Book review: Community

Community: The Structure of Belonging

By Peter Block

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. $29.95

Vote early and vote often. I’m running for president. I announced my candidacy the morning after a changing of the guard was announced at work.

This will be a high-tech, high-touch campaign. You’ll get to watch YouTube clips, download free ringtones (“I’m Jay Robb and I endorse this call”) and become my new best friend on Facebook.

Look for me to press the flesh at summer festivals and neighbourhood barbecues where, with my shirt sleeves rolled up and tie loosened, I’ll be kissing babies, flipping burgers and tossing around footballs.

True, I’m short on presidential experience. And there’s my lack of stamina for 18-hour workdays, my inattention to detail and an occasionally inappropriate sense of humour.

But check out my crowd-pleasing and vote-getting election platform.

Among my list of campaign promises are a PowerPoint prohibition and a partial ban on meetings.

No more death by PowerPoint and no more mandatory meetings where doing a no-show can be a career-limiting move.

I’m not your dad. You’re not my kids. We’re all adults who can figure out what’s relevant, what’s important and what’s the best use of our time.

Besides, the freedom to balk and bail out of boring and badly run meetings may force presenters to shape up and stop taking their long-suffering audiences for granted.

Now, not so long ago, I would have pledged a total ban. I once believed all meetings were time-wasters. As an international man of action, I preferred to be at my desk troubleshooting, problem-solving and saving the world. I’d give you a solution before you even had a chance to tell me the problem.

Yet lately, I’ve been getting invites to a new and improved kind of meeting at work and in the community. Instead of being lectured at and lulled to sleep, we’re having conversations. We’re talking about possibilities instead of problems.

Strengths, gifts and assets instead of weaknesses, shortcomings and liabilities. And we’re asking a remarkably reaffirming, restorative and refreshing


What can we create together? In short, we’re having the sort of conversations that author Peter Block says build community. And with community comes a sense of belonging and a shared accountability and commitment to put the greater good ahead of narrow self-interest. This creates the momentum needed to move our community and our workplaces forward.

“The need to create a structure of belonging grows out of the isolated nature of our lives, our institutions and our communities,” says Block.

“The absence of belonging is so widespread that we might say we are living in an age of isolation.”

Creating community takes leadership, although not in the way we currently know it, practice it and crave it.

Too many of us hero-worship larger-than-life leaders who can deliver us from evil, take us to the promised land, make the tough decisions and do the heavy-lifting that we’re not prepared to do ourselves.

And when our fearless leaders prove mortal, disappoint and fail to live up to expectations, we start searching for the next great leader. Block says this isn’t the way to build community.

“It lets citizens off the hook and breeds citizen dependency and entitlement,” says Block.

“It undermines a culture where each is accountable for their community.”

Instead, we need leaders who use their power and position to convene meetings that bring folks together, especially people from the margins.

Once we’re in the room, leaders then need to ask the right questions and actually listen to what’s said and not spoken.

“Leadership begins with understanding that every gathering is an opportunity to deepen accountability and commitment through engagement.

“Questions are more transformative than answers and are the essential tools of engagement. Questions create the space for something new to emerge.”

With engagement comes a shared sense of accountability and a mutual commitment to change the world. With engaged employees and citizens, the impossible becomes possible. Without engagement, you go nowhere fast and communities and organizations stay stuck.

“While visions, plans and committed top leadership are important, even essential, no clear vision, nor detailed plan, nor committed group of leaders have the power to bring this image of the future into existence without the continued engagement and involvement of citizens,” says Block.

“The world does not need leaders to better define issues, or to orchestrate better planning or project management. What it needs is for the issues and the plans to have more of an impact, and that comes from citizenship accountability and commitment.”

Smaller is better when it comes to bringing people together and having conversations that matter. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s lived through an all-staff meeting where big change is on the agenda and anxiety levels are off the charts.

There may be strength in numbers but there’s also a depressing lack of civility and common sense.

“The power of the small group cannot be overemphasized,” says Block.

“Something almost mystical, certainly mysterious, occurs when citizens sit in a small group, for they often become more authentic and personal with each other than in other settings.”

Block’s chapter on how to run better meetings is worth the cost of the book. He suggests making people feel welcome the moment they step into the room. Restate the invitation. Make a connection before delving into content. Learn how to handle late arrivals and early departures. Bring the room to life and bring life into the room. Think of yourself as an interior designer. Change the room and you’ll change the culture, says Block.

So before blaming the state of affairs in the community and in your organization on the politicians at city hall and the suits in the corner office, ask yourself what you’re prepared to create together.

I’d suggest you get started by holding a meeting or joining one of the many conversations that are happening across Hamilton.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s