5 Reasons Why Your Organization Should Be Thinking About Co-Leadership
If the current pandemic crisis is indeed a unique and unprecedented opportunity for organizations to re-imagine themselves and how they work, then I cannot think of a better time to seriously consider adopting a collaborative and shared approach to leadership. Not only do collaborative forms of leadership align more strongly with organizational cultures working to advance equity and anti-racism, but it is also increasingly difficult for any single individual to possess all of the skills and abilities needed to lead a complex organization into a future of post-pandemic uncertainties.
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In his post entitled “Museum Leadership for the Rest of Us,” Robert Weisberg cites a roundtable conversation among business experts and senior partners at McKinsey that calls into question the hero mentality of directors and CEOs in times of crisis. When asked “Does this mean we are seeing the end of the hero CEO?,” Bill Schaninger responded:
“[W]e’ve seen COVID-19 accelerating the shift away from classic authoritarian leadership to new forms of distributed decision making…. CEOs still trying to hold on to top-down mandates could very quickly become the impediment rather than the solution.”
There are a wide range of nonprofits and organizations that have already made the shift to adopt a shared leadership or co-directorship model. A 2017 article in Nonprofit Quarterly shared insights from five leading nonprofits that have developed shared leadership structures, including the Building Movement Project, Management Assistance Group, and the Rockwood Leadership Institute. Arts nonprofit Fractured Atlas has been operating with a shared, non-hierarchical leadership model since 2018, using a moment of leadership transition to experiment with new organizational structures. Fractured Atlas began this new approach with a four-person leadership team, and they have written rather extensively about their experiences with this model thus far (via their blog).
Here are five reasons why your organization should be thinking about adopting a form of collaborative or shared leadership as you head into the future:
1. More effective decision-making
When it comes to decision-making, a collaborative leadership approach focuses more on quality than efficiency. Making decisions may take more time, but this process brings in more perspectives and ideas and results in doing things better collectively. With this process also comes greater transparency as more individuals and staff are involved in making decisions and talking through ideas. In his study entitled “Shared Leadership: Is It Time for a Change?,” Michael Kocolowski found that organizations identified several benefits of shared leadership, including the “synergy and expertise derived from shared leadership” and “diversity of thought in decision making.”
In 2019, Cheryl Donaldson and Donna Jared, then Co-Executive Directors at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, reflected on some of the keys to making co-leadership work. For them, this model means that co-leaders are bringing their own expertise to the organization and the daily decisions that are made. While each has some autonomous responsibilities, they note that “the lines are blurred, on purpose, to allow us to support one another, to bring different perspectives to decision making, and to hold each other accountable” (see interview with Jill Stilwell).
According to Tim Cynova, a member of Fractured Atlas’s co-leadership team, their shared leadership model “lessens the organization’s dependence on any one person, and strengthens strategic thinking and decision-making capacity across a broad range of staff members” (see Tim’s post “CEO Not (Necessarily) Required”). When there is more than one leader — and when leadership becomes part of organizational culture — it becomes even more critical to spend a lot of time thinking together, sharing ideas, communicating, and being as transparent as possible.
2. Cultivating innovation and growth
For many organizations adopting collaborative and shared leadership models, there is an observed increase in innovation and experimentation. Kocolowski observed that “flow and creativity seem to flourish in a shared leadership environment,” and that such shared leadership models are particularly important for the growth and development of new ventures and projects. “Co-leadership allows you to think bigger and dream knowing you have a thought partner to dream with,” noted Donaldson and Jared at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery.
In a traditional top-down leadership model, there is often a sense that the knowledge, expertise, and ideas of those at the very top are more valued and important. This way of siloing and isolating innovation in a single leader or small group of managers can work to prevent an organization from truly reaching its potential. A collaborative organization aims to unlock the knowledge, lived experiences, and creative capacities of its entire team, breaking down the barriers that prevent new ideas from bubbling to the surface. As Darlene Nipper of the Rockwood Leadership Institute puts it, “What we’re able to accomplish together is way more than I believe any one person could accomplish.”
