As a journalist, I have always been fascinated by the sociology of leadership, the way communities and institutions work, and how things really get done.
The official channels of power in government and business are easy to map. Likewise, it isn't hard to trace, or at least speculate upon, the influence of money and the people who control it.
Beyond that, though, why are some companies, governments, non-profit organizations and even neighborhoods better at creative problem-solving than others? What are the best ways to make good ideas happen?
Karen Stephenson, an anthropologist and corporate consultant who has taught at Harvard and UCLA, thinks a lot of it comes down to "connectors." They are people who, in different ways, are adept at connecting with others to form trusted working relationships. They also are great at connecting others to form similar relationships.
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As part of her volunteer work, Stephenson has led efforts to identify key connectors in four cities: Philadelphia; Louisville; Tucson. Ariz.; and Portland, Ore. She just finished her first regional project, in the 10-county Lexington metro area, called the Bluegrass Community Connectors (Bluegrasscommunityconnectors.weebly.com).
Working with United Way of the Bluegrass, AARP and several corporate sponsors, the project tried to identify and learn more about key connectors in Fayette and nine surrounding counties: Anderson, Bourbon, Clark, Franklin, Jessamine, Madison, Montgomery, Scott and Woodford.
To identify those connectors, organizers said they sent 70,000 emails to people on the distribution lists of various business and community organizations. They got back 5,000 nominations, which were narrowed to 144 people. That was based mostly on how many votes each person got (factoring out any obvious efforts to stuff the ballot box.)
Six of those people wanted to remain anonymous; the other 138 were invited to a morning workshop and luncheon at the Marriott Griffin Gate hotel last Tuesday.
More than half of those identified in the balloting were familiar names: government leaders, business executives, heads of non-profit organizations and well-known community leaders. Others were not well known outside their communities or circles of influence. One goal of putting their names on a list like this was to raise their profile and give them some credibility among the traditional leaders, perhaps opening new opportunities for partnerships.
The project and its attempt to connect connectors got decidedly mixed reviews.
Several lesser-known grass-roots leaders said they liked getting to meet new people like themselves, some of whom were working on similar issues in other communities. A few said they found the 45-minute breakout session in which connectors discussed an assigned general topic, such as education or neighborhoods, to be so stimulating that they want to continue those discussions.
But many of the most effective local connectors I talked with later were disappointed. They thought the project lacked depth, vision or enough purpose to justify the effort. They described the session as superficial, repetitious, "old school" and not a good use of their time.
These leaders wanted more unstructured time to get to know the connectors they hadn't met before and to share mutual interests and ideas. They wanted bios and full contact information for their fellow connectors right then so they could connect on their own. They also wondered why more young, emerging leaders weren't on the list.
Bill Farmer, the United Way's president, said he isn't sure where the project will go from here. One idea is to get the Lexington and Louisville connectors together to build relationships and foster cooperation between Kentucky's two largest cities. Mostly, though, where the project goes will be up to the connectors, Farmer said.
A lot of time, money and effort was put into this project, and I hope some lasting good can come from it. Although the initial meeting was something of a missed opportunity, there is value in helping connect grass-roots leaders to one another and to people in traditional power and leadership positions.
But some of the most valuable lessons could be for the project's organizers. Grass-roots leaders get things done by listening to others, being more inclusive, embracing innovation, taking risks and by not trying to do everything themselves. Organizations that want to remain relevant in their communities could learn a lot from them.