Creating Leader-full Spaces

by Leah Lundquist
follow me on Twitter: @leahlundquist 

YNPN Twin Cities was fortunate to get a visit recently from YNPN National’s first ever formal director, Trish Tchume. She is an all-around amazing leader and has been doing ridiculously great things for YNPN’s sector-wide visibility. That being said, the emergence of a formal director for an organization that has been in existence for 15 years—with a highly distributed leadership structure—raises an interesting question: how doorganizations strike the elegant balance of structuring just enough of a container for great ideas and action to flow in and out, but not so much that individuals feel like cogs in the machinery? 

Trish and a few of us from the YNPN Twin Cities board co-led a session at Minnesota’s annual Nonprofit Leadership Conference on this topic. The idea for this session came out of a nationwide study YNPN National undertook last year to test out the most heavily promoted strategies for leadership development in the nonprofit sector. They found that, compared with the other strategies posited in their survey, shared leadership didn’t have a lot of energy behind it.


Why the tepid response? It’s kind of surprising, considering how muchtalk there is of the traditionally structured executive director position being unsustainable and undesirable. Could it be that we don’t even know if we’re all talking about the same thing? 

recent report from the Building Movement Project points out that the concept has two layers: structure and systems. My sense is that some of us are thinking about the concept in terms of formal structures while others understand it as the systems that foster a participatory culture. Here in Minnesota, I’m aware of only a couple of organizations that have formalized shared leadership in their structures: the co-directorship at the PFund Foundation and the Core Model of Students Today Leaders Forever. One attendee at the conference also shared about their organization transferring the development function from a lone individual to a shared responsibility among all their program staff. In an attempt to flatten their structure, their organization had transformed its org chart into an “accountability” chart.

While these are some examples of formal re-structuring in favor of shared leadership, BMP holds that there’s no out-of-the box, flattened model that’s been proven most effective. According to their findings, shared leadership requires patiently transforming systems by focusing on the intangibles—trust, learning, and values. Even once the culture is primed, BMP suggests it still requires:

  • Embracing autonomy
  • Sharing information
  • Clarifying roles
  • Controlling only what we need to control

These strike me as nothing new. These recommendations echo those that participatory management guru Douglas McGregor of MIT fame popularized at least six decades ago as Theory Y. So we felt compelled to ask those who attended our conference session, Why is shared leadership so hard to live out? Why aren’t there more models out there? 

What came out of those conversations fit into a few themes:

  • Current organizational structures don’t support it. We need new titles, new ways to share information, and new understandings of accountability.
  • It requires broad buy-in across both board and staff. As with any culture change, transitioning to a more participatory culture risks turnover.   
  • Authentically shared leadership demands time, both upfront in culture change and ongoing in decision-making processes.

Another interesting reason offered by a participant was that our brains are wired for status. Putting the work ahead of our egos seems to be something we have to continually practice, even in mission-focused jobs.

Personally, I wonder if we’re not blinded to shared leadership by our fundamental view of leadership. Are we stuck in outdated assumptions ofthe individual leader-as-hero not seeing leadership as the collective act it most often is?  

The best way I can make sense of how the nonprofit sector could embrace shared leadership in a more transformative way came out of a metaphor social change agent Tuesday Ryan-Hart addressed in her keynote at the Conference. She spoke of the paradox of commonality and diversity as two riverbanks and encouraged individuals to dive into the river between, exploring what can emerge from the tension of swimming between the two banks.

I also see a river between disruptive chaos and suffocating order within organizations. I hope more and more organizations in the sector continue to dive into this river, reshaping their environments into spaces truly welcoming of a healthy dose of failure, idea-generation from across all staff, and—ultimately—models of more radical and substantive shared leadership. 

Have you seen or experienced other examples of shared leadership—either in an org’s structure or systems? What kind of impact, positive or negatives, is this having on the work?  

You can find the slide deck and reports for our “Creating Leader-full Spaces” session at the conference download center.

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Tags: Leadership

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