Civil Leadership

Civil Leadership – introduction to the theme

Private individuals who advance public affairs in an unconventional manner

Civil leaders are private individuals who advance public affairs in an unconventional, often stubborn manner. And this is their explicit intention and motivation for that leadership.

What drives civil leaders?

Civil leadership was the subject of my dissertation for which I received my Ph.D. in 2014: ‘The Value(s) of Civil Leaders’ (Eleven). The research reported on my quest for the underlying values that drive civil leaders. I did research on a total of 30 such leaders who demonstrated their personal contribution to solving public and social issues. I performed a comparative analysis of civil leadership in three contexts: those of the private sector, non-profit organizations, and the informal world of networks, neighborhoods, and associations: the civil society. After all, civil leadership is also possible and visible in the boardrooms of large organizations and formal administrative positions.

Examples of civil leaders

Appealing and often well-known examples of these civil leaders are:

  • Piet Boekhoud, board chair of the Albeda College in Rotterdam, who took special actions and measures, exceeding his official duties to ‘take care of education’ as regional educational institution, to support vulnerable students who wandered the streets and shopping centers and sometimes even lacked food or a place to sleep.
  • Yolanda Eijgenstein who as an engaged parent, started a new form of elementary education, based on the innate curiosity and interests of children, named ‘Iederwijs’ (which roughly translates to ‘Eachwise’). Officially recognized as full-fledged and quality elementary education model after a long battle, one that also took place in the media.
  • Camille Oostwegel, entrepreneur, who renovated ruins in the province of Limburg, turning them into top hotels, Chateau Hotels, because he wanted to increase the touristic appeal and thereby the economic position of Limburg. By cleaning up the ruins, he also wanted to increase the pride of the province’s residents in their region.
  • Pastor Hans Visser, who started the day and night shelter for drug addicts and homeless people in the middle of Rotterdam, near his Paulus church, thereby socially engaging the church and publicly demonstrating that official institutions did far too little.

A great need for civil leadership

The need for this type of leader is great. These people and their leadership are crucial to public affairs. They seamlessly match the mission of Public Space: to initiate and cultivate civil leadership and social entrepreneurship, through ‘winning strategies for the common good’.

Civil leadership is often the driver of citizens’ initiatives. Groups of citizens tackle a public problem, or organize a public service, or support society through volunteer work, mutual cooperation, or philanthropy.

‘Using entrepreneurial skills in solidarity with and to support the vulnerable, good causes, and the public cause.’

Without civil leadership, social entrepreneurship is impossible. It is all about using entrepreneurial skills not only for personal gain or ambition, but in solidarity with and to support the vulnerable, good causes, and the public cause.

Initiating and cultivating civil leadership

Initiating and cultivating leadership as Public Space wishes to do is a difficult and paradoxical assignment.

Leadership is difficult to learn or teach. Much of it needs to come from within the people themselves, from their background, their values and motives, hence that subject in the dissertation research, and not in the least from their personality. Clearly, this personal leadership aimed at getting special social result doesn’t come from reading a book or taking a course.

In the case of civil leadership, this is even more difficult. Why would you, as a citizen, worry about the public cause: isn’t this the job of politicians, governments, and authorities? Why would you, as board chair or member, display active citizenship: you’re not paid for this, the organization you lead requires your attention, after all, isn’t management your core responsibility and crucial to your clients, staff, and financial backers?

Public Space works to initiate and stimulate civil leadership through lectures, debates, articles, and books. This focus helps people get over their initial hesitation. Public Space likes to demonstrate that more is possible, for the benefit of the public cause or to solve social problems. Our national and macro-analyses, in alignment with our mission, provide policymakers and funders with insights on how civil leadership can be advanced.

There is a long way to go yet, but all initial steps are helpful. Each change in attitude of citizens, administrators, and policymakers is a step forward in their own civil leadership journey and hopefully that of others as well.


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