Beyond the Rockstar Paradigm, Part II

April 27, 2015 //

Years ago, I blogged that social movement leadership needed to live into models that do not solely hinge on a single, visionary, rockstar leader.

One of TWI’s core partners, Building Movement Project, recently shared some key learning about their commitment to co-leadership.  Many of the points Frances makes resonate strongly with us, in particular the importance of a previously established work relationship, complementary contributions, and enlisting a coach to support the establishment and maintenance of their co-directorship.

John and I contacted Frances and Sean for guidance early on in our process of envisioning a co-leadership model for The Whitman Institute.  TWI’s own choice to pair a woman of color, Gen X leader with its long time white male boomer Executive Director mirrors Building Movement Project’s own co-director pairing.

We humbly offer a few additional learnings of our own to Frances’ thoughtful list:

Home Base vs. On the Road Responsibilities:  When one of us is on the road, the other is more responsive to questions and requests that come to both us – allowing the other to immerse more intently wherever s/he is.  This also invites the Co-Ed who is on the road to shut off the smart phone and engage in person with people (!) without being distracted by important communications that they trust the other is fielding.

Don’t Suck All the Air Out of the Room:  One of my favorite reflections about air time in meetings comes from Parker Palmer, who sometimes quips that he tries diligently not to suck up all the air our of the room by talking nonstop.  Since there are two of us, we are increasingly careful not to take up too much of the talking space and make sure that other institutions and perspective get air time.  Since we are both talkers, we are on a learning curve with this one!

Encourage Time Outs:  John and I noticed recently that the pace of our work life had become almost hyperactive.  Perhaps we are simply taking cues from the sector, but we reminded each other that we could re-imagine and re-set.  We are also incredibly supportive of each other actually resting when sick, taking an afternoon off when we’ve been traveling too much, and the importance of tending to self care, home, and family.

Scan the Horizon:  Whether its talking early in the week to scan for important conversations, decisions, or benchmarks or allocating a half day for reflecting and galvanizing plans, we try and step back to scan the horizon together.  This enables us to co-track the many levels of engagement (internal board and staff; core and annual grantee partners; new and old funder colleague connections; networking and convening; communications and online) together, so that we can prioritize, de-prioritize and problem solve.

Talking the Talk:   We make time for regular check-ins – weaving our personal crucibles and triumphs with our professional reflections.  We sit in the TWI “living room” with tea and water.  We talk.  We actually don’t usually have a agenda, maybe just a running list of “oh, we should talk about…”  Miraculously, every time, we come up with clarified intention and action.  The most crucial question for the board meeting is formed; an uncomfortable moment is resolved and lights up new commitments to equitable partnership; an inkling about a possible new annual fund partner turns into a solid yes or no.  Consensus decisions are often reached without struggle.  Agreements about who’s leading on what area are established or re-established.  It all gets done in the wash of our conversation.  Given the importance TWI has always placed on dialogue, it is ironic to me that this surprises me:  our thinking and strategy really does evolve through conversation.

Our ongoing conversations are, of course, built on an 11-year professional partnership and friendship – so there is a short-hand that enables us to deliberate and decide rather quickly.  But it isn’t always tidy.

If I were to speak to some of the issues I raised many years ago, I would name that co-leadership truly requires humility and leading with less ego and more honesty.  In the constant mirror of having a co-pilot, it also requires a readiness for constant feedback and a willingness to acknowledge mistakes and keep moving.

We are curious how you all out there are exploring and creating co-leadership models. We invite you to share with us, here and anywhere we connect!