Rachel Kennedy, PhD Candidate, Virginia Tech University


The processes of civil society evolution in the post-Soviet era continue to be a topic of scholarly discussion. Civil society is flourishing and becoming emboldened as neoliberal economics circumvent the globe, leaving behind weakened state structures. Although much has been written about civil society in Latin America, North America, South-eastern Europe, and most recently, post Arab Spring, Northern Africa, the Republic of Turkey is rarely part of the conversation (Baccaro, 2006; Bevir, 2010; Chandhoke, 2001; Gollanger & Hartz-Karp, 2013; Miller, 1992 and Putnam, 2000). Recently, scholars specializing in topical areas are exploring Turkey’s social movements: environmentalism (Özen, 2009), anti-globalization (Gümrükçü, 2010), human rights (Negrón-Gonzales, 2012; Pierini 2013), and organic foods (Akyüz and Demir, 2014). However, the most salient published work (in English) devoted to civil society is the recent publication, Europeanization and Civil Society: Turkish NGOs as instruments of change? (Ketola, 2013). Noted scholar, Markus Ketola, dissects the idiosyncratic nature of Turkey’s civil society development, extends Ziya Gökalp’s notion of “Turkish-Islamist-Western Modernism” as the formula for reform, and argues that “there is a particular Turkish narrative for explaining why non-governmental organization (NGO)s behave the way they do, and this narrative forms an important part of an analysis of Turkish civil society” (Ketola, 2013, p. 162).

As an outsider who loves a good intrigue, the idea of a “particular Turkish narrative” is captivating. As a researcher whose work converges on the nexus of civil society and food systems, the idea that Turkey’s civil society and food systems are rarely documented in English language publications provided stimulus for development of a research fellowship proposal. Thereafter, with intrigue and funding, I set off across Turkey during the summer of 2014 as a research fellow to see what I could learn about operation of Turkey’s civil society actors working on issues within the agri-food systems and how they negotiated the “alternative food network” (also called “community food system” in US parlance) discourse. Those insights are the foundation for this paper.

Herein, I revisit the data with an eye toward the leadership style embraced by three of the organizations with whom I spent time. In an attempt to better understand their narratives, I analytically employ modern leadership theories. Realizing that these theories are ultimately bound by Western indoctrination, and that cultural nuances may not be evident from this approach, the tone of this paper is more descriptive than deterministic. Before delving into my analysis, I explore the context for the modern Turkish civil society.

Turkey’s Modern Civil Society

In 2004, during ‘harmonization’ proceedings (pre-accession negotiations), with the EU, Turkey was forced to acknowledge that its approach to civil society in general and toward non-governmental organizations (NGO) specifically was not acceptable to the EU. The European Commission’s report Recommendation of the European Commission on Turkey’s Progress Toward Accession highlighted the prominent role of civil society and outlined reform measures (European Commission, 2004). Focusing on two main policy streams: democracy and dialogue, numerous projects were established.

To further promote the continual evolution of democracy in Turkey, the EU set up three main target areas (Ketola, 2013). First, structured dialogue between NGOs and the public sector were established. Second, comprehensive trainings, seminars, conferences, and publications to enhance NGO capacity building. Third, grants to rights-based pursuits such as women’s rights, disability rights, consumer rights, child rights, and environmental activism as well as funds for activities that promote human rights and democracy, combat violence against women, and contribute to civic engagement.

In regards to dialogue, specifically differences in cultures, religion, issues of migration, concerns on minority rights, and terrorism, “civil society should play the most important role in this dialogue” (European Commission, 2004, p.8). The most extensive commitment was the “Promotion of the Civil Society Dialogue between Turkey and the European Union” which ran from 2006-2009 (Ketola, 2013). Funds of €19.3 million were divided across four sectors: universities (€9.3 million), towns and municipalities (€5 million), professional organizations (€3 million) and youth initiatives for dialogue (€2 million).

In addition to the EU investments, Turkey passed two significant laws opening the way for NGO development (The New Law on Associations- 2004 and The New Law on Foundations- 2008). Both lifted restrictions and provided protection, thus allowing for NGO and civil sector development and activism. Many heralded this as a new era and a preeminent Turkish scholar stated that for the first time “freedom of association is no longer an oxymoron” (Ketola, 2013, p. 87). Ketola also informs that although the newly established Department of Associations holds administrative capacity and funding to aid NGOs, “there is an underlying belief that NGOs should first prove themselves to be developed enough to make good project partners” (2013, p. 88).

Why A Leadership Frame?

Turkey’s civil society is heterogeneous and deserves in-depth coverage after a thorough embedding in the process. Similarly, the historical and contemporary contextualizations of the agri-food system are equally rich and nuanced. Both provide powerful societal narratives. With humility, I acknowledge that my data derive from a pilot study and more in-depth analysis must be held until I further investigate civil society and agri-food systems within Turkish culture.

