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What does collective leadership look like in an organizational context?

More and more people are talking about collective leadership these days. It’s hardly a radical idea because it makes sense as people think about how things really occur and the role of relationships in change. In fact, many leadership programs are now focused on supporting collective leadership that helps a group move to action. I wonder how many of these leadership programs are adopting a collective leadership model among their staff. When it comes to collective leadership there are a lot of skeptics who roll their eyes as if it can't be done in an organizational context without being bogged down in endless efforts to reach consensus with nobody accountable. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine what does not yet exist, but fortunately there are organizational innovators charting new territory with stories to tell.

Earlier this month I was invited to join a team hosting a session on shared (or collective) leadership in an organizational context at the Alliance for Non Profit Leadership. It’s hard to be a champion of collective leadership and turn away from an opportunity to learn more about the thornier side of collective leadership and how to make it work in an organization. I invite you to visit the Leadership for a New Era site where we have posted the presentation from the session and discussion notes.

In the meantime I would like to share some of the things I learned in the process and some of the areas in which those of you interested in this topic can join the conversation. For the purpose of the conversation we came up with a definition of collective leadership that we developed by looking at the work of organizations changing the way they lead. Shared leadership in an organizational context refers to the ways in which authority, responsibility and accountability are more broadly distributed to create opportunities for participation in leadership of the organization by more of its staff. Of course given the difficulty of changing organizational structures, we also felt it was important to talk about why we would benefit from a shared leadership approach. What we have heard from people adopting a shared leadership approach is that a shared leadership model is more aligned with their values...they feel more like they are walking their talk.  In addition shared leadership develops leadership throughout the organization limiting reliance on one or a few, it engages more staff with new levels of responsibility to increase productivity, it distributes accountability to those doing the work, it unleashes creativity, it lightens the burden on the Executive Director and... it’s more fun!


We developed the framework below to help us think and talk about the examples of collective leadership in an organizational context and how it differs from traditional structures. We encourage you to work with us to help develop this into a useful framework.


We then took this tool and used it in case studies to demonstrate what it looks like on the ground. The example, near and dear to my heart, was the Data Center who we have written about before.

Everyone on staff participates one of three committees and each of these committees has one representative on the coordinating council (positions which are rotated). Each person reports on their work and is accountable to their committee. Staff members also participate in work groups. There are several unique innovations in the Data Center example which are not represented in the graph: everyone on staff has the same salary base, each person is responsible for 20 % of the administrative work and 80% programmatic work and positions are rotated.  To address the steep learning curve with rotations, staff are supported by coaching to help them succeed and learn new positions.  Through their approach they have developed a strong leadership pipeline for people of color.

The challenges have not been surprising. The internal structure does not match with the expectations of funders who want a point of contact in an ED. Accountability had to be framed from the old context as “power over” others to accountabiity to each other. Of course, coordinating in any structure is challenging. Still the pay-offs were big. The organization has a higher level of buy-in from staff and board. They have developed leadership of color and the organization is more aligned with its values.


Over the next couple of months I will encourage other members of the presentation team from the Alliance for Non Profit Management to write about the organizations they profiled in our session presentation and described in the powerpoint. I have drawn inspiration and practical ideas from the creativity and experimentation of these trail blazing organizations. I hope you will too.