The rise of new leadership communities will shape many aspects of business and society in the 21st century. But there are some key challenges that need to be solved to ensure that we maximise the benefits of this trend. This is especially for true for someone trying to form or build a community, whether within one’s organization or beyond it in the broader public community. Which challenges do community-building leaders face, and how can they be met?
Across the world, different groups assert themselves in society based on a shared identity. People identify around race, gender, nationality, sexuality or religion. Identity politics, based on this cultural tribalism, has slowly become a dominant force in politics, supplementing or even supplanting the traditional left vs. right dynamic.
Dividing the world into tribal groups has the potential to create polarization as ideas and negotiation take a backseat to this tribal identity or that one. With tribalism like this, it matters more about which team you are on, and doing what it takes to ensure your team wins at all costs. This effect is made worse by the competitive nature of our societies and the continuous squeeze of job loss to automation and globalization. In the end, if people can’t discuss and negotiate using logic and persuasion, and oppose each other based on emotion and innate identity, then there is the risk of inter-tribal warfare such as we see in other regions.
With our modern access to the internet, the majority of people in the West are logging in most days of the week, through their smartphones or computers. This includes young children and people who are potentially at risk such as depressed or angry individuals. Typically, these individuals tend to have a lot more time and end up spending more time on the internet. In some cases, they can find themselves part of a group which presents them a narrative about the world. There may be influential leaders in this group that gives them a new identity and helps shape their thinking about who is to blame for their troubles.
In recent years, we have seen this with radical groups targeting mostly young men such as ISIS or neo-nazi groups. Both of whom make use of the internet to reach at risk people with new age propaganda in the form of memes, slick visuals and a common purpose.
On a much less sinister scale, the rise of influencers, both celebrities such as Kylie Jenner and smaller social media names creates important questions around power and responsibility. We traditionally think of power in the sense of old institutions, money or military. But power partially comes from influence over a tribe or community – the ability to leverage the hearts, minds and resources of people. Someone with 200,000 followers has power to an extent, and depending on their influence it could be used positively or negatively.
The ability for individuals to reach and build a tribe without the need for gatekeepers is something that should be celebrated. Although limiting the scope of innovation, gatekeepers did play an important role in the past which is now being highlighted. The overarching issue is the lack of quality control which can allow misinformation and disinformation to fester. As anyone can build their own platform and reach people who may be less educated, conspiracy theories, fake news and propaganda are thriving. Even for more critical thinkers, it can sometimes be hard to discern what is true or not. Traditionally, we have relied on the integrity of trusted gatekeepers to disintermediate the truth. Now, it’s an information wild west.
When it comes to being part of influential communities such as the YPO or IVY, there are specific drawbacks that you need to consider before you consider joining. Finding the right people, narrow focus and a lack of a bigger vision are some of the challenges these groups are facing.
There are many different leadership networks and influential communities, each with their own set of offerings and distinctive membership. These groups have done an excellent job bringing together influential individuals, but what’s missing at the moment is something that unites diverse groups to create a network of leadership communities. This means that there is an opportunity to further increase the exchange of ideas and collaboration while also allowing members to gain the benefits of multiple influential communities.
Alignment and coordination of these communities will be essential when it comes down to solving the biggest challenges and having the biggest impact. One community can have a significant impact, but what could multiple leadership working together achieve? This lack of alignment also goes hand in hand with a lack of vision. Many communities offer tangible benefits such as personal growth, network and impact, but there isn’t a clear vision or purpose that can really bring people together. This is particularly important as the biggest challenges we face today can only be solved by the people with the most influence and capacity to bring people together.
Impactful communities typically operate in the form of local chapters, with occasional events on the national and global scale. Although the personal connection can be stronger with localized communities, there is an opportunity lost to connect with influential individuals around the world. Having a global network of peers is increasingly becoming more important due to the opening of markets and the cross diffusion of different cultures. There is a real need to learn from people who are operating in different markets, but in the same industry. Connections like this could lead to global collaboration and help you if you plan to expand into new markets.
The challenge here is replicate the same connections that are being built with local chapters by using digital to connect people globally. Issues in regards to time zone, cultural differences and lack of close connection have to be overcome by leveraging platforms and latest technologies such as video conferencing and augmented reality. But once these challenges are overcome, influential people will be able to connect more effectively.
The lack of a global network also relates to the problem of finding the right people to develop relationships with. An individual may be doing business in a small town in England, but the people he may need to meet could be in a bigger city or another country. This is a key challenge that influential communities face – facilitating the right connections. And it’s not just about introductions, there needs to be a real relationship being formed that lasts. To do this, the community managers need to do the right research and really know their members before setting up introductions or organizing forums and boards. A mismatch of people can lead to precious time being wasted and member attrition if not addressed.