At the same time, as a research fellow, I was privy to the practical details of several organizations and groups, allowing for rich interviews and participant observations. In analyzing my data, questions about their organization formation, leadership style, and main focus areas were readily answered. The data reveals a story that should be told. Thus, I focus on the portion of the nexus between civil society organizations and the agri-food system where leadership occurs.

The leadership frame exposes their inner workings. Leadership theory provides a backbone for revealing the role leadership plays in organizational development and social process fomentations. As Simon Western points out “what happens in the [organization] has a reflexive relationship with the wider environment. Understanding…leadership in the [organization] is therefore essential to society in general” (2008, p. 200). This brief exposé of leadership styles can contribute to understanding the diversity of NGO development and style. We also begin to see the contributions each is making to the larger civil society-agri-food system nexus. The remainder of this paper articulates the leadership style displayed within the workings of three organizations. All have some aspect of food advocacy.

A Local NGO Starts Up

Çanakkale is a busy city, bustling with young professionals, fisherman selling the day’s catch, and tourists heading in all directions. I was told to stand outside of Hotel Helen and wait for Farmer Yusuf* to pick me up. He approached the busy intersection, picking me out in the crowd, and for the next hour we tried to communicate in broken Turkish as he navigated the twisty roads leading into the mountainous countryside. Upon arriving in the village that headquarters Agrida Agricultural and Tourism Association, I was taken to an older home prominently placed on a central hill and warmly greeted by the fluent English speaking president. During my time staying at the headquarters, I had entree to the president, members, and stakeholders. They spoke opening about their leadership and how this is working. Evidence of sense-making, as laid out by Hough, McGregor-Lowndes, and Ryan (2014), was profound in all discussions.

Sense-Making as Leadership Behavior

Agrida became an official Association (NGO) in 2010 with 23 members who hope to “promote traditional and natural farming and related tourism in Mt. Ida” (Agrida, 2010). Given the newness of this organization and confounded by the challenging paradigm shifts they face as Turkey grapples with both material gain from transnational corporate seed companies and increasing demands from civil society for more sustainably oriented agriculture and attention to villager’s rights, it was not out of place to see that the organization is engaged in sense-making.

Agrida feels that it is their duty to bring about a shift in relationship between two seemingly divergent fields, ecological agriculture and ethical tourism, in a way that is principled and financially solvent. They like the term eco-agro-tourism. However, like many young, inexperienced, and poorly funded organizations they may have limited data available to make informed decisions about their future direction. There are many hurdles to jump and they are learning as they go. Perhaps, as they hope, they will write a new chapter in agri-tourism, farm-cations, or peasant-urbanite integration. At present, their sense-making process is about “creating interpretations” from pieces of perceived reality (Hough, et al., 2014).

Karl Weick, considered the founder of sense-making discourse, proposes seven properties of sensemaking (as laid out by Hough et al., p. 150-151) and these are presented below along with statements (in parenthesis) spoken during my field work. Sensemaking is:

1. grounded in identity construction (“We are still defining who we are.”),

2. retrospective (“The agriculture office lost our papers; maybe they don’t want us to go forward.”),

3. enactive of sensible environments (“If we can get the campground up and running, we can be known as a real education site.”)

4. socially constructed (“Our name comes from that mountain there, Mount Ida, and that we are farmers. So we put the two together…Agr-ida…Agrida.”),

5. on-going, immersed in the flow of experience (“Having our name on the WWOFER [World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms] was really good for us. People want to come all the time.”),

6. focused on and by extracted cues (“The Minister called today, oh my this is big. I have to tell everyone now!”), and lastly,

7. driven by plausibility rather than accuracy (“I think the women here would like the extra income they’d get.”)

From this brief interpretation of a local NGO starting up, we see hope for the future and a desire to be part of the continued shift toward democratizing and deliberation via dialogue that the EU promotes. Leadership between the president, board, and members is working toward sensemaking. Who they will become and what they will achieve is all on the table. What became apparent during this field study was that similar to the case highlighted by Hough et al. (2014), the leadership style in place is heavily influenced by the president judging their organizational performance on the basis of personal background and experiences in this and other organizations. This does not detract from the organization but should be a topic for conversation.

What Does Path-Goal Theory Tell Us About Their Main Leader?

Path-Goal leadership theory asserts that a leader should take on the responsibility of helping organization members by removing obstacles or helping them get around unmovable obstacles (Northouse, 2010, p.130). Further, theorists state that the goal is always to enhance member performance and satisfaction by focusing on member motivation (Northouse, 2010, p. 125). In this theory strategies are delineated by taking into account the differing needs of members and different tasks undertaken.

