Skip to main content

GEO 2010 National Conference: Insights on Collective Leadership

Submitted by: Natalia Castaneda on Apr 26th, 2010 at 4PM PDT

As grantmakers continue to explore ways of increasing the effectiveness and impact of nonprofits, we need to think differently about leadership and investments in individuals. There is a growing recognition that to achieve large scale change, we need to unleash collective leadership capacity within groups, organizations and communities; leverage networks using collaborative technologies; and support individuals and organizations working across differences to develop shared purpose, vision and coordinated action. To understand what is needed to achieve this scale of collaborative action, the Leadership Learning Community has joined forces with key innovators in the field to explore the topic of "Collective Leadership" as part of Leadership for a New Era – a collaborative research initiative focused on promoting leadership that is more inclusive, networked and collective. Some of these innovators got together to hold the session "Collective Leadership: Nurturing Vibrant Organizations and Catalyzing Community Change" at the 2010 GEO Conference on April 14.  During the session, these innovators presented practical case studies and provided insights on models and tools for effectively supporting and evaluating the impact of collective leadership.  Each presenter hosted a workshop focusing on a core collective leadership area, and then each presenter wrote an article offering a unique perspective on the conversation that happened during each workshop.  Check out the articles!

At the GEO conference, I had a conversation with a participant who was experiencing despair at the deep divide in the relationship between a prominent funder and the people they aimed to serve. This individual wanted to learn how collective leadership could help.

Collective leadership is fundamentally about building relationships of a different kind --that can accomplish different results. These relationships hold power more collectively across positions, roles, institutions, perspectives. They tap into collective wisdom that can only be gathered by including a number of different perspectives that our organizations do not automatically access. Those engaging in collective leadership realize that social change has many complexities and we need to cultivate relationships more capable of learning together and discovering appropriate actions that fit local contexts.

This is not easy work and it is seldom quick work. Fostering deep relationships, investing in time for learning, engaging in emergence are big challenges for people driven by timelines, high performance, and delivering impressive outcomes. Collective leadership asks us to open up to our own transformations in how we do our work and view our roles. It offers great promise for shifting work in communities. This is particularly true where there is tension in community created by disparities, exclusion, or alienation there. Or where an institutional policy or practice under-serves part of the community.

This requires those of us in positions of leadership to step out of our comfort zones. It asks us to share our power so the community and our organizations can collectively hold the work – the purpose, plans, and action. It also invites us to open up to uncertainty and look at different kinds of outcomes such as new partnerships, community ownership of change work, and development of local approaches to change.

Where there are divides between our institutions and communities, collective leadership can help. We don’t need to maintain current divides. Collective leadership tells us what we need to do is to take the time and create the space for developing authentic relationships. At the Center for Ethical Leadership we say, “it only takes a small opening to create the space for a profound transformation.” Are you ready to create the opening?

The workshop on collective leadership at the 2010 GEO Conference helped to raise the question “collective leadership to what end?” Leadership – whether collective or the more traditional model of individual leadership – is merely the vehicle toward an end, not the end itself.

Within the Leadership Development Unit of the Annie E Casey Foundation, we think that collective or collaborative leadership can be the vehicle to accelerate the achievement of a result. Casey’s collective leadership model is the Leadership in Action Program (LAP), which was discussed at the GEO workshop. In brief, LAP brings together a group of 25-40 mid level leaders from across sectors to impact a single result. These leaders meet over a 12-14 month period for a series of nine, two-day sessions, approximately four to six weeks apart. At each LAP session, participants examine data, identify strategies and make action commitments. The LAP process is built on the belief that if leaders can keep those commitments and successfully align their individual actions -- and develop and take new actions in alignment with one another-- they can significantly accelerate the improvement of that result.

However, alignment of action is only one necessary component to successful multi-sector collective leadership. Other key components include: (1) infusing a sense of urgency into the work and meeting the challenge to impact the result within the next single measurement cycle; (2) using data to drive strategy development and decision-making; and (3) holding the shared vision that leaders in the middle can and do make a difference.

This model for multi-sector collective leadership levels the playing field and flattens hierarchical structures that tend to place the highest value on those at the top. Instead, through LAP, individuals at all levels are acknowledged as leaders, who are able to “step up” in their leadership by taking those actions (small or large) within their scope and authority, that contribute to impacting the result. If all such leaders do this, and do it in an aligned way, the collective outcome will likely be the improvement of the result in question. If attention to the result and continued aligned actions are sustained over time, the improvements continue to occur.

However, the process of multi-sector collective leadership – whether implemented through a LAP or any other process – is not without its obstacles, as was discussed at the workshop. These obstacles can range from lack of clarity about the result; inability of leaders to effectively align their work due to turf issues; and lethargy or complacency that prevents a sense of urgency for action to take hold. These are a relatively standard list of barriers to any positive and impactful action, and are the ones that characterize many public sector and non-profit failed attempts at collaborations.

The real challenge to successful multi-sector collective leadership lies in overcoming these barriers and, instead, focusing on the shared vision to impact a single result. Can leaders collectively keep their eye on that elusive prize?

