"I want to make people understand that it’s like any relationship, it takes work, and it’s a labour of love and care... it's an experience and a project, it has to be."
Interview with Devi Leiper O'Malley and Ruby Johnson for Welcome Change: Healing Solidarity Conference 2020
Last year I was honoured to interview Devi Leiper O’Malley and Ruby Johnson, the former co-directors of FRIDA |The Young Feminist Fund who still work together on a number of other projects. What they shared with me in that conversation for Healing Solidarity really resonated and inspired me to reflect on and write about my own shared leadership journey.
My path to shared leadership
When I first became an organisational leader in my mid-20s. I took it on as a very personal and individual responsibility. I took things that went wrong pretty personally, I struggled to celebrate what went well, and eventually left feeling pretty burnt out.
'I burnt myself out' I sometimes say.
But did I?
Or are our expectations of individual heroic leadership at least partly, to blame?
In the years since, I've come to believe more and more that our idea of the heroic individual leader who we put our faith in and hold entirely responsible isn't serving us or transformation in our world.
And I have been increasingly experimenting with ways to share leadership in a variety of different ways.
What leads us to shared leadership?
“Right from the start I was very clear that if I was going to do it, I didn't want to do it by myself because I’ve run a network of organisations before... and it was just too backbreaking literally. I said if I'm going to do it again, I don't want to do it ever on my own.”
Interview with Mary Jane N. Real for Healing Solidarity Conference 2019
Mary Jane N. Real, Co-director of Urgent Action Fund Asia Pacific, shared her own experience with me when I interviewed her for the Healing Solidarity conference in 2019.
Personally, since my own experience of burnout, I have also preferred co-leading and co-creating where possible.
From the podcast I co-host, Change Making Women, to co-leading an online conference and community Healing Solidarity.
Co-creating a storytelling event to co-founding the Red Tent Directory and writing a book with Aisha Hannibal about that work.
Here are some of the thing I love about this kind of leading and creating:
- It feels more aligned - As Devi puts it, shared leadership is ‘..like a pathway to the world we want”. It feels more coherent with my values about how much we need each other and how ineffective individualistic leadership styles can be in our world.
- Mutual support - I love the possibility of leaning into 'us' instead of doubting 'me'. It's great when I can rest into the 'we' in a good way - like I don't have to put so much pressure on or second guess myself so much because we are doing it together
- Accountability - When I feel that if I procrastinate I'll be letting someone else down, I am less likely to. That, in a way, pushes me to my edges (in a good way!).
- Shared problem-solving - When things I can't/don't want to do arise - I can share my struggle with another human - that is often, in my experience - the first step to unraveling them.
- Courage - Doing things together helps me to be braver, reducing the personal fears or being 'difficult' or 'too much' and instead enabling a sense of collective courage.
Paradoxically perhaps, Collective Leadership helps up to know ourselves better
To be truly effective, collective leadership requires us to bring a level of insight into our own strengths and weaknesses. Clarity around our own leadership, the things we do well.
It requires us to be honest about what we offer to the collective -- whether that means how we work together as a 'team of two co-leaders' or a broader collective steering a bigger group.
"When you are working closely with someone, you really learn about yourself and...develop more awareness of boundaries and it's like a constant learning process...creating ways to be really radically honest ....with each other and to yourself, about where you’re not... being authentic."
Ruby Johnson, from my interview with Devi Leiper O'Malley and Ruby Johnson for Welcome Change: Healing Solidarity Conference 2020
And our co-leadership relationships also need their own space to grow and be tended, as Ruby also shared:
“I think the thing about co-leadership which really has shaped me is, it's like an in-built kind of support mechanism, to see the things you're really good at, in someone else, and have that encouragement, but also to see where you want to learn and stretch, and have that self reflection. And we were able to identify that with each other, like where do we want to grow? How can we support each other?"
What are the challenges of collective leadership?
Doing things together, sharing leadership, also has its challenges.
It can take longer to do things. You have to move, as adrienne maree brown says, ‘at the speed of trust’ and take time to build and maintain relationships.
And there is still a part of me that sometimes wants to 'do it myself'. The part of me that's fiercely independent. It’s been important to me to make sure I have an outlet for that -- like this website -- where I can create work that feels deeply personal to me, and explore my relationship to the shared projects I’m part of.
I can sometimes lose myself a bit in 'groups or 'partnerships'. Sometimes, in relationship to others, I struggle with being honest about my instinct or where I am at with something - and that can stand in the way of effectively sharing leadership.
Learning when it’s helpful to surrender my ego to the collective, and when instinct is being diluted at the expense of my integrity, is an ongoing practice and inquiry for me.
How to build solid partnerships
One thing I have learnt is that truly co-operative solidarity requires us to go beyond naming power dynamics and to share what is under the surface.
If we don't do this, sometimes frustration can fester.
We also need to be willing to be honest with ourselves and each other. The better we can articulate our own experiences, needs, fears, and vulnerabilities, the better we can support each other.
Mary Jane echoed this sense of a unique relationship:
“One of the things that I also value about it is just having someone who is at the same level shares the same responsibility but I'm able to bounce ideas with and think through the decisions. It's having a co-equal thinking with you about the decisions that we have to make for the organisation.”
I have also found that I need to know myself better and to 'stand in my own truth' to be effective in a shared leadership situation -- and I also need to be able to be really open about my insecurities, so that they can be shared.
Have you experienced co-leadership in your work -- and does this article echo your learnings? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Leave a comment, let me know, join us in the Healing Solidarity Collective to follow the on-going conversations about leadership there or find resources for co-creating community spaces from the Red Tent Directory here.
Find out more about
Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific: https://www.uafanp.org/
Devi Leiper O'Malley: https://www.devileiperomalley.com/
Ruby Johnson: https://www.rubyamelia.com/
This is an interesting and honest set of reflections.useful and thought provoking. Thanks
Penny Lawrence says
Thanks MaryAnn – great insight and examples. I interviewed someone last week who had experienced co-leadership in her collective and was really positive about the experience, but also shared her insight that on occasion she felt more excluded under co-leadership. She felt that in ensuring decisions are shared or co-creating with one another, co-leaders had also inadvertently excluded others they would have previously included. I recognised this from feedback on my own experience of being a co-leader some years back. I had so focussed on ensuring teams got consistent messages and decisions from my co-lead and myself that my naturally collaborative leadership approach took a hit. I was very grateful to colleagues who pointed this out at the time!
Mary Ann says
Thanks Penny. Yes totally. I think that no structure – including co-leadership – is a panacea. I love the way Ella Scheepers & Ishtar Lakhani talk about the ‘form trap’ in their piece here: https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/caution-feminists-at-work-building-organisations-from-the-inside-out-620962/– It really speaks to the ways in which it’s not just what we do but how we do it and the fact that no single form or struggle is the ‘answer’