Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up

Paul Schmitz

336 pages, Jossey-Bass, 2011

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Unlike many leadership books, Everyone Leads by Paul Schmitz focuses on leadership in terms of the action one takes rather than the position one holds. Or, as Schmitz writes, “moving from an emphasis on the noun leader to an emphasis on the verb to lead.”

Schmitz should know. As CEO of Public Allies in Milwaukee, he and his organization have worked tirelessly to strengthen communities, nonprofits, and civic participation by training young leaders across the country. Since 1992, Public Allies has supported more than 2,800 up-and-coming leaders in 18 communities.

Schmitz writes of leading as something one does to benefit communities rather than just one organization or group of individuals, defining leadership through three threads. First, leadership is an action many can take, not a position only a few can hold. Second, leadership is the means through which one can take personal and social responsibility to work for common goals. And last, leadership is the practice of values that engages diverse community members and groups in working together effectively.

Let’s take that first point. Schmitz lays out a passionate and compelling argument that leadership is not reserved for the minority, but is a responsibility that we all must embrace. This is a principle I have seen demonstrated many times in my work in communities across North America. Schmitz uses a combination of personal stories and Public Allies’ time-tested techniques to illustrate this principle. For example, Public Allies walks each leader through 10 principles of personal responsibility and the consequences of not accepting that responsibility. This can be a sobering exercise for a young leader, and one that prepares him for the challenges that lie ahead.

Although Schmitz provides a blueprint for individual leadership, the deeper value of his book is that it reframes leadership as a collaborative endeavor. Schmitz debunks the notion that one must be a founder or have a cultish following to create meaningful change. True social transformation has never been realized by one person’s vision, but by a group of people coming together for a common cause.

For Schmitz, the process of leading and building a community requires three elements: the leadership and engagement of residents; the services and support that neighbors provide to neighbors; and the coordination and collaboration toward common goals among citizens, associations, nonprofits, schools, houses of worship, and businesses in a neighborhood. The most successful community projects do not come from the top down, but from the ground up. People from local neighborhoods must work shoulder to shoulder to reach their goal—and without that deeper level of engagement, argues Schmitz, goals will not be reached.

Schmitz also advises how one should lead—through recognizing and mobilizing all of a community’s assets, connecting across cultures, facilitating collaborative action, continuously learning and improving, and being accountable to ourselves and others. I find Schmitz’s first point powerful. Communities often do not identify their assets. When you help community members recognize collective resources, you give them the confidence they need to take action for the greater good. After the first win, they are empowered to set their sights on bigger, longer-term goals.

Schmitz believes that to solve our most pressing societal problems we need to look for new leaders in our communities—whether they are students, parents, or local business owners—and enable these leaders to excel in collaboration and team building.

Schmitz is a master at taking what he has gleaned from his two decades at Public Allies and turning that knowledge into practical advice for all leaders, whether you are the head of a nonprofit organization, a college student looking to get involved in a campus cause, or a neighborhood activist. Everybody Leads is chock full of inspirational examples of people who have taken this path and with practical examples of how to get farther down the path. It is well worth reading if your aim is to be an effective leader or to develop new leaders for the societal issues and challenges of tomorrow. Timeless and evergreen, Everybody Leads provides crucial insights to navigating a world of constant change.