Collective leadership in an organizational context

by Miho Kim

This article first appeared in Leadership Learning Community’s Blog about the GEO 2010 National Conference: Insights into Collective Leadership.

When it comes to the topic of Shared Leadership, DataCenter has typically responded to small- to mid-size non-profit organizations eager to learn about our experiences while 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, 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 ‘ideas’ 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.