During my stay with Agrida, the president spoke of the obstacles they have overcome in their first four years, from the farming angle, from the eco-agro-tourism angle, and from the organizational development angle. Yet, he spoke confidently of how these were removed and how the outcomes are better than expected. One board member commented on the “achievement oriented” nature of the president. Another member spoke of the “supportive” role the president played in getting villagers on board. Signage posted around the headquarters are highly “directive” (for example, detailing the workday for volunteer WWOOF’s – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) but they also show great care in adding “participative” elements. Prior to my trip to Turkey and since my return, I frequent the Agrida facebook page and note the highly interactive style with which the president leads the organization. Most recently, a project creating a permaculture test garden, a main achievement the president wanted to complete before the end of 2014, was conducted by both directive and participatory methods.

All of this points to a leader who is highly capable of determining what leadership style to create given the members motivation, skills, and commitment level while simultaneously taking into account the task that is before them. Thus, this is a prime example of path-goal leadership in action.

United As an International Service Movement

From the moment I arrived in Diyabakir, I sensed the gentle spiritedness of the guides who would be with me for the next seven days as I traversed the south-west desert cities, towns, and villages and continued back to Istanbul. Days were packed with meeting people who passionately told about the many activities the myriad organizations perform, all aimed at making their society better as encouraged by their inspirational leader. We discussed food security, which is a thread of their larger mission, and I quickly learned about their communally held expansive vision which is guided by master frames of service, tolerance, and appreciation for nonviolent approaches to embracing diversity. These leaders represented a Turkish arm of “Hizmet” (meaning service) which started in Turkey but has since transformed into an international social movement. In Turkey a multitude of diffusely arranged NGOs oriented to businesses, educators, farmers, humanitarian aid workers, media specialists, and medical, as well as social activists and town and village leaders unite toward service initiative. As I traveled with various members and guested with many families that belong to Hizmet, I learned that their processes, and the way they define themselves, fit with the model of transformational leadership, especially as developed by Kouzes and Posner over their 20 years of research (1995).

Transformational Leadership

Kouzes and Posner emphasize leader-follower trust as the central key to transformational leadership. The true benefit is that individuals are stimulated and motivated to work toward the larger vision at the same time that they feel honored and respected, thus more empowered, on an individual basis. Current theory states that five main concepts contribute to producing sincere leader-follower trust and transformational leadership, ultimately leading to high commitment to a course of action. These five are: Challenging the Process, Inspiring the Shared Vision, Enabling Other to Act, Modeling the Way, and Encouraging the Heart (1995). They also state that leading by example is the most profound way to promote the values of an organization. With Hizmet, I see these concepts flowing naturally from the members and into the NGOs through which they serve. In many ways they challenge the process that is the cultural norms under which they live, this due this in respect of a shared vision of a harmonious society. Evidence of enabling others to act is seen prominently in the humanitarian NGO and in the education centers. Each person I encountered realized that they were modeling the way and shared their personal stories in heartfelt manners, this in turn encourages the heart of those that listen. As I reviewed my field notes, I found numerous quotes about “leading with the heart”, “feeling love toward each person”, “working for tolerance”, and numerous Gulen recitations spoken.

What does servant leadership theory tell us about their main leader?

Robert Greenleaf irrevocably changed leadership discourse when he transfigured the concept of leader from one who makes organization decisions into one who is a servant to those in the organization (Greenleaf, 1977). Servant leadership calls for a leader who “seeks to draw out, inspire, and develop the best and highest within people from the inside out” (Greenleaf, 1977, p. 3). In thinking about Hizmet’s main leader, Fethullah Gulen, I highlight two principals Greenleaf avows as axiomatic to servant leaders: responsibility and love. He stated, “I think of responsibility as beginning with a concern for self, to receive that inward growth that gives serenity of spirit without which someone cannot truly say, ‘I am free”. One moves, then, to a response to one’s environment, whatever it is, so as to make a pertinent force of one’s concern for one’s neighbor—as a member of a family, a work group, a community, a world society” (1977, p. 306). Regarding love, servant leadership theory proposes that love is a motivating force for “unlimited liability” which inspires servant leaders to rebuild our community-less society (1977, p.53).

I have not met Gulen in person, yet his many books, articles, and blogs evince his creed and approach. For example, Toward a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance (2004) rings with a Greenleafian feel, calling followers to establish dialogue, tolerance, and concurrence among differing groups. In his philosophies and deeds he calls for and seeks ways for people to utilize their strengths for the betterment of self and the world. The Second International Conference on Islam in the Contemporary World hosted presentations about the Hizmet movement with quotes from personal interviews with Gulen such as, “Gulen’s purpose is not to be or becoming a leader, he would rather be a slave and servant” (Celik & Alan, 2006, p.110). Learning vicariously about him from people devoted to his vision, gave insights about specific ways that he epitomizes servant leadership. As a leader he inspires educators and medical staff, journalists and business owners, humanitarians and children, house wives and village leaders, all moving toward a common goal of service.

