This article comes from the Nonprofit Quarterly‘s spring 2017 edition, which addresses ways of thinking differently about a variety of issues affecting the sector. If you’re interested in this subject, you can read two other articles in a similar vein: “Reflections on Executive Leadership and Transition Data over Fifteen Years” and “Nonprofit Leadership Transitions and Organizational Sustainability: An Updated Approach that Changes the Landscape.”
As part of a two-year project to reflect on our role in the field of executive transition management (ETM), CompassPoint Nonprofit Services convened a discussion in August 2016 among five progressive organizations that have formal shared leadership structures. This made sense as part of CompassPoint’s reflection process for two reasons: First, we had been exploring alternative structures internally. Second, we had become increasingly concerned about our external practice of ETM—which, in focusing on the search for an organization’s next, single leader, was upholding some traditional assumptions and practices of leadership that in the rest of our work we had been questioning for some time. We wanted to understand the motivations, benefits, and challenges the leaders saw in moving away from the traditional, single-executive-director model. The leaders we interviewed and their organizations are as follows:
- Building Movement Project—Sean Thomas-Breitfeld and Frances Kunreuther, codirectors
- Community United Against Violence (CUAV)—Lidia Salazar and Essex Lordes, codirectors
- Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco—Fred Sherburn-Zimmer, executive director, and Aileen Joy, administrative director
- Management Assistance Group (MAG)—Susan Misra and Elissa Sloan Perry, codirectors
- Rockwood Leadership Institute—Akaya Windwood and Darlene Nipper, partner leaders
It’s important to note that the organizations had differences in how they were unpacking and distributing the single executive role: there were variations on codirectorship, and some were experimenting with even broader committee or collective structures. Despite these differences, there were powerful commonalities across the organizations’ motivations and aspirations for sharing power. It’s also important to note that none of the organizations is by any means putting itself forward as expert or as having “figured it out.” Rather, we share these reflections to open up a conversation with others who are questioning aspects of traditional leadership and exploring alternative frameworks and approaches.
1. Sharing leadership is an expression of our individual and organizational identities.
Soon into our conversation, we noted that of the ten leaders, nine are people of color, and all identify as queer. Darlene Nipper of Rockwood reflected, “The thing is that we’re just different from white guys. We’re different people from the folks who have informed the thinking about organizational leadership and management over the last one hundred years. We come at it differently.” Susan Misra of MAG put it this way: “I think our innate approach is collaborative and collective. When the organization was thinking about who should be the next leader, it just felt wrong to think of one executive director.” Sean Thomas-Breitfeld of Building Movement Project linked shared leadership to feminist theory: “I’m curious if people have thought about the interest and appetite for alternatives to very top-down, hierarchical, one-person-in-charge models as informed by feminism in terms of a world view, but also the organizational theory that might be coming out of that branch of academic research.” Others referenced past experiences of traditional leadership that were oppressive. Essex Lordes of CUAV reflected, “That’s also part of the motivation—having this bad experience of power.” It was clear that, in part, the organizations are experimenting with shared leadership because traditional, hierarchical leadership is not resonant for the individual leaders themselves.
They are also experimenting with shared leadership structures because top-down leadership is in contradiction to the work that they do as organizations. In various ways, each of the organizations is trying to change the way that people, organizations, and systems relate to one another. They are all concerned with elevating the voices and wisdom of marginalized people and communities. They are all concerned with the conscious, responsible use of power. Given that, they feel a responsibility to structure themselves to the reality they are working toward. Elissa Sloan Perry of MAG put it this way: “We were really, really clear that MAG needed to shift its internal practice behavior and culture to reflect the world that we are contributing to making.” Fred Sherburn-Zimmer of Housing Rights Committee talked about developing a committee-based structure that keeps the decisions with those most involved and impacted by an issue: “While we do all affect each other’s work, it doesn’t make much sense that folks who are not in public housing and working with public housing tenants, or come from public housing, have much say-so over the public housing program.” He added that engaging tenants is their next challenge in sharing leadership system wide: “We have tenant leaders who are not only taking on their own eviction, but are taking on evictions of everyone on their block. These people need to have a part in our decision making, strategy, and vision.” Similarly, CUAV came to the realization that internal leadership composition and structure are directly linked to external impact. According to Lidia Salazar, “We were noticing that our programmatic work wasn’t reaching marginalized communities. So, in our transition, we also changed our mission to center black and brown people, people of color. Then, in turn, it made sense to have a leadership model that reflected this in order to reach these communities and in order to make informed decisions for the organization.” These evolutions of leadership structure are breaking down the false distinction between the organizations’ external organizational identities and their internal practices.
2. Sharing leadership is not only about the individual leaders sharing power; it is also an organization-wide ethos.
Each of the organizations is working to include the voices of all staff in decision making and direction setting for the organization and to adopt practices that deepen equity on all fronts. Susan Misra said, “Shared leadership does really work, and when it’s working well, it’s not just about the few people who are the codirectors, it’s actually about the whole organization.” Essex Lordes reflected, “Unless you have a certain background or training, oftentimes in organizations you’re not allowed to bring whatever your lived experience is. For us, it’s having a structure that allows people to embody more of their leadership; to be able to bring the fullness of their experience; to bring in that wisdom that we inherently have as