It’s easy to point out all the potential problems for groups with hierarchical models of leadership. It’s less easy to know what to do about them. If you support groups, whether on a local or regional level, or as part of the team at a national NGO or community organisation what’s to be done?
A lot of organisations start by changing the language of groups organising – moving away from Chair(man), Secretary, Treasurer to less formal and traditional words such as ‘co-ordinator’, ‘steering group’, ‘core group’. Well worth doing to send a message that your groups work slightly differently. But it seems to me that more needs to be done to actively counteract the norm.
Like it or not, the assumed model is one of leadership from the top down. Even if members of a group don’t particularly share those values that’s what’s likely to happen by default, simply because there’s not that much experience out there of the alternatives. So you might try:
Clearly articulating why
Tell both your groups and the wider organisation why you want change. And I don’t mean just ideological sentiment about power and leadership. I’ve nothing against that at all, but if you can give clear and practical reasons they carry a lot of weight both with the ideologically committed and those who have no problem with the good old-fashioned committee structure. But tell them they can attract and keep more members, have more effective and enjoyable meetings, increase the level of skill within the group, and sustain their activity for longer, and more…that’s pretty irresistible. If the bottom line is that you’ll make more change in the world this way, what campaigner’s going to say no?
Yeah, I know there are some that will say no because their power base is threatened or because they’re feeling anxious about doing things a different way. But it’s been a useful exercise because what’s just happened is that you’ve brought to light deeply entrenched group dynamics issues. And you have more chance of dealing with them now they’re in the open.
Modelling shared leadership
Walk your talk in the way you structure your team, put on events, communicate with your local groups, make your decisions. Is the way you’re currently set up genuinely a partnership? How participatory is it for local activists? Is communication a conversation or a monologue? Does your practice change in the light of what you hear from the grassroots?Are events planned with activists or for them. Who sets the agenda? Where does the power lie in the relationship? You get the picture.
Check out the Ladder of Participation and see where you sit.
Of course there’s a lot of tension here for those of us that work in capacity-building and network support. Our teams may go to great lengths to model the values and the practice of shared leadership, but be part of bigger organisations that adopt very traditional power-relationships. We’d love to hear about your experiences of that tension and how best to navigate potentially choppy waters.
Offering relevant training
Provide training in the necessary skills supported by relevant materials. And not just facilitation skills, although that’s a good start. It’s still possible for the Chair to simply morph into ‘facilitator’ – meetings are more inclusive but the underlying power structures don’t change.
So think about other group dynamics related training; training that opens people’s eyes to the roles that they play in groups; training that equips people to value diversity and be able to draw on that diversity to strengthen and not weaken the group; training which opens up groups to those on the margins as well as those in the mainstream.
Elsewhere on this blog we’ve talked about values over technique. Ideally your training will pass on the attitudes and underlying values of shared leadership and not just a set of tools. Tools that can be used to forge shared leadership, but can also be used to create a poor impression of shared leadership because the underlying state of mind isn’t there.
Highlighting where it’s working
Reinforce the message in your newsletters, emails and websites. Make shared leadership so prevalent in your communication that it feels odd to do it any other way.
What else has worked for your organisation or group?
You might also want to read “Take me to your leader!” – first post in the series.