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Growth and Community

by Karen Geiger

April 4,2005

In 1774, Charlotte’s population was 200. In 1974 we became the nation’s 50th largest city with a population that had increased a thousand-fold. Ten years ago we were at approximately 400,000 and today we are greater than half a million people. It is estimated that we will break one million by 2012. What implications might this have for our community?

Community is important to all of us in that it gives us identity, a sense of belonging and security. When it is strong, it serves to protect our freedom and motivates us to higher standards. It thrives when differences are seen as part of the whole, when leaders are capable of seeing a perspective that is broader than their own self-interest, when there is room for mavericks and nonconformists, when there is high participation from all members, when people in it have some core of shared values, and when each member of the community is respected, recognized and thanked for their hard work, and is aware that they need one another.

Growth changes the way we build community. In the traditional, small community, there is homogeneity: people have many things in common and are usually alike. Conformity is usually high, and there is a sense of history. There is often a leader or group of leaders who are dominant, and the rest of the community willingly follows them. Those of us who were in Charlotte twenty years ago might describe Charlotte this way: decisions were often made by a small group of powerful businessmen, the community respected this group of “city fathers,” government bodies were represented by people who focused as much on the city as a whole as well as their own district, the school system was smaller and more localized. The names McColl, Crutchfield and Lee were highly visible and most people knew who they were.

In our city of just under half a million today, we live in neighborhoods that are often homogenous within themselves: by race, income and, in some cases, political leanings. The increase in two-working-parent and single-parent families results in people not getting to know each other as well simply because there is less time together. Our sense of community often comes from our neighborhood, and our religious affiliations – where we are usually with those similar to us. The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey done in 2000 reinforced this trend, indicating that we are high in areas where we “bond” with others like us, but low in areas where we might “bridge” to those different to us.

What does this have to do with leadership as a tool to make and keep Charlotte as the healthy community we envision? First, we must begin to view leadership as a process as much as a position. If we continue to support the model of “dominant leader/compliant follower” then we put ourselves in a less involved position and where we depend on new highly visible leaders to emerge to tell us what to do next. What we can do instead is develop a “powerful leader/powerful follower” model. Coined by Ira Chaleff in 1995, this model assumes that leaders rarely use their power effectively over long periods unless they are supported by followers who have the stature to help them do so. In this model, we involve ourselves in the issues we care about and help the people in leadership positions to carry out the duties we have asked them to carry out.

Second, we can discipline ourselves to socialize and/or get to know people who are different than us. This prevents the human tendency to generalize and make conclusions based on limited information and gives too much power to institutions like the media to shape our opinions vs. learning from our own experience. As John Murphy said when he was our Superintendent of CMS, (my paraphrasing), “If you won’t integrate yourselves in your neighborhoods, then why do you think it’s hard for me to make integrated, neighborhood schools?” We set our leaders up when we ask them to represent only our homogenous interests when the reality is that we must work as a larger, more concerted community.

Maintaining a healthy community as we grow depends on each of us being courageous followers and leaders. There is a role for everyone.

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