Muscles & Mindsets for Shared Leadership: An Imperative for the Future
This is Part One of a blog story on shared leadership in action. A little over one year ago, Elissa Sloan Perry (a faculty member in the MA in Leadership Program) and Susan Misra started a new chapter in their journey together. After careful consideration of how to approach a leadership transition in the 35-year-old nonprofit organization where we were both employed as senior staff, the board agreed to name us CoDirectors of Management Assistance Group (MAG). Over the last year we’ve been building a shared leadership culture with our partners, staff, and board. This article was originally written by both Susan and Elissa, and was shared on the MAG website.
Why Shared Leadership?
At MAG we envision a future where everyone experiences dignity and love and where resources are shared in a way that affords everyone the opportunity to realize their full potential. This future requires all of us showing up as our best selves – leading together toward a different future in a culture of shared leadership and interdependence. We know that there is a spectrum of leadership approaches that extends from more technical and directive
styles of leadership at one end to more adaptive and collaborative styles of leadership at the other. Addressing the complex challenges that we face as an organization, and as a people, requires the whole spectrum and everyone in the ecosystem around those challenges to show up appropriately in their role understanding the whole spectrum and ready to show up in their strengths as the work unfolds and our context changes. As we consult and coach with social change organizations deepening their capacity to do this, it is important that we too practice building and living in a culture of shared leadership.
In our reflections, we’ve identified five key lessons that have made this model effective for us:
- We have developed a shared identity as leaders and commitment to each other’s success.
- Shared leadership goes beyond us.
- Power & privilege affect our ability to lead.
- There are fundamental mindsets, habits, and practices that are necessary for shared leadership to work well.
- Becoming a learning organization helped us to increase adaptability and accountability.
Our CoDirector Guiding Principles
- To continue to be honest and transparent with each other.
- Ask rather than make assumptions.
- Listen and be willing to adjust.
- Maintain friendship.
- Honor strengths and growth potential in each other.
- When we disagree or if there is lack of accountability, pause and have constructive conversation with each other. If needed, talk with board chair. If needed, bring in a coach to facilitate or mediate.
- It is okay to have a good closing if it isn’t working for one or both of us – and to seek support along the way.
- Remain deeply committed to each other’s success.
We have developed a shared identity as leaders and commitment to each other’s success.
We have known each other for over eight years. We spoke with many other co-leaders when we started, and learned that they similarly had long-standing, trusting relationships. Because we already knew about each other’s dreams, strengths, and weaknesses, we could have direct conversations about our differentiated roles and how we wanted to work together – while trusting that the other person had our best interest at heart. We also continually surface and address differences of opinion, challenges, and doubts that are often considered unmentionable. In this way, we can rapidly adapt together.
Early on, one of those challenges was around how we communicate externally. As CoDirectors, did we use “I” or “we?” Elissa wanted to convey internally and externally that we share leadership, and leaned towards “we.” Susan wanted to be clear about who was responsible for decisions or statements, and leaned towards “I.” We had a conversation about how it felt to each other when we heard “I” or “we” and what each of us felt was respectful. We decided to develop a joint identity, which meant not only communicating “we” but also making sure that we really do understand each other’s work, agree on what we were saying, and are clear that we say “I” when we mean “I”.
We believe that the fundamental reason for our success is that we are committed to helping each other grow and realize each of our dreams. Elissa wanted to learn how to manage long-view budget forecasting and Susan wanted to learn how build authentic partnerships, for example, and we have helped each other to do these things. We also talk about what gives us joy and energy “outside work” and how MAG’s strategies can build on this. For example, we have found overlaps to link our MAG work and personal work around racial equity and liberation as well as arts and culture.
When we work with our clients on shared leadership, some of the greatest challenges are that people aren’t flexible and clear around roles or transparent about emotions or opinions. They get tired of what they are doing or yearn to achieve something else in their lives. For us, this is not just a job and no one is trapped in a role. It about fulfilling our life’s purpose. So we can openly talk about staying, exiting, and changing while simultaneously holding what MAG needs in terms of leadership.
Shared leadership goes beyond us.
MAG has a purpose that existed before us and will continue after us: to bring about a future where the planet and all who inhabit it experience love, dignity, and justice. So how have we, as CoDirectors, begun to build an institution where everyone can share and contribute to this purpose?
We have taken time to engage our partners, board, staff, and funders in defining how we achieve our strategic directions. We’ve redesigned and expanded our meetings with board and staff to focus on generative questions and innovation through which we have adjusted our values, purpose, strategic directions, alignment of strategies with the purpose, and all aspects of our work. We’ve also cultivated more partnerships where we contribute to shared learning and strategic thinking. Finally, we’ve had rounds of conversations with clients, funders, and partners to shape our programs.
In a shared leadership culture, staff engagement and deep listening is important but insufficient; people’s agency also needs to increase. Through our actions – making changes in response to feedback and letting people know what we did with their feedback – we demonstrate how each person can have influence. Once people have influence and a shared sense of ownership, they are willing to draw on their unique talents and contribute to doing the work. We have created ways to recognize and encourage this – from designating “energizers” to drawing on holocracy methods to creating experimentation groups where people can try out new things. As more board and staff get involved and lead large chunks of work, they use the same networked approaches to engage others in decision-making.
Sometimes we work with clients who are overwhelmed by this ripple effect of networked ways of working – the number of people to include, the volume of work, or feeling stuck in processes going around in circles. Shared leadership takes more time, and we have learned that it is worth it because the quality, depth, and reach of impact is so vast. At the same time, sometimes it is more effective to have less people involved than more. As codirectors, we are mindful of when we need to simplify processes and decisions. We have learned to name when we – rather than a larger group – make the decision or when it is time to move to action.
Power & privilege affect our ability to lead.
We are both queer women of color with master’s degrees who are trying to engage stakeholders in emergent, relational, and learning processes that are not driven by capitalist norms of efficiency, productivity, and consumption. Our socioeconomic class background gives us advantages like having a wide range of contacts, knowing how to network with people, and being able to articulate in ways they will understand, among others. At the same time, systemic racism, misogyny, and homophobia constrain us. Sometimes when we speak, it isn’t heard until a white heterosexual man repeats what we’ve said. It is also more difficult to find significant capital investment because sometimes funders unconsciously set their giving range lower than it would be if approached by a white-led organization. Moreover, sometimes people express doubt because of who we are and/or because our suggested processes are so unfamiliar. They may interpret our stance as both learners and experts as a weakness. They may want more proof of concept rather than taking a risk on a new venture. They may use normative standards of value that privilege quantity over more relevant markers of success. This system of power and privilege is the water that we swim in, and it takes more time, strategic thinking, and intentionality to survive, thrive, and lead in these conditions.