Dual Leadership Ditties

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Some of you may not know that a few months ago we welcomed Joel Toner as NPQ’s new publisher and co-“president.” We (gasp) share leadership.

Of course, shared leadership is a relatively common set-up for publishing, and it sometimes occurs in the arts, but it seems to alarm some people. The way I figure it, I was already sharing leadership with the board, the staff, and all of you, so no big deal—although of course I did have some worries: Would we get along? Would I annoy him? Would I get graspy and try to set up a stronghold in the board that would back me in my epic struggle against this interloper? Anyway, as it turns out, mostly I am just enormously grateful that he is here and is, apparently, wildly competent. What a relief! Because as a solitary business head, I did not exactly cover myself in glory. (Before you say anything about honeymoon periods and short tenure, I would say that this is not the first trip into the cabbage patch of shared leadership responsibility for either one of us.)

I would love to start a conversation about people’s experiences with dual/multi-pronged leadership structures—good or bad. What makes them work and what dooms them? If you are interested in contributing your own observations to the conversation, please comment below.

Meanwhile, here are a few articles on related topics that may interest you.

  • Rachel Brookhart

    I am not an ED, nor have I been in a shared leadership position, but I’ve been in the nonprofit game for a while and it seems to me that being an ED is a lonely, impossible job. The idea of shared leadership definitely piques my interest. If you put the wrong two people together you could have a nightmare, but I think if it’s done right, it could be revolutionary. I’m interested in hearing more from you, NPQ, and the sector!

  • Keenan Wellar

    Hi Ruth, great story idea! My wife Julie Kingstone and I co-founded a charitable organization back in 1995, and then transitioned to the status of “co-leaders” as the organization grew and acquired all the appropriate trappings of board of directors, staff team, volunteers, funders, partners, members, and all the rest of what is involved in the life of a non-profit organization.

    Any sort of co-leadership structure has proven hilariously difficult for many others to process at times. For example, we are taking part in an upcoming conference that has an Executive Directors group – the form allows for only one person per organization and the event administrators are going to need to convene a royal commission in order to figure out how to accommodate us – we’ve offered to occupy only one seat if that helps! I think I scared them with that suggestion.

    That’s just a small and silly example but it happens all the time. We have worked hard to differentiate our roles to make things easier on others (it’s now pretty clear which of us should be contact for a particular purpose) but trying to explain a co-leadership model does often result in people eyeing us like we are martians. And that’s before they find out we are also husband and wife.

    We have also worked hard on a very horizontal leadership structure throughout our staff team. By necessity, our staff members need to be able to make important decisions in their daily work without going through several levels of management (we only have 12 staff, but I know similar-sized organizations that somehow have 4 “levels” of staff!).

    To make this work we’ve had to put some deliberate effort into communications about risk management – we are in a human services field and bad things can happen to good people and we aren’t able to offer protection from life. But when bad things happen, our staff can be subjected to very unrealistic expectations, so Julie and I have worked hard on offering the best training and team-building practices we can find, and then being prepared to stand behind the reasonable decisions made by the team, rather than scrambling to cover our behinds.

    Between the two of us, there have been interesting developments over the years. I started out managing most of the financial and operational side of things, but over time, it turned out Julie was much better at this, and we changed up our roles. I manage most anything to do with “communications” for the agency. This has made for a fun dynamic (mostly that benefits me) because I get credit for operational wizardry that owes mainly to Julie’s efforts – and the more I protest that the credit is not mine, the more people insist that I’m being modest about it. And yes, it’s definitely also a “gender thing” anyone that thinks gender bias in leadership is a thing of the past, I can tell you, it’s not.

    Similar to your comments, I cannot imagine doing this work by myself. I am 46 so I have a few years yet to stay on the job provided people still want me, but transition planning conversations around here already assume the likelihood of a shared leadership model. There are just so many benefits to it – and to horizontal leadership in general – for any organization that needs to function in a dynamic fashion.

  • Diana M. Smith

    Most people shy away from dual leadership because of the inevitable tensions that emerge and the fear that these will trump all else. My research suggests that if you learn how to put those tensions to work in the service of growth, you can turn conventional wisdom on its head. Not easy, but when done well, it’s a powerful form of leadership. See Joshua Shenk’s new book The Powers of Two which addresses just this issue. I also address it in Building Adaptive Relationships in the most recent issue of the journal Leader to Leader. Best of luck to you both.

  • Ted Ford Webb

    Hindsight is 20/20. I have looked back at the tenure of hundreds of nonprofit executive directors when preparing to recruit their successor, and seen every possible iteration – top down and hierarchical, externally focused, internally focused, shared team leadership, micromanagers, good delegators and bad delegators – and job sharing at the top. It is always complicated, as performance in these jobs is shaped by so many factors, many of which are not in the control of the executive.

    Over time, circumstances will challenge any form of leadership. The board may divide over a key issue, staff may resist a change agenda and align with one leader over another, a major donor may impose terms that interrupt a core strategy, and so on.

    However, I think the key to success, in shared leadership, and indeed, in any of these forms, is actually embedded in Ruth’s questions. To be willing to deal openly with the circumstances that will inevitably challenge the clearest division of duties is the key. (“Would I get graspy…try to set up a stronghold in the board…).

    The greater challenges usually appear not when you are creating the partnership (shared leadership), but later, when the relationship is fully formed and the roles clearly defined by shared experience. What I have often seen go wrong, when looking back at the tenure of a long-term job share arrangement, is that the partners gave up on wrestling over the difficult issues, and intentionally or by default created accommodations that go around those issues.
    For example, I recall recruiting the head of a private school, to succeed two founders who had divided the school head job into two parts – one taking on administration and fund raising, the other acting as principal, curriculum and teacher developer. Their skills and interests were well aligned with this division of duties and the needs of the school. It looked like it should work well. However the blind spots each saw in the other (“ She is in the weeds. Too risk averse, too slow to move” vs. “She stilts our growth. Investing in more credentialed teachers and innovative curriculum will attract more students and support”.) Not surprisingly, these tensions reflected the greater strategic issues before the school. They would have been best resolved by aligning the entire organization (including the board) towards one strategy or the other, with a shared resolve and clear measures in place. Instead, each founder developed a separate constituency with the staff and board, and they lived in awkward silos, with the school surviving but not growing.

    So I would say to Ruth and Joel, celebrate what is working between you, and be sure to get the board involved if, and probably when, there are topics where you are not in agreement. And I would say to the board – fight what is normally the healthy instinct to give the chief executive plenty of space to run the organization. When there is job sharing at the top, the board needs to get closer. There still needs to be clear boundaries between board and chief executive, but those boundaries need to be a bit further into the shared space of the two chief executives.

  • Phil Washburn

    I have been involved in shared leadership before. I have found the key to any successful shared leadership relationship is humility and common vision. If you have two people who believe they are always right, always have the answers, and are unwilling to see another perspective then you have a recipe for disaster. But if you have two people who readily admit they don’t know everything, are willing to use their strengths where they can and let someone else use their strengths then you have a recipe for amazing synergy.