In early 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic surged, two senior leaders of our small strategic partnerships team at the Fund for Global Human Rights left within the span of a few months, making an already challenging period even more complicated. Our colleagues, who are responsible for raising millions of dollars in funding every year, were already suffering from siloization, a lack of collaboration, and low morale. The reduced capacity sent our overworked team into a state of limbo.
After careful consideration, we decided that shared leadership seemed like the best way to guide our team through the difficult transition. We stepped up as a trio of interim co-directors in part out of necessity and in part due to fears that the hasty hire of a new director could compound our challenges. But we also saw a window of opportunity to leverage our collective and complementary skills to lead and strengthen our team through the transition.
We believed that embracing a shared leadership structure would enable us to be resilient and keep things running through a tough moment. Instead, our experiment turned out to be the unexpected antidote we needed. Shared leadership not only remedied many of the challenges we’d previously faced. It also offered an opportunity to transform our team and better align our practices with the values we preach as a human rights funder.
What Is Shared Leadership?
As we embarked on our shared leadership journey, we were pleased to discover a vibrant, inspiring, and growing community dedicated to shared leadership. Among others, we’ve been inspired by FRIDA, Urgent Action Fund Asia Pacific, and Purposeful. Many publications have enriched our learning and steered us toward new ideas related to shared leadership, such as former FRIDA co-directors’ Ruby Johnson’s and Devi Leiper O’Malley’s series in Alliance Magazine on Feminist Friendship as Method.
At its core, shared leadership is the practice of distributing power across a team or organization instead of concentrating it at the top.
According to the Harvard Business Review, shared leadership involves maximizing all the human resources in an organization by empowering all workers and giving them an opportunity to take leadership positions in their areas of expertise. At its core, shared leadership is the practice of distributing power across a team or organization instead of concentrating it at the top. Its animating principles include the democratization of power, inclusion, and recognition that each person contributes value to a team.
There is more than one right way to practice shared leadership. Such a practice could entail an actual shared leadership structure, in which two or more people serve as co-leaders. It could mean self-managed teams. It can even look like a more traditional structure that emphasizes consultation-based decision making, empowers staff to work more autonomously, or cultivates an organizational culture in which people feel free to take initiative.
Importantly, shared leadership draws heavily on feminist leadership principles. Many feminist organizations have articulated these principles in ways that can serve as useful guidelines for those endeavoring to embrace them. Fair Share of Women Leaders, an organization dedicated to promoting feminist leadership and principles, has a handy feminist resource directory, for example.
From sources like these, we understand shared leadership to be: 1) the democratization of power structures; 2) the affirmation of a collective whole that is greater than the sum of its parts; 3) a way to share the psychological burden of leadership; and 4) an effective method for team or organizational strengthening. While some of this may sound theoretical, in practice it is simple. Shared leadership can mean more trust and support, less pressure, drawing on each person’s strengths, making room for caring responsibilities, and greater collaboration and coordination.
What We Learned
From the outset of our experiment, we dove into the feminist principles that underpin shared leadership and made them central to our approach. We embraced the idea that we must lead with intentionality: not only must we lead by example and embody our team values, but we must also fully commit to fostering a healthy and inclusive team culture, nurturing the development of team members, prioritizing their wellbeing, and making space for their contributions. These values and principles have helped us build a stronger and healthier dynamic. Not only is our team a more comfortable, nurturing, and motivating place in which to exist and work. We are now more effective, more collaborative, and more strategic—in short, we are better at the work we do. New team members have expressed feeling immediately welcomed, and colleagues across the organization have noted our collaborative nature.
This healthy team culture is both a product of and contributing factor to strong relationships. These relationships are organic—in that they naturally emerge through successful shared leadership—but they’re also intentional. We value the relational aspect of our work. We understand that strong relationships built on trust and respect are at the core of a healthy team dynamic and what ultimately lead to improved outcomes. Building these relationships is a key part of the work—and essential to longer-term success. Many co-leaders cannot imagine co-leading with anyone else. Yet, it is in fact a highly replicable practice. It simply requires centering the relational value of the work and understanding that relationship building is part of the strategy.
We also implemented the principle that collaboration trumps competition. Successful shared leadership necessitates greater collaboration. Working together on a continuous basis broke down the silos that had previously hampered our team, particularly during the pandemic. Importantly, this means that we do not compete with each other. Instead, as co-leaders, we work collectively to achieve our team goals and share workloads, backstopping each other during planned holidays and unplanned time off for illness or bereavement leave. This has made us more effective despite moments of reduced capacity. We not only met but surpassed our fundraising goals two years in a row by identifying and leveraging opportunities across our portfolios, a process made possible by our improved collaboration and strong relationships.
