A community leader is generally someone who is seen to be the ‘model representative’ of any given community. Sometimes community leaders are elected, or they might hold a prestigious office. At other times, community leaders can find themselves nominated for that position simply because enough people, either from within that group or wider society, hold them in high regard.

In an increasingly diverse country like Australia, communities form around cultural, ethnic or racial lines, but also around common interests or shared experiences: from political ideas to sporting clubs.

Technology now also plays a role in how we form social groups – “finding your tribe” is not just limited to geography or family ties anymore. With more options for role models and leaders than ever before, individuals don’t automatically feel represented to the communities they appear to belong to.

The challenges of modern leadership

There are many inbuilt challenges within community leadership roles, which are particularly common when times get tough for a community as whole:

  • Community leaders often juggle many professional and personal roles all at once: friend, family, mentor and expert. Sometimes it is hard to know which “hat” to wear when community members seek help.
  • Community leaders’ responsibilities are often informal, and resources – such as funding and time – can be an issue.
  • Some people, particularly young people, report feeling uncomfortable with seeking help from community leaders for serious issues. The reasons from this range from fear of getting themselves or others into trouble and not feeling genuinely represented or understood by leaders.
  • Community leaders often have to balance competing interests from within and outside their own community.

Other ways to lead

In the face of the various challenges, community leaders demonstrate leadership in a variety of ways. This can include:

  • Stimulating community relationships by being the link, or conduit, between people in your community.
  • Assembling and coordinating a team of people to work on community challenges.
  • Promoting the achievements of others doing great work in the community, including involving them in decision making.
  • Role-modelling not only good behaviour, but showing that vulnerability and fallibility is normal and acceptable.
  • Creating an open and judgement-free space for people to come together and solve problems to encourage help-seeking behaviour.
  • Being aware of what “hat” you’re wearing when people come to you for advice: are they asking you as a friend, family member, expert or mentor? This moment of pause and reflection can you help you manage other people’s expectations of you.

Ultimately, community leadership does not always require you to be the “fixer” – sometimes it’s about being the “linker”. The role of “community leader” is both a privilege and responsibility for those who find themselves in that position. When times get tough, it can also be one involving a lot of pressure. If you are finding yourself in this position, it is important to remind yourself of the many ways you can use your influence to help your community through tough times. It can also help to seek the advice of others – sometimes a different view can help shine a light on the right course of action.

If you need advice on how best to help someone you care about, call our Step Together helpline workers on 1800 875 204, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. 

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