How to Grow Distributed Leadership
For years, I’ve been throwing myself into environments where there are no bosses, but there are lots of leaders. Like coordinating volunteers at a festival in the desert, building a distributed entrepreneurial network, co-founding a cooperative tech startup, designing new processes for participation, and taking over a French castle to eco-hack the future.
Now I’m wondering, how does this kind of leadership grow? What conditions does it need to sprout? How do you nurture it? What does its development look like? How can I grow further as a leader in an organisation with no ladder to climb?
In a pyramidal organisational structure, it’s clear who is in charge: leadership is concentrated at the top. But what if your community or organisation is less like a pyramid and more like a network, or an ecosystem — or a garden?
Distributed leadership unlocks incredible potential for collaboration, autonomy, and networked organising. In this context, leadership isn’t about being on a higher level of a pyramid.
By looking at different modes of leadership in a networked, collaborative environment, we can learn how to grow more of it.
The Soil: Shared Power
Before we talk about how distributed leadership develops, we need to talk about power.
Power doesn’t just come from positional authority, like a job title. It accrues to people for a lot of reasons, sometimes beyond their control or awareness — seniority or founder status, communication style, gender, age, skills and expertise, and many other factors.
What’s important is how a group deals with power. If the culture is hostile to questioning power, co-creation and co-leadership can’t flourish. Sometimes only those without power can even recognise what’s going on. So to have an effective critique of power, everyone needs a voice. In the absence of an explicit hierarchy, those with power have a responsibility to do the work to recognise they have it, and to participate in distributing it.
You can’t just declare “There are no bosses”, and expect everyone to “self organise”. Hidden hierarchies will emerge and distributed leadership will die on the vine. In order to have functional distributed power, you have to clear space for a new kind of leadership to take root.
The Roots: Self Leadership
If the ground has been cleared and soil prepared, distributed leadership can grow. But it doesn’t begin with leading other people, it begins with leading yourself — as an individual, as a peer, and as a follower.
You can identify work that needs doing and execute on it effectively on your own. You provide value and make progress without direct instructions. You can manage your time, meaning you only make commitments you think you can deliver to a high standard. You can set good boundaries. Both your “yes” and your “no” are powerful and considered.
When you are part of a peer group, you adapt and collaborate. You have self-awareness about your own preferred ways of working and communicating. You know the unique value you bring, and understand that other people will be different than you. You’ve gained a sense for weaving yourself into a project usefully, leveraging your strengths.
Experts at self-leadership know when to follow. You know when being coordinated as part of a team will help achieve your shared goals together. You can take instructions, and communicate when you’re blocked or need help. You deliver reliably so others can depend on you. You contribute to discussions about continuous process improvement, and share commitment to the outcomes.
You’ve developed a critical level of self-awareness. What do you need to be productive? For your emotional and physical wellbeing? What do you want (or need) to learn? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What is the impact you have on others around you? You practice self-directed, continuous personal and professional development.
Skillful self-leadership is key for building credibility and trust among your peers, creating possibilities for you to contribute in other modes of leadership in the future.
Sprouts: Leading Others
Getting people coordinated without hierarchy is the art and science of facilitation, process design, creating invitations, and servant leadership without bosses.
You design and implement effective systems and processes to distribute power. You can operationalise them, meaning they become established and are useful and accessible to people. You have a sense for why and how people and projects get blocked, and how to unblock them. You can see the big picture of the project, and how the project fits into the larger community or organisation.
You’re good at building and nurturing teams. You gain understanding of people’s differences and preferences, and you create processes that work to their strengths. You help groups delegate tasks, communicate, and work together without coercion.
You’re a mentor to people learning about self-leadership, and can help them become more effective as individuals. You help bring out diverse perspectives on how the group is working, and synthesise feedback into continuous improvement. You facilitate ongoing engagement with questions about power, and use any that accrues toward you to create more systems for distributing it.
Flowering: Growing Leadership
A truly collaborative environment is one that’s full of diverse leaders. The ultimate success is growing so much leadership that you make yourself obsolete.
