Peter Block’s “Community: The Structure of Belonging” – Part Two: Leadership as Convening

January 19, 2009 on 2:25 am | In Human Systems, Stimulated by the Literature, Transforming | No Comments

This is part two of a series devoted to reflections on Peter Block’s book “Community: The Structure of Belonging“.

Block discusses leadership from a slightly different perspective than one finds in most of the leadership literature. He perceives the central role of the leader – who could be anyone in any group or community with the will to be the leader – as one of convening. He speaks of convening as a powerful act that brings people together to jointly discover possibility meaningful to their given community. What is the power of merely convening a group of people? By convening the leader creates a viable – Block would even say “sacred” – space for the members of that community to find out what matters most to members as a collective, to bring the gifts of each individual to the center, and to embroider upon the possibilities they hold dear. This is the act of creating what we want to see – creating our future.

During this historic time in the United States – and in the world – and on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States, the concept of leader as convener takes on a certain power. Perhaps it is the possibility that Obama so often invoked when he called us to believe “Yes we can!” during his campaign, that indicates he has the power to convene. Certainly there are problems for which we must find solutions but the most important work must be to bring people together in the spirit of community and to regain that sense of possibility that many of us had appeared to have lost.

Hope and possibility are the banners of the era that we enter in spite of the extraordinarily troubled world and national situations. This mix of optimism and hope with problems and anxieties is interesting in its ability to move us away from the concept of absolutes we have not only endured but also played a part in creating over the past decade or so.

Perhaps the lesson of the time is that by coming together – by convening – we can begin to remember that subtlety is more the hallmark of human thinking, meaningful human communication, and human aspiration than any absolutes are, that we do not need to choose between caring about the problems that worry us and the wishes we hold in our hearts – that they are, in fact, part of a whole.

Each of us can be a leader in our communities – and we all belong to numerous communities at work, in our neighborhoods, in our synagogues, mosques, and churches, in our schools, in our families, and in our society. Playing the role of convener is simple and requires only that we leave our egos at the door and that we pose the questions that start conversations. It is not about us “being leaders,” it is about us having sentience and the presence of mind to realize that convening is what is needed. It can happen anywhere and at any time.

We can bring peace and prosperity to our communities and homes, we can develop the compassion and hope that will allow us to jointly design our futures. The difficult times we are experiencing have much to teach us about collaboration and “thinking in the future tense,” in the words of anthropologist Jennifer James. James tells us that we need to learn how to see with new eyes, recognize the future, understand the social context, change and help others change, and to concentrate our energies in order to create progress.

Peter Block describes the “retributive community” as one in which compassion is marginalized, associational life is devalued, and finding fault and allowing fear to power our conversations and actions reigns. The “restorative community,” by contrast, is one in which isolation is not allowed to exist and one in which new energy is created, a new sense of aliveness and wholeness comes into being, and one in which we embrace belonging. It is belonging that will help us not only face the future but create it according to our greatest aspirations. So hope has a good reason to exist, after all.

And for those who worry about who will step up to the plate and take responsibility for creating community, Block wisely writes, “Accountability is the willingness to care for the whole, and it flows out of the kind of conversations we have about the new story we want to take our identity from…Entitlement is a conversation about what others can or need to do to create the future for us.”

Future President Obama is certainly accountable to the people of the United States but he is, by no means, the only accountable individual in the story. We must all look for our leadership roles and consider how critical it is that we convene and attend to the development of the social fabric upon which our future depends.

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