The event format of impactful communities also poses a few problems. The first of which is on the ground logistics. It is difficult for members attending these events to identify the right people they should be speaking to. For the most part, it is a matter of luck and relies on the interpersonal skills of individuals to navigate the community. The second problem is that events, although they may be very engaging, doesn’t give members enough time to build relationships with each other. It is often the case that people meet at events and there is a lack of follow up which means many potentially great opportunities go unfulfilled.
Most entrepreneur communities typically focus on supporting only one dimension that entrepreneurs need to thrive in. There are others who take a more holistic approach and try to integrate other aspects of life, but there isn’t a sustained approach that integrates aspects of personal, entrepreneurial and social aspects into one direction. And importantly, solidified by an overarching philosophy or vision which creates an entirely new way of living. Through the concept of aliveness, organizations such as The Argonauts are attempting to solve this through creating a new holistic paradigm and bringing together diverse individuals.
By focusing on revenue numbers, age or other simple metrics, communities miss out on uniting diverse members to collaborate and have true global impact. Great innovative ideas are often the product of random encounters where information and problem solving meshes in unique ways. This is one of the reasons why cross-disciplinary collaboration is becoming more important. Companies such as Apple and Google have recognized this importance and have designed their offices in such a way that people from different fields bump into each other and exchange ideas.
Imagine the potential impact that could be created if up and coming entrepreneurs are paired with senior leaders in their field. On the one hand, you get an outside perspective that isn’t burdened by dogmatic thinking or rules. On the other, you have the seasoned directive of an industry veteran who can better see when an idea is truly disruptive or whether it is illogical. Likewise, what could happen if philosophers, artists and entrepreneurs are paired together? Each brings their own distinct world views and perspectives which could amplify and compliment each other.
Employees also don’t often benefit from the CEO’s membership in these communities – leading to a huge loss in value. Particularly for management, there are key learning takeaways and growth opportunities that could lead to greater organizational change. As well as CEO’s benefiting from networking with their peers, so can sales leaders and human resource managers.
The bigger picture problems of communities relate mostly to tribes and non influential people. But there are specific challenges you will face when it comes to organizing your own community. If you are in a situation where you need to build your own tribe, be that within your organization or to create customer evangelists, there are a few things to keep in mind. Building a community is a process of both design and engineering. Except for the fact that you are dealing with people so there are many variables which could collapse your efforts.
Tribes don’t form around every single product, idea or person. Although it is possible to reach a global audience, there is still a competition for people’s attention, loyalty and money. In some cases, particularly in business, it won’t be possible to build a tribe around your product or service – the majority of us do not work in sectors that are inspiring or aspirational in the same way that Nasa or Harley Davidson is. However, it is possible to use effective branding and content to go beyond your product and build a following around a theme, identity or lifestyle.
An excellent example of this is what Redbull has achieved with their partnership and promotion of extreme sports and youth culture. Take for instance the annual organization of Redbull Culture Clash which brings together upcoming artists in underground scenes. Or their organization of extreme sporting events such as the Redbull Rampage and the Air Race Championships. They started as a simple energy drink but had a much larger vision. They wanted to be the drink that powered some of the most adrenaline fueled aspects of our lives and in doing so built an identity around the drink associated with living life to the fullest.
As building a tribe requires creating a shared identity and purpose, content, events and platforms are often needed to achieve this. There is an ongoing investment that is needed to develop communities in the first place, and without this care they can fail to reach the critical point where they become self-growing. This means that the effort to build a community won’t have a clear ROI in the beginning and like platforms, the value of the community grows with the more people that are in it. It can be hard to get people to be part of something that isn’t already established, and you will likely have to focus on nurturing your loyal early adopters.
A problem that occurs with communities is that as the leader you have to maintain the upkeep of the community. A few problems that arise include:
A problem with some communities – in particular causes and movements – stems from the distributed nature of their leadership. The Occupy Wallstreet movement and in recent times the Yellow Vests protests are examples of this. As there is no central authority, the cause of the movement can be hijacked or become obscure. The result is that people begin to lose motivation as nothing is achieved and the community begins to disband.
Even in a situation where you are leading a tribe, there can often be a lack of consensus which leads to internal power struggles. By catering to one aspect of your community, you alienate risking another. In extreme cases, sub communities can form which distinguishes themselves from the broader group and if left unchecked may split and form their own group. This creates problems particularly when the leadership of a community is weak – it’s a fine act between balancing a set vision and adapting to community participation.
Now that you have an idea about what the main challenges are with joining and nurturing communities, we will start taking a look in the next section about the practical steps you can take to make the most of this trend.
Stefan Beiten is a lawyer, international entrepreneur and investor from Berlin. With more than 20 years of experience, Stefan is an expert in building, scaling and managing successful businesses.