credible and willing to solve issues if we allow and support them to implement positive change.