Urban Equity blogs

Community Building in a Post-Trust World

22 July 2019 by André Darmanin0
Image Courtesy of New Jersey Health Initiative

While there are leaders within the community with whom they trust whether they are part of neighbourhood associations or from diverse leadership groups, most of the time they lack the resources or knowledge to improve their areas. Similarly, those community leaders have the institutional or local knowledge to provide to input. They lean heavily on politicians, who then turn to staff to build those bridges. They are the gatekeepers and intermediaries between a city’s vision and mission and the community’s interests. Having the leadership and trust between these parties is necessary. Servant and thought leadership approaches intersect in order to bring transformational change to a community. What they have in common is centered around building trust.

The intersection between servant leadership and thought leadership allows for community transformational change to occur.

While servant, thought and transformational leadership are terms that can be found in organizational behaviour and human resources literature, they can be used equally for community building.

Last week, I posted a video on social media associating myself as a servant leader. Given that one of my personality traits that I enjoy relationship building, this description fits me to a T.


I first came across Robert Greenleaf and the concept of servant leadership in the Leadership Effectiveness course I took while in Edmonton. A servant leader focuses on growth and the well-being of people and the communities they belong. The servant leaders have embrace diverse viewpoints, support them to achieve their common objectives and involve others in the decision making process when it is appropriate.

Servant leaders understand that community is only possible through strong relationships and collaboration. They are willing to talk to existing residents, employees, and councillors about a community’s needs. They also are willing to prod and ask hypothetical questions then look into the barriers. Throughout the community building process, they also must show enthusiasm of initiatives, flexibility while seeking long terms goals and emotional intelligence. What threads a community together is their shared lived experiences and understanding their needs are vital.


Thought leadership is a term I’ve heard bandied about from time to time. It is associated with such figures as Simon Sinek, Seth Godin and Tim Ferriss. But one person I came across was Denise Brosseau, a professor at Stanford University and runs the website Thought Leadership Lab. She outlines a 7 step process on how to be a thought leader.

Inage from Thought Leadership Lab

Thought leaders according to Brosseau:

  • Find a driving passion.
  • Build their ripples of influence by testing the opinions of others, see what resonates and leverage the position to tell the story
  • Build meaningful relationships with those who will champion your ideas and vision to a broader audience
  • Overcome any self-imposed limits to standing front and centre and risking your reputation to espouse a new direction or vision for the future
  • Codify your lessons learned and refine along the way so that others would want to follow.
  • Put yourself on SHOUT by being discoverable and connect with those who can build your ideas
  • Like any good strategic plan, use metrics to audit your progress, receive feedback from your audience, increase your influence, expand your impact and build your followers.


I’ve espoused the transformational leadership style since learning about it in my graduate organizational behaviour class (Shout out Carol-Lynn Chambers.) This is a more modern leadership style as opposed to the traditional transactional leadership. A formal explanation of both styles can be found here.

The tenets of this leadership style include these points:

  • It inspires followers to transcend their self interests for the good of the organization(or pertaining to this article, the community), which can have an effect on its followers.
  • Emphasis on the concerns and needs of the community and put those first.
  • Providing a clear vision and sense of mission, instills pride, gains respect and trust but have the ability to make the tough decisions.
  • Is an inspirational motivator and have the willingness to take the right risks.
  • Promotes intelligence, rationality and measured problem solving.
  • Focus on the personal interaction, be open minded, and listen to each individual’s needs.
  • Build consensus among the group and take the time to understand what motivates community members.
  • Follows through on the collective strategic goals while clearly emphasizing where the community’s interests lie within the municipality’s mission and vision.

In addition to these characteristics, there are two key points related to embracing the transformational leadership style in community building. In the blog post from Tamarack Institute’s Sarah Precious “Transformational Leadership: The Next Big Thing”, engagement and relationship cultivation critical in making transformational change within the community.


While there are commonalities were evident with the concepts of servant leadership and thought leadership and the transformational leadership style, one point really shone through – trust.

Trust is the litmus test. Trust is to servant leadership what profits is to business. It is the outcome, what gets measured and the scoreboard. That is paramount. With thought leadership, it starts with “why” as Simon Sinek has infamously pointed out. In his infamous 2010 TED talk, Sinek argued that people don’t actually buy what we do but rather why. The public will likely follow the lead of those who are authentic and this is where trust is built. Bringing this all together in building transformational change, community engagement is deemed a successful exercise when the individual needs and the history are listened to, when you help people relate to the pain of getting to the ultimate goal, and celebrate the small wins.

With the evolution of social media and the rise of fake news, trust for our leaders is at an all time low. How do we rebuild that trust? Videos from Denise Brosseau and a LinkedIn panel, both on thought leadership, outline some key points.

The key points of what I heard from the videos:

  • Trust begins when silos are broken and there is diversity of opinions and cultural inclusivity.
  • Having a safe culture means people will bring their best ideas.
  • Embrace people outside of our trust circles.
  • “Plenty of thought leadership in the world, but not enough thoughtful leadership. Live your life, not your brand. – David May
  • “Thought leadership is thought fellowship. Be in a community of thought experts who need to get out of their silos to contribute to complex problems of the day”. We communicate with purpose and with a human voice.”- Christina Ampil

It is evident that servant leaders are the politicians, and public, private and non-profit leaders. Thought leaders are those leaders from the community. They’re the ones who have the most knowledge and would provide the most insight. When both types of leaders come together, and trust is built, transformational change is possible.

Communities are going through drastic change by way more transportation options, increasing densities, and more diverse cultures. Change is never easy, especially in a rapidly changing digital world that is threatened by outside sources. While engrained urban myths that center around NIMBYism still exist among those who want to live with the status quo, this is not acceptable any more. Community strategic plans will need to be updated more frequently. Regardless of whether you’re a thought leader or a servant leader, the common thread is that leaders must be authentic and gain trust of the community while community leaders must embrace transformational change in a post-trust world.

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