You look beyond the scope of one team or project and see that long-term success without hierarchy depends on constantly nurturing more leadership. You intentionally craft opportunities for people to step up.
You know when to step back. Even when you think you could do it better or faster yourself, you leave space for others to practice leading. You also recognise that the way you think is better or faster might not always be right. You consciously try to spend your time on your most impactful and specialised work, and challenge yourself to delegate everything else. You are a mentor to people implementing processes that distribute power. You encourage experimentation.
You know when to step in. People feel safer practicing leadership skills with your support. You’re a safety net, a back-stopper, and a bottom-liner. Paradoxically, in order to distribute leadership, sometimes you need to consolidate power. When you feel this is necessary, you facilitate gaining consent. Because you’ve earned credibility as a distributor of power, those around you understand your intentions. You can tell the difference between accruing power unintentionally and consciously consolidating power in order to distribute it better.
You think about the system as a whole. Where are the leverage points, where directing leadership energy will be especially effective? What is the educational pathway for leadership skill building? What blocks people from stepping into leadership roles? How can the culture be evolved to lower the barriers? You implement systems for support, accountability, transparency, and continuous improvement that can operate without your direct involvement.
You critique power on a systemic level. You think critically about what kinds of people become leaders in your environment, and why that might be. Are there imbalances in the demographics? What is needed for all kinds of people with diverse skills and perspectives come in, stay in, and thrive? If the pathway to leadership isn’t accessible to everyone, it means there are seeds left unsprouted.
Pollination: Ecosystem Leadership
At this level, I have no answers — only questions.
If you are working in all these modes of leadership, and thinking about impact beyond your own community or organisation, you’re an ecosystem leader.
What are the tools, conceptual frameworks, and interaction protocols we need to enable network to network collaboration? How can we create catalysts that seed new collaborative communities and organisations? How can very different groups effectively federate?
How can we rework societal power structures that waste so much human potential by limiting human freedom? How can we structure our communities, cities, companies, and societies so everyone can lead? What really creates marginalisation and how do we counteract it?
How can we give more people access to shared power? What are the political and cultural leverage points for meaningful change? How do we coordinate collective action without flattening diversity?
What are the innovations that make an entire field obsolete, so we can start working on the next big problem? What are processes, structures, and ideas that create whole new levels of collective agency?
What’s evolving? Where are we growing?
Harvest: Growing Understanding
Everyone I know who is working on bossless leadership works in all these modes at once. It depends on the project, the day, the context, the people. It’s never a linear progression. In a collaborative environment, we’re all moving around each other, giving and taking, leading and following.
I’m learning all the time. Sometimes I get stuck just clearing space for any kind of coordination in the chaos. Other times I fail to balance my wellbeing and the most productive thing I can do is get in my pajamas and look at funny cat gifs. Maybe I try to create an engaging participatory process, but no one gets it. Maybe I create an opportunity for someone else to lead, but they get overly stretched and I get impatient. Sometimes I engage with the big picture questions, but end up feeling lost.
But then I ask myself what I’ve learned, and I get back in the garden.
Here are some questions you might ask yourself to continue to develop as a leader in a bossless environment.
- How is power operating? If someone tried to step in to leadership here, is there room for them to grow? Does everyone have equal opportunity to participate?
- What power am I holding? Can I distribute it? Can I use it to invite a critique of power, in case those without power aren’t being heard?
- Am I taking care of myself, so I can be happy, balanced, and productive? Do I have self-awareness? What do I need to learn?
- In a given situation, do I want to work on my own, collaborate, follow, or lead? Can I see how to make my most valuable contribution?
- Am I doing a good job supporting others? Am I creating team dynamics and opportunities that help them do their best work?
- Who is showing leadership around me? Am I noticing it and learning from it, even if it looks quite different from my own style?
- Do I know when to step in, and when to step back? Am I building systems that don’t depend on me directly?
- Am I thinking long-term about growing leadership in my environment? Am I investing in the leadership development of others?
- Is my work progressing meaningful questions? Am I contributing to the collective conversation about leadership evolution?