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Relatedly, we are resource efficient and well positioned to grow our team in the most strategic way possible. Moving to a shared leadership model cut out the need for a top-level team director with little more than delegation duties. Now, we’re leading the team and doing the day-to-day work. This means we’re able to use financial resources more efficiently—which is near and dear to the heart of any fundraising team. It also means we stay up to speed on all the details, allowing us to make decisions directly—without needing to run each decision up the chain—to be more strategic in our fundraising efforts, and to provide more relevant, supportive management and mentorship to other team members.
We’ve all heard the phrase “it’s lonely at the top”—but it’s not just lonely, it’s also stressful.
As co-leaders, we can each effectively represent our team in cross-departmental spaces. Because we are both leading the team and enmeshed in its day-to-day work, we have a stronger understanding of what the team needs to grow. This perspective has allowed us to identify our own blind spots and be better coaches and mentors. We’re prioritizing the skills and capacities that will position our team for success and the organization for long-term financial sustainability. And as our small team grows, this shared leadership framework is informing the way we recruit, hire, and onboard new colleagues.
Importantly, sharing leadership makes the responsibility less burdensome. We’ve all heard the phrase “it’s lonely at the top”—but it’s not just lonely, it’s also stressful. Shared leadership allows leaders to let go of control. Instead of micro-managing under pressure, we can take the time and space to trust one another, allowing leaders to share the burden of responsibility. It’s hard to imagine any one person taking on the immense mandate of our team. In fact, burnout has been a persistent problem for previous directors. Our shared leadership structure enables us to share both the power and burden of leadership in a more sustainable way.
Finally, shared leadership helps create space for life outside of work. Burden sharing has a real and tangible benefit: it gives people the space they need to lead full lives and carry responsibilities beyond the workplace. This is particularly important for those with caring responsibilities. Of our trio of co-leaders, two are mothers with young children and one is pregnant. During the pandemic, balancing childcare, remote learning, increased anxiety, and illness meant that many parents—especially mothers—were forced to leave the workforce. On the contrary, our shared leadership structure allowed us to not only remain in our roles, but also to progress in them.
All this being said, our experience with shared leadership also proved that it’s not always easy—nor is it less work. Consensus decision-making can be more time consuming and is only one example of how shared leadership can sometimes feel like more work as opposed to less. As co-leaders, we are also conscious that our partnership could be perceived as exclusive, so we must proactively and consistently make efforts to ensure the rest of our team feels included. Shared leadership also requires a support system at both the organizational and board levels. Given that shared leadership is for many a new and perhaps unknown approach, it can be challenging to get this buy in.
In our experience, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. As human rights funders, we believe that sharing and shifting power will be transformational for the movements we support, so why should the same not be true inside the walls of our organizations?
Shared Leadership and the Human Rights Space
Shared leadership is a growing trend in the human rights space, and it is exciting to see more and more organizations embrace it. Over the last year, several organizations have announced their move to a co-executive director model, including most recently, Mama Cash. In its announcement, the organization affirms that, like us, it views shared leadership as a way to share power and embody its values: “Mama Cash sees this moment of leadership transition as an opportunity to live our value of sharing power by embracing a special model of co-executive leadership,” the organization wrote. “One co-Executive Director will come from and be based in the Global South, and the other will be based in the Netherlands.”
Unfortunately, many organizations have failed to achieve this alignment, instead preserving more traditional, hierarchical staffing structures based on unilateral decision-making, which can too easily foster inequity, non-transparency, toxicity, and burnout.
No doubt, this shift toward shared leadership in the human rights sector is part of a broader trend of pushing for alignment between organizations’ internal practices and their external values. Unfortunately, many organizations have failed to achieve this alignment, instead preserving more traditional, hierarchical staffing structures based on unilateral decision-making, which can too easily foster inequity, non-transparency, toxicity, and burnout. A reckoning has occurred in recent years, and staff in these organizations are saying, enough is enough. Shared leadership can be one way to bring the human rights values that organizations prioritize in their external work into their everyday decision making, workflows, team dynamics, and relationships with colleagues.
As seen in Mama Cash’s model of co-leadership, for many organizations, moving to this structure is a way to prioritize diversity and inclusion, centering the lived experiences and amplifying the voices of leaders from the Global South. For shared leadership to foster increased diversity, equity, and inclusion, it must be implemented as a structure that can be embraced by anyone. While success requires trust and strong relationships, it should not require preexisting friendships or similarities. And, while shared leadership is based on feminist principles, it should not be reserved solely for women. Given how rapidly the shared leadership trend is taking off, soon we will have more data to understand both the benefits and shortcomings of shared leadership structures.
While we are advocates for shared leadership, we also recognize that it is only one approach; just as there is more than one way to advance human rights, there are other ways to practice intentional leadership. What is critical is that the human rights sector adopt forms of leadership that are grounded in and serve to align organizational culture and practices with the values it promotes in the world. Human rights funders must lead by example. We are always asking grantees to demonstrate innovation—how they are adapting to shifting contexts, responding to new challenges, and collaborating in novel ways. But as funders, we should also be holding ourselves to the same standards. Supporting shared leadership is one opportunity for funders to practice the progressive values we preach.