The acknowledged leader (chief) of a homeless encampment in Providence, Rhode Island, was happy to step down when some in the group of 50 or so challenged his leadership. After all, he’d never been elected. It was just that the 55-year-old former factory supervisor had always been seen by those who gathered around him under the condemned freeway overpass by the river as the leader. However, the American assumption is that followers have a say in who will lead.

It wasn’t long before fights broke out among those who had taken up residence in the little tent city. Food was stolen. Soon this once ousted leader was voted back in as the chief and the community created a compact that included a five-member leadership council and rules to guide the little community. By July, it had grown to 80 people with its own organization (tents of young single people and substance abusers are near the road so emergency vehicles won’t have to go through the rest of the camp).

While this community is temporary (the overpass will be torn down) it shows how the right kinds of leadership are critical to the health of any group. It may even suggest that the symbolic value of the identified leader is essential to the process. Their compact declares that “no person shall be greater than the will of the whole,” but it seems that having the executive function located with one chief person provides a kind of security that ensures the safety of the process.

Do you think leadership responsibilities should be taken on by one sole chief or carried out by a group of organizational members, especially during times of conflict? Why?

– Doug Riddle

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