3. Valuing the importance of relationships
A shared leadership model brings attention to the relational and collaborative aspects of work as well as the ways in which the value of relationship itself can be incorporated into the leadership structures of an organization. As social justice activist and author adrienne maree brown proclaims in her book Emergent Strategy (2017), “Relationships are everything,” and the depth of those relationships determines the strength of a system or organization.
For many in co-directorship roles, they develop a strong sense of connection, respect, and mutual trust with their counterpart. For these models to work effectively, an organization needs to center these values and understand the importance of relationships within organizational culture. Donaldson and Jared reflect about their experience at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, “As co-leaders, we’ve come to understand it is the partnership relationship that is leading the institution, not us an individuals.”
4. Growing shared leadership across the entire organization
“Shared leadership does really work, and when it’s working well, it’s not just about the few people who are codirectors, it’s actually about the whole organization,” states Susan Misra, co-director at the Management Assistance Group. Collaborative leadership is not just about the individual leaders sharing power and working together — it is also about changing organizational culture and mindset to be more collaborative. For most organizations successfully adopting a shared leadership model, developing a co-directorship is just the beginning of a longer process of building collective structures and new ways of working that include the voices of all staff. Erin Matson, Co-Director of Reproaction, acknowledges, “The co-directorship model is a powerful was to expand the leadership capabilities of your organization.”
For Donaldson and Jared, their co-leadership approach at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery models a flattening out of the organizational chart. They expanded their shared leadership approach to include director level staff who are invited to work together as a shared group rather than only oversee their own specific departments or areas. Other organizations have used this moment of collaborative leadership to also deeply explore pay equity and transparency. When organizations take this approach, leadership growth can occur across an entire team and begin to have a powerful effect on many areas of work and practice.
5. Aligning with anti-racism and equity
With collaborative leadership comes the opportunity to examine what power looks like within your organization and to reimagine how it operates in more equitable and inclusive ways. For some organizations, the shift to co-directorship emerges during a transition out of a particularly oppressive situation with traditional leadership. Overall, a top-down, individualistic model of leadership is in direct contradiction with efforts to advance equity, inclusion, and anti-racism. In their discussion with CompassPoint team members about shared power, co-directors of several social-justice-focused nonprofits noted that forms of traditional, hierarchical leadership just did not align with the work they do as organizations.
As noted in Leadership and Race: How to Develop and Support Leadership that Contributes to Racial Justice, a report developed through a research initiative of the Leadership Learning Community:
“We often reward people whose leadership style is aligned with the individual model of the dominant culture, but not those who engage in more collective forms of leadership. This serves to render invisible the leadership of many women and people of different races/ethnicities.”
The report’s authors continue:
“Leadership can play a critical role in either contributing to racial justice or reinforcing prevailing patterns of racial inequality and exclusion…. To achieve racial and social justice, we need to move beyond the emphasis on the power of individuals to a philosophy of interdependence and building connections.”
Fractured Atlas Board members Christopher Mackie and Russell Willis Taylor state that the shared leadership model in their organization makes “a powerful statement against the inevitability of hierarchy and the racist, sexist, and otherwise oppressive social institutions and organizations that it enables” (see their post “Thoughts on Co-Leadership: What So We Think We’re Doing?”). For Fractured Atlas, their non-hierarchical leadership team helps advance their core values of anti-racism and anti-oppression by modeling an inclusive approach that fosters a diversity of voices, perspectives, and skills. By questioning and breaking away from the commonly accepted ideas of leadership based in white dominant culture, organizations can move toward more inclusive forms of decision-making, collaborative practice, and collective workplace culture.
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By replacing the outdated structures of individualistic leadership with more collaborative forms of leadership, you have the potential to reinvent your organization as vibrant, thriving, equitable, and better equipped to navigate the unprecedented challenges of our times.