Local NGO Emerges From an International Movement

Coming into the bustling Taksim Square from the underground tunnel, I stopped to adjust my eyes and set off walking to the Slow Food Istanbul headquarters. Inside the gated building I was greeted by the 50ish year old cook turned organizer and the convivia’s catalyst. Between the gourmet kitchen and the wall-sized windows, we set down to a table that easily fits 15 people during their shared weekly meals. Over aromatic Turkish coffee, I learned about their 2008 beginnings stemming from conversation about food quality and heritage. As new members came the conversations expanded to concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), fast food “meal deals”, and fears of health illnesses emerging in Turkish youth. Soon their group created action steps and affiliated with Slow Food International. They then began a long journey toward creating a paradigm shift in food processing and the fight to save the Blue Fish. As the docent interspersed examples of their actions, I also heard more about the raucous debates about the future of food they still have over their convivial meals. There was a procreative atmosphere surrounding the group. It was apparent that this Slow Food group does as much ‘talking’ as they do ‘doing’ and that through ‘talking’ they find their place and set down stakes. This calls to mind one of the “hot topic” issues with NGOs, even delineated in the “Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards,” book by Ryan, Taylor, and Chait (2004).

Generative governance as Leadership: This NGO is steeped in participatory processing and joint accountability. More specifically, they are actively engaging in generative governance (Chait, Ryan, and Taylor, 2005) with little boundary in leadership between the board and president. Chait, et al. (2005) defines generative governance as processes that explore the potential unknown challenges, define questions to be asked, ask the hard questions, and work at the organizational boundaries. Similarly, in reporting on one nonprofit case, Beck (2014) states they:

“exemplified generative governance: their meetings were filled with questioning and discussion, rather than reports about events that had already occurred; members assumed situational leadership roles, sharing expertise and knowledge that expanded their collective capacity to make effective, future-oriented decisions; and they welcomed diverging perspectives on topics under consideration. They did meaningful work that impacted the future of the [organization]” (p.120).

Within this organization, it is easy to see that the board-president dynamic is fluid and conversation and debate is highlighted as a positive aspect of growth.

What does social identity and leader emergence tell us about their main leader?

As the convivial organizer spoke, it became apparent that not only are the boundaries between the group members fluid, but that the role of leader was one that emerged in the process of talks. Social identity theory of leadership states that followers pick and construct the leader, meaning that if a person in the group is thought to be influential and fits the “prototype” (representation) that the group likes, members encourage the emergence of that person into a leader role. Researchers have found that certain personality types are related to leader emergence: intelligence, confidence, and conversationally dominant (Northouse, 2010, p.6). However, personality is not the only basis for emerging leader. Another aspect to consider is that “the follower has several unmet needs which a potential leader may or may not be able to fulfil. These are the need for clarity (where are we going?), the need for meaning (what are we doing this for?) and the need for safety (will we be OK doing this?)” (Jackson & Parry, 2011, p.60). Thus, the leader is picked because the members have a sense that this person can aid in the group development.

In this study, the convivium leader was very open about how she came to this role during the years of talks. She was often the one to set up the meal dates and welcomed people into her home due to the size (the 15 person table, for example). She also had built social and political capital due to her work in the restaurant industry. These were easily transferred to the group and brought in new members, meetings with the media, and more. It’s easy to think that this articulate, chef-trained, go-getter of a woman would easily come into a Slow Food leader role. However, interestingly, she was somewhat nostalgic of the days when the group was just beginning and reflected on the leadership potential in all the members. In fact, she discussed her desire to step down, so to speak, and perhaps join one of the smaller convivial. She is hoping that a new leader for this one will emerge soon.

Conclusion: Different Narratives, Different Styles

In conclusion, civil society in Turkey is blooming in what was once an arid landscape. New laws provide protection and citizens are empowered to take on active roles in shifting society. By being privy to the inner workings of three organizations, I was able to document different narratives and how this presents in different trajectories. Thus, by way of this epigrammatic paper I shed light on the leadership styles and the different leader comportments as they work on agri-food and large societal issues. Each has a unique status and, thus, displays different characteristics. No doubt, there are many strains felt by budding NGOs and there is abundant proof that Hizmet oriented organizations are specifically targeted (due to poor relations between the government power structure and Gulen’s philosophies). This will affect their ability to remain stable and move toward their larger goals. Future research should explore that interface.


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