  • Workshop: Collective leadership in an organizational context (Article By: Miho Kim, DataCenter)

\When it comes to the topic of Shared Leadership, DataCenter had typically responded to small- to mid-size non-profit organizations eager to learn about our experiences trying to promote a sustainable organizational culture of collaboration over competition, dialog over debate, and power-with over power-over. In most cases, callers had observed a fair amount of unhealthy, challenging power dynamics play out in the organization, and feel the urgency to ‘really do something about it this time.’

In the case of DataCenter, it took literally the hemorrhaging of our organizational leadership, from the Co-Directors up through the Board of Directors in its entirety, to incentivize a rather radical structural shift to a Shared Leadership Model. This organizational ‘rupturing’ in a way cracked open the space to take what was always a highly regarded “value” at the DataCenter into an actual “structure.”


The Shared Leadership that works for your organization should start with the following guiding questions: 1) what are our values and 2) how do they relate to the organization, and lastly, 3) what needs to be in place to help create them, and maintain them.
Your organization needs to articulate 1) Values & Principles, 2) systems and structure and 3) practice that to them help uphold the values and turn them from mere ‘idea’s into a ‘thing’ that trumps all pre-established ‘norms’ and dominant convention.

During my small group discussion at the GEO Conference, there was a keen interest in exploring the question of whether equal pay, a commonly suggested practice of Shared Leadership, was really feasible. "I mean, does it really work?" asked a participant with a touch of skepticism. My answer would have to be, it depends. I would like to push back and suggest that we ask the question a different way. Pay Equity made sense to DataCenter, primarily because we wanted to reflect our belief that ALL knowledge (experiential to intellectual), ALL skills (financial projections to organizing), and ALL leadership styles – including one as obscure as “good followership” – are equally valuable to our collective ability to execute our mission. I think in a few years, we may be in a different place, where we no longer need Pay Equity to demonstrate DataCenter’s core belief for whatever reason. For example, Asian Women's Shelter in San Francisco has its own way of honoring their belief that all experiential and intellectual knowledge are equally valuable among their staff body that reflect both their constituents and non-constituents. Organizations are living beings - and each uniquely lends to expressing similar values in different ways. The important thing is that it's not a rule for those who have to live by it, but rather, an opportunity for ideological expression they're grateful to take.

One way to approach this question may be, rather than “does pay equity work?” asking, “if we institute equal pay, what existing impediment to fostering collective leadership would it address/resolve?” alternatively, one can ask, “what organizational value would this help manifest, specifically? Is this the best way to manifest that value, or is there another (perhaps more practical, or culturally-appropriate) option?” The framing of the conversation is always, and should be, “what is our value” and “how do we make it happen?” Pay equity, in other words, is a means to that goal – rather than an end in itself, or a static ‘product’ that gets placed on the moral pedestal of the organization in isolation from all others.

It’s amazing how enriching the conversations can be, and also a tremendous catalyst of shared sense of investment and ownership across the board. The process, if done with intentional facilitation, yields biggest ‘sustainability’ dividends time and again.

“To my surprise, Shared Leadership in fact means more structure, not less,” observed a participant – and that cannot be more true. Facilitative leadership is one of the qualities we name as a leadership quality at DataCenter that helps sustain Shared Leadership. It may be considered perhaps more critical than my (arguably) dashing charisma as Executive Director – precisely for the reason that the space for growth of each and all person’s leadership (however way they come) as recognized asset to organizational strength is the proudest outcome of a leaderful organization.



I had the opportunity to host a session on what we are learning about how to support collective communities using virtual tools. We ended with a story that I would like to begin with. One of the participants talked a project, Ciclovía, that he had been funding in Bogota for many years. Every Sunday and holiday the main streets of Bogotá and other municipalities, are blocked off for the event to become car-free. From 7 am to 2 pm, runners, skaters and bicyclists take over the streets. At the same time, stages are set up in city parks. Aerobics instructors, yoga teachers and musicians lead people through various performances. The largest is Bogotá with 2 million people attending (30% of citizens) on over 120km of car-free streets. One of the main reasons cited by government is to promote physical activity and health. There are other obvious social and cultural benefits from using the public space as an open meeting area. There are also environmental benefits in terms of cleaner air and increased safety.

Image source:

I was interested in the example and found myself wondering what we might learn about the ways in which creating a physical space, in this case a car-free area where residents could more easily mingle and meet, might parallel the issues we face in creating virtual space. One of the participants in the discussion talked about using an online space to engage a broader community of folks in a proposal review process that was more transparent and participatory. The thing that surprised him was that this activity significantly increased interest in the work of his organization and they got a real boost in attendance at their next face to face meeting. I used to think of social media as a set of tools that enable folks to stay connected outside of real time gatherings. These days I am appreciating the opportunity to create virtual spaces, much like the car-free zones, where people can connect and explore common interests. This has been our experience in the Leadership for a New Era collaborative research initiative, where we have been able to build new connections with people who share our interests in a new leadership paradigm.

Questions came up in our group about behaviors in virtual communities, e.g. how can we communicate when nuance is lost or the most provocative ideas are the only ones that attract attention? It reminded me that in any community we have to negotiate how space is shared, how we listen respectfully to one another and how we cultivate meaningful relationships based on trust and transparency. What we have learned about creating conditions for these types of relationships to flourish in our organizations and neighborhoods will teach us a lot about supporting successful online communities.