Generating ideas, connections, and action

The Individual in Collective Leadership

About two weeks ago, I was referred to a news article called, “Dribbling Man,”[1] about a man who embarks on a mission to find himself. His chosen path: to walk from Seattle, Washington, USA to Brazil in time for the World Cup all while dribbling a soccer ball. Richard Swanson had planned to follow the coast until he arrived in 2014, but a mere two weeks after his journey began; he was killed in a collision near the 101 freeway on the Oregon coast. Although this was an extreme tragedy, what intrigued me the most was what I saw as Richard’s quest for purpose[2].


Richard’s story is not new. Even, the author of “Dribbling Man,” Robert Andrew Powell,  shared a similar story of his own quest for purpose in that same article. Both Richard and Robert sold or liquidated what assets they could, gave up whatever roots they had, and hit the road on their own; all to realign a life’s purpose. The quest for purpose is ageless and can happen once and/or multiple times in a lifetime. This timeless search is part of normal development and is testimony to the complexity of humanity. Depending on the timing, some may need a severe break away, others a more subtle revisioning, while others may land somewhere in between, but the need for purpose is behind it all.


The individuals portrayed in the article and countless others have paid a high price in the search of purpose. But could it be possible to find an individual’s purpose in our current environment without breaking away from the world? Could it be found in the collective leadership model? Can together we find a purpose that highlights the individual’s need for recognition and uniqueness while changing society?


This is where I am reminded of the Collective Leadership model; working together to change something bigger than ourselves; than one single individual. The collective model does not mean that we forget the individual but rather that many individuals collaborate through differences and challenges, through personal re-envisions, and work together. However, one of the challenges to working together is working through the individual’s need for purpose and finding a collective purpose that unites the group. For this, I find it helpful to return to a simpler time; before the social measures of success are ingrained into us.


At my daughter’s preschool, our youngest citizens are taught that they can be independent and make their own choices, but that their purpose is to model and help each other. The system works because they can find significance (purpose) and happiness in leveraging their agency towards caring for each other and their community. Each child has a role to play, each one is teaching each other and they are the enforcer of the rules. The older children teach the younger ones how to communicate with one another and they are also modeling respect in that process. They do not believe in huge parades or award ceremonies to acknowledge their communal contributions, but rather they thank each other with a child’s sincerity. When someone makes a mistake or they hurt each other’s feelings, they are each responsible for voicing their pain, and they each volunteer solutions to rectify the situation. During these sessions of conflict resolution, another child may even be the mediator, but the teachers are always there in the background to supervise and intervene if things get out of hand. Each child is therefore an agent of the community, and each child’s voice is respected and valid, and each one is accountable to the other.


Now I know some of you might think, “What could I possibly learn from a group ranging from 18 months to six years-old?” but these kids are pretty determined. Last month, a group of five and six year olds organized a sale of the school garden’s overgrown kale to collect money for the homeless people they saw on their drive to school. They cut down the kale, they tied it into small batches, they made a sign, and sat by the main gate, and sold kale at $2 a batch. All on their own; they saw a problem in their neighborhood, they thought of a solutions, they rallied their peers and teachers, and implemented it collectively. They then inspired the parents to donate more goods to the local shelters and sparked a conversation amongst themselves during circle time as to why this was a persistent problem and how they could preserve energy and food so that others in the world could have equal access.


Without having to be reminded or told, they look for ways of serving their small community and hold each other accountable. There are about 6 teachers for 50 toddlers and their role is auxiliary providing the structure, limits, and coursework, but the implementers; the real movers and shakers, are the kids propelled through their investment for one another. Now don’t get me wrong there are real consequences to big problems, just like we as adults have the law, but they work with each other every day to improve their community. Since the beginning they are given the building blocks to understand themselves and then understand their place; they must learn to take care of themselves and then can take care of others. These little citizens understand their role in the world and use their community as a small microcosm for social change. This is leadership development that is collective, authentic, and invisible; this is also real purpose.


Adults can find purpose as well. We can find it within us[3] and in each other. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.[4]” Although Richard Swanson died tragically, his last video (posted 20 minutes before his death) shows a happy man. Robert Andrew Powell, makes an interesting argument for how Richard found something greater (purpose) and euphoric happiness in the strangers that encouraged him along the way. He was so emboldened by being a part of something bigger, on the kindness of strangers, that in his last moments his spirit was lifted and he transcended his “worldly pain,” if only shortly. Richard did find relief in being a part of the human race and comfort in the kindness of others; in the power of the collective.


I know that there are many other stories out there on how different people in our community found their purpose. I propose we collect these stories, and share them within our own community. Let’s learn from one another.


How did you find your purpose or how are you currently looking for purpose? If you haven’t reached that point in your journey yet, what questions come up for you?

Let us know through Twitter (@MiriamPersley and @LeadershipEra) or by email (



Image Source: woodleywonderworks

[2] Purpose: The Reason for which something [someone] exists.

[3] We came across this neat How-to-guide as a reference

[4]  Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning


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