query: leaders to organizers

colist at comm-org.utoledo.edu colist at comm-org.utoledo.edu
Thu Sep 25 19:42:55 CDT 2003

[ed:  I am very pleased to see so many people participating in this 
discussion.  This message includes contributions from Larry, 
Katherine, John, Holly, and Moshe].

From: LJHalliday at webtv.net (Larry Halliday)

Before we get into models, I'd like to comment that I tend to think 
that leaders can be good organizers, but organizers can't be good 
leaders. As mentioned, if we examine the responsibilities of each I 
believe it becomes apparent. Foremost, leaders have a following, 
organizers do not. The differences also seem to become more 
recognizable dependent on the growing size of the organization. It 
might serve well here to also distinguish between "organizers" and 

Some years ago, Shel Trapp commented upon his getting to know 
Gale Cincotta that he was amazed how good an organizer she was, 
as well as a leader. I would say that the leader/organizer is a rare 


From: Katherine Turner <kturner12 at rogers.com>


After monitoring this discussion for a bit, I'm beginning to wonder if 
our insistence on the clear division between leading and organizing 
is not a bit patriarchal.  

Some models of leadership actually exhibit characteristics that are 
very similar to organizing.  

On a personal level, I'd much rather organize than lead but both 
roles are essential and the mix of personalities and skill sets within 
the context often impacts of where I end up.  

Katherine Turner  


From: John Gaudette <johng59 at earthlink.net>

A couple points in regarding leaders to organizers:

-my father, Tom Gaudette, was a leader in his neighborhood 
organization before he was hired by Alinsky as an organizer.  As he 
would say "there is no model in community organizing."  

-My experience in hiring leaders as community organizers has 
been a mixed bag.  It failed when I judged a leaders success 
without the proper tools.  Good leaders are good leaders because 
they have certain skills and attributes.  These are very different 
than the skills of an organizer.  i know this is obvious, but look at 
the leaders experience as a starting point for the analysis of a 
potential organizer, not as the final determination of their ability.  

John Gaudette


From: Hickson holly <andivy2 at yahoo.com>

I come from some modest experience with faith-based 
organizations and find that any one of a number of models CAN 
work.  Whether a particular model WILL work is, as are most 
things, based upon the clarity with which roles and expectations are 
defined and communicated.
The powerful integration of congregations with organizing leads to 
some fascinating dynamics as to the degree of horizontal and 
vertical structure might play out.  Clergy leaders and/or organizers 
may come from a virtual paramilitary structure to a personality cult 
(not meant in any perjorative way at all)    It is important that the 
leaders, organizers, and the faithful massesbe clear aabout the 
power structure and the agendas, both overt and covert.    I have 
watch a local group nearly crumble under the weight of preserving 
a cumbersome structure where  flexibility and a little inclusiveness 
might have yielded a greater sphere of influence rather than the 
loss of control feared by talented leaders who were not prepared or 
supported to be organizers.  


From: Rabbi Moshe ben Asher & Magidah Khulda bat Sarah 
<kharakim at jps.net>  

Randy raises the question of “. . . whether there are certain 
conditions under which different models [relative to the roles of 
organizers and leaders] work or don’t work.”  

Seemingly there are at least three important variables: the (1) 
tradition of the organizational-institutional setting and, within that 
tradition, (2) the degree of structural and cultural support for role 
definitions, and (3) mechanisms and processes of leadership 

Most of us have experience in organizational-institutional settings 
that have sufficient longevity to have become reified to some 
extent, such as labor unions, thus providing (ideally) well-
developed structure and culture to ensure clear boundaries and 
limits on the powers vested in leadership roles, and means to hold 
accountable those who occupy those roles. Notwithstanding the 
theoretical and practical imperfections with which we’re all familiar, 
the probability is that an integration of leader and organizer roles is 
likely to work more successfully in such settings.  

