Place Based Leadership

To lead with a real sense of place means throwing away our certainty, because truly working on creating value for a place doesn’t come with a project plan, a tool kit or a nice set of outcomes ready to be RAG rated and performance managed. It comes with a belief that there is potential in that place, that the place and community can flourish and thrive and that we may have a role in facilitating that. We must let go of any any sense that we are in control or in charge. To lead with a clear sense of place we cannot be heroic saviours but must be humble custodians, understanding the community and place we are part of, what drives it, what it values, what it loves, what it hopes for and we must tirelessly in the service of that hope and aspiration.

“Are we willing to be insecure as we explore what it means to be in this together?” – Margaret Wheatley

Working with place – it’s going to be messy!

Working with place is working with a complex adaptive system. Myron Rodgers says these systems have a number of characteristics:

  • Chaos and complexity: ambiguity, uncertainty and unexpected connections. Order arises from chaotic and unmanaged micro-interactions, rather than because of some design from on high.
  • Emergence: living systems seem chaotic and unpredictable but their patterns are created by simple underlying rules which are not usually apparent to the actors.
  • Cognition: no one person can ever ‘see the system’. Each person will have a different perspective depending on their place in the system and what they see determines what they do.
  • Networks: people are strongly linked by their informal ties and by the stories they tell. If the ‘official line’ doesn’t fit with the lived reality of players, they will ignore or subvert it.
  • Self organisation: social systems preserve their identity. Once a group or organisation has formed a loyalty, people will act to hold on to the identity they have created.

He also has 5 maxims for working with these complex adaptive systems

  • Real change happens in real work: make place based work real, real for the communities, real for people, co-created, co-designed and co-delivered with the community.
  • Those who do the work do the change: get actively involved in the change, don’t leave it to others. Be the “co-” part of co-created
  • People own what they create: Involve, facilitate, collaborate, co-design.
  • Start anywhere, go everywhere: It is more important to start and see where it takes you than have a specific outcome in mind. Find the good places to begin, go with the energy.
  • Connect the system to more of itself: From our viewpoint we can often see more of the system than some of the other players, one role will be to spot and encourage powerful new connect and new collaborations.

There is no right way and no prescribed methodology, there are many paths and many great destinations so how we work with place will be unique to the place we are in, it will be full of uncertainty and our journey is likely to be an interesting wander through country lanes rather than a quick trip down the motorway. Our leadership role will be to help our communities to navigate through the fog of uncertainty. Perhaps the best way to understand the system is to get in and get our hands dirty. As Kurt Lewin said, “You can’t understand the system until you try and change it” – but as we dive in some landmarks, maps and principles will certainly be helpful.

Design principles for place based work

Chris Ham and The Kings Fund have described a pragmatic design principles framework that helps the NHS and partners to move towards place based work. It recognises the differing histories and experiences of partners in working with place, in particular the relative experience of local government in comparison to the health sector.

The principles are:

  • Define the population group served and the boundaries of the system
  • Identify the right partners and services
  • Develop a shared vision and objectives
  • Develop an appropriate governance structure
  • Identify the right leaders and develop a new form of system leadership
  • Agree how conflicts will be resolved
  • Develop a sustainable financing model
  • Create a dedicated team
  • Develop systems within systems
  • Develop a single set of measures

Working with communities

Working with communities can be described best as “letting go and leading” and it is often founded on great open collaboration that starts with inquiry, understanding, exploration and storytelling. There are tried and tested collaborative approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space and World Cafe that help to bring useful structure to community engagement and building.

  • Appreciative Inquiry is about the coevolutionary search for the best in people, their organisations, and the relevant world around them”
  • “For many, Open Space has been a daring and marvellous exploration of the vastness and the urgency of personal and organisational transformation. For others, it’s just an exceedingly effective, and efficient, meeting methodology”
  • World Café is a powerful social technology for engaging people in conversations that matter”


Our leadership inquiry

So what should leadership be in this chaotic system?

Well unsurprisingly the answer is far from straight forward. We know that flexibility and adaptability is important, being able to respond and react to different situations. We know that at times we need Commanders to provide answers, at times Managers to organise process and, in complexity, Leaders to ask questions (as Keith Grint suggests). One of the most important things is that our leadership is authentic and based on robust inquiry into who we are as leaders, how the world experiences us and who the leader is that we want to become.

In a series of lectures to the Arts Council of Wales Margaret Wheatley, an expert in leading in complexity, describes the challenge that leaders face in our current environment, exploring leadership in ‘challenging times’ and takes viewers on an exploration of the leaders we are and want to be, encouraging us to become Warriors for the Human Spirit!

And Yukl (2013) believes the role of leadership is to:

  • Help to interpret the meaning of events

  • Create direction and alignment around strategies and objectives

  • Nurture commitment and optimism

  • Encourage trust and cooperation

  • Create a sense of collective identity

  • Organise and co-ordinate work efforts

  • Enable collective learning

  • Ensure necessary resources are available

  • Develop and empower people

  • Promote social justice and morality

Yukl (2013)


Most importantly leaders will be the custodians for the future potential of a place, creating and holding the spaces for disruptive, radical and rebellious conversations that lead to new thinking, new ideas and transformative change. We will need to find our own authentic way of being that leader and that will be a personal journey with a wide impact.

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