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Young People Leading the Way Towards Collective Leadership

Guest Blog Post by Deborah Meehan on the Rosetta Thurman Blog

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Working in the field of leadership I have heard many Executive Directors talk about the loneliness of leadership or ‘loneliness at the top’. How curious. Leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum – it’s all about working with other people, so why the loneliness? I heard Executive Directors talk a lot about being the ones who worry about everything. Is this what it means to be a leader? It’s not so farfetched that our ideas of leadership would take on rather heroic proportions when you consider common leadership role models like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Luckily there is another point of view emerging. According to “Next Shift: Beyond the Nonprofit Leadership Crisis,” by the Building Movement Project, younger leaders are not attracted to hierarchical structures and are “trying to find new ways to organize and structure work, ranging from entrepreneurial models to shared leadership and broader participatory structures.” Instead of being heroic leaders, there is an opportunity for nonprofit leaders to think of ourselves as facilitators of a process that engages everyone in our organizations in leadership.

As Executive Director for the Leadership Learning Community (LLC), I constantly draw inspiration from young leaders and the collective leadership model. Our entire staff is our leadership team. We all have input in planning projects, setting budgets, conducting performance reviews, hiring, and actively learning from our achievements and mistakes. As a team, we come up with more creative ideas and tackle tough problems more efficiently than I (or any one individual) could alone.

Even though collective leadership empowers teams and eases the burden on ED’s, there are not a lot of nonprofit adopting this model, probably because it is not easy. In our case, we first erred in the direction of micromanagement. Now we distribute leadership and responsibility. It’s a balance, knowing when and what each of us needs to communicate to the team without overloading each other. It’s a messy business, but we continue to be amazed by what a handful of people can do when everyone’s leadership is tapped.

Although the interest in collective leadership in the nonprofit sector seems to be increasing, there is a need for more models and tools that can validate this approach and guide organizations. Last year, we made a small grant to the DataCenter, an organization that had recently adopted an entirely shared leadership model, so they could identify and share lessons from their experience. For example, all of their employees receive the same base salary and their job is divided 80/20 between program and administration tasks. This allows all the employees to learn about both aspects of the organization.

To build on these lessons, we launched a collaborative research initiative, Leadership for a New Era, with 20 partners. We hope to show how collective approaches unleash innovation, and identify tools to help organizations accomplish more (and have more fun) by tapping the full leadership potential of their teams.