There’s a tension that occurs often in chapters and regions (in fact, in any organization, but we’ll focus on chapters and regions for now). It goes like this:

  • The members elect their leaders (board officers, regional board, etc.)
  • The leaders expect to be respected and trusted to do their jobs and make wise decisions
  • Something happens where the members find themselves in disagreement with their leaders or at least want to be involved in the decisions.
  • This results in conflict between the members and leaders

I’ve seen this happen many, many times. Occasionally the leaders have been real jerks – even corrupt. But far more often they honestly mean well and intend the best for the group. In fact, they are often upset, even offended that they are not trusted to make the right choices. They feel like the doubt expressed by members of the group is a personal attack – even unfraternal.
At those times, one of the things I try to do is educate both the members and the leaders as to their situation and the nature of their own democratic institutions.
Here are some of the basic principles that are fundamental to a fraternal democratic organization:

  1. People can share the same goals, yet disagree on approach.
  2. It is possible, and necessary, for people to be fraternal and yet disagree.
  3. Everyone, including leaders, have biases, makes mistakes, and have incomplete information. Communication is an essential part of a functioning Democracy.
  4. Democracy abhors secrets. Other than strictly personal issues, a group (chapter, region, etc.) should be able to discuss issues openly and publicly.
  5. A member’s responsibility for their group does not end with the election of leaders. They must feel free to continue to question and challenge them.

Perhaps the hardest thing I’ve seen chapter and regional leaders do is handle this tension. It is important for members of a Democracy to feel free to publicly and openly challenge their leaders. That is part of citizenship in a Democracy at any level. Yet nobody likes to be criticized, and such challenges often feel like mistrust.
Successful leaders come to understand not to take these challenges personally. They learn to engage members, not just wait to be challenged. They proactively share available information with members and then consult with them, using chapter web sites, message boards and business meetings to help form a consensus. Great leaders want to be challenged and questioned – because they know that it is that level of engagement that builds future leaders, strengthens the group, improves their own leadership skills and helps them make the best possible decisions.
BBYO as an organization has taken a huge positive step to promoting democracy with the creation of B-Linked. Now, for the first time, it is possible for members to truly discuss issues that affect them on a regional, national and even international level. No longer are they limited to time constrained debate at a handful of regional business and international meetings, or hoping that their representatives will address issues that concern them. Just as blogs and forums have freed citizens worldwide from the shackles of government sponsored news and a few media giants, B-Linked has the potential to bring forth an entire new level of engagement and youth leadership to the organization.
I know some have criticized B-Linked, and certainly there are many issues that have to be addressed. But the recent discussions on B-Linked relating to policy are, as I see it, proof positive of the validity of B-Linked as a forum for open discussion and engagement, and I encourage every member to take full advantage of it.