Skip to content
Students working together

Exploring leadership in community organising and collective action

  • School: Nottingham Business School
  • Starting: 2021
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Self-funded


Community-based and collective organising are key ways through which community members seek to access and/or transform public services, shape public discourses and policy decisions, and fulfil their basic human rights. Such collective efforts may be aimed at local, national or global issues, be formal or informal, and take either collaborative or confrontational approaches vis-à-vis other institutions and actors. There are many risks for communities when engaging in collaborative processes led by government or other institutions (Cooke and Kothari, 2001), and thus community-led action remains an important lever to gain influence and work towards social change (Cornwall, 2008).

In this context, community leadership has been identified as an integral aspect of collective organising and action (Drivdal, 2016; Welton and Freelon, 2018). Collective movements are also often described as ‘grassroots’ and bottom-up processes, operating without clear leaders or a single point of influence driving the process, with leaders potentially emerging over time (Barker et al., 2001). This raises questions about the point at which leadership becomes necessary, what may drive the emergence of leadership, and the form and role that leadership takes in collective processes. Studies on community leadership join a growing field within leadership studies that challenges theories centred on the heroic individual who inspires and motivates followers, in favour of more collaborative, shared, distributed, relational, critical and practice or process-oriented notions of leadership (Carroll, Levy and Richmond, 2008; Uhl-Bien, 2006; Lauzon, 2017). The aim of this project is to explore the role and practice of leadership in contexts of community organising and subsequent collaborative and/or confrontational initiatives, in order to generate insights into how leadership emerges and operates, and what difference it makes to collective organising and agency. This would include an exploration of how certain individuals become formal leaders, the impacts of different forms of leadership on the types of activities undertaken within the community, the relationships formed with external stakeholders, and the effectiveness thereof.

Methods and approach
While the research will be situated in the leadership literature, the PhD student will be able to demarcate the particular leadership approach and theories employed (e.g. distributed, relational, critical, practice, etc.), as well as introduce additional theoretical concepts and frameworks (e.g. collaborative/participatory governance, social movements, gender intersectionality, institutional analysis, systems theory), depending on their background and case selection, in order to further scope the project.

The research will take a qualitative approach comprising a combination of document analysis, interviews, focus groups, participant observation, and ethnography. The research may focus on a single in-depth case study, or multiple cases from different regions or countries for comparative analysis. The PhD student can select to focus on a specific movement (e.g. #FeesMustFall, Extinction Rebellion), on a specific issue (e.g. health, education, sanitation), or on a particular community setting (e.g. neighbourhood or informal settlement). There is also an opportunity to build on existing networks and previous research related to the South African local community context. However, the PhD student will be able to select the region and specific cases for the research depending on their background, contacts and network-building efforts.


Barker C, Johnson A and Lavalette, M (Eds) (2001) Leadership and Social Movements. Manchester University Press: Manchester.
Carroll B, Levy L and Richmond D (2008) Leadership as practice: Challenging the competency paradigm. Leadership 4(4): 363–379.

Cooke, B. & Kothari, U. 2001. The case for participation as tyranny. In: Cooke, B. & Kothari, U. (eds.) Participation: The new tyranny? Zed Books: London.

Cornwall, A. 2008. Unpacking ‘participation’: models, meanings and practices. Community Development Journal, 43(3):269-283.
Drivdal L (2016) Community leadership in urban informal neighbourhoods: Micro-politics and micro-administration in informal settlements in Cape Town. Urban Forum 27(3): 275–295.

Lauzon A (2017) Community leadership and global climate change: the case of rural and small communities. In: Wang V (ed) Strategic Leadership. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, pp.143–164.

Uhl-Bien M (2006) Relational leadership theory: Exploring the social processes of leadership and organizing. The Leadership Quarterly 17(6): 654–676.

Welton AD and Freelon R (2018) Community Organizing as Educational Leadership: Lessons From Chicago on the Politics of Racial Justice. Journal of Research on Leadership Education 13(1): 79–104.


Professor Mollie Painter

Doctor Elme Vivier

Entry qualifications

For more information please visit the NTU Doctoral School – Research Degrees webpages.

How to apply

For a step-by-step guide and to make an application, please visit our how to apply page.

Fees and funding

Find out about fees and funding for PhD projects.

Guidance and support

Find out about guidance and support for PhD students.

Still need help?

Mollie Painter