Ad hoc organizations, such as neighborhood action groups--lacking 
well-developed structure and culture to define the roles of leaders 
and organizers, without personal and organizational experience 
and confidence of holding leaders and organizers accountable, and 
less sensitive to the powers that can be subsumed by those 
occupying the roles--are much more susceptible to manipulation 
and outright rip-offs by individuals in leader-organizer roles.  

Part of what makes this whole topic fascinating is that, unlike any 
other profession, the educative mission of organizers is to transfer 
virtually all of their knowledge and skills to leaders. Unlike doctors, 
lawyers, accountants, etc., for the most part we are not employed 
to produce instrumental outcomes or “wins” per se, but to mentor 
leaders so that they have the capacity to produce such outcomes. 
In the final analysis, when the organizer succeeds in this regard, 
the substantive differences between the knowledge and skills of 
veteran leaders and organizers is minuscule.  

It’s worth noting that most grassroots organizers have an abiding 
belief in the necessity for a sharp, inflexible line to be drawn 
between organizers and leaders, which, while taken as an article of 
faith, runs counter to the historical tide of successful movements 
(led by leader-organizers)—not just the labor movement.  

The grassroots commitment to keep leader and organizer roles 
entirely separate, reflecting our justified preoccupation with 
nurturing, serving, and protecting indigenous leadership, often has 
the unfortunate and unwitting effect of overlooking both the 
necessity and opportunities for staff leadership. It’s one of the more 
problematic ideas put into practice by people doing the work, that 
organizers aren’t to take active leadership roles. While definitions 
of the organizer’s role can be cut differently for the various times 
and places of our work, few professionals in the field regard STAFF 
LEADERSHIP of members as necessary or appropriate. If we listen 
carefully we can hear ourselves saying that organizers help 
members learn--for instance, the necessity and processes for 
planning and reviewing actions--but that somehow we’re to do this 
by organizing them, without exercising leadership. It’s impossible, 
of course. If we succeed, it’s by leadership--by speaking first (either 
with questions, alternatives, or statements), acting first, and being 
followed. By denying to ourselves full awareness of our roles, not 
acknowledging that we take the lead at specific times under 
selected circumstances, we contradict the shared realities and 
practicalities of members. Moreover, we fail to be accountable and 
give them directly what they’ve paid for and expect, and we end up 
manipulating people and situations to exert influence.  

Even so, I’ve seen the well intended but misguided staff leadership 
prohibition--“organizers should never lead”--produce destructive 
results. In one case, members of a neighborhood organization 
failed to take action, even though people felt deeply about a local 
issue, had worked out a simple and effective strategy to deal with 
it, and were ready individually to do the jobs that needed to be 
done. All that was lacking was an organizer to speak up and 
suggest forming an action committee and then to pass around a 
sign-up sheet. While the example is extreme, not like ordinary 
behavior by competent organizers, it’s factual and aptly illustrates 
the absurd lengths to which misinformation and inexperience can 
push organizers’ misunderstandings about staff leadership.  

In fact, apart from staff leadership it’s not practicable to develop 
members as leaders. In most community organizing, the first 
precedes the second in the sequence of the organizing drive--the 
drive simply doesn’t happen without staff leadership.  

The language we use to describe their positions creates much of 
the confusion regarding leader and staff roles. In effect, we know 
there are structural differences in member-leader and staff 
positions in the organization, that is, there are formal divisions of 
authority and responsibility. But in the matter of roles, we should 
agree that organizers must communicate virtually all they know to 
member-leaders, and much of the time organizers should take the 
lead themselves, at least to initiate vision and process--which is not 
the same as saying they should occupy formal leadership offices.  

What are the limits or guidelines for organizer leadership in 
grassroots organizing? My own teaching in this vein as a grassroots 
organizer is as follows: All such leadership by organizers should be 
conscious modeling to encourage others to take similar leads. It 
should always be sensitive to the goals of building ownership, 
knowledge, and skill among leaders and members. It should focus 
first on process (i.e., “builds” rather than “wins”). It should never 
usurp decision-making. It should never be the organization’s public 
voice. And it should never be embodied in formal office.  

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