Distributed Leadership: a reality check
Contributed by Jennifer DeCoste
When I was asked to contribute to the design of a network of innovators making positive social change in Atlantic Canada (later known as WeavEast), the dream was of a horizontal governance model. Our region has strong roots in the North American Co-operative movement and our core team were students of feminist practice in organizational design. We were not going to fall back into patterns of hierarchy built for an old world of institutional command and control — this was a blank slate from which a new model for shared regional leadership would grow. This is the story of how we failed in many ways to bring that dream to fruition, and why this keeps happening when introducing alternative leadership models.
In 2018, a group of changemakers from across the Atlantic provinces wanted to make real progress on critical social problems in this region. The region is small and many of the social innovators were well known to each other but the reach and impact of our collective work was held back by a lack of collaboration and limited regional connections to national work as well as few financial resources to support our work in the field. This often showed up as competition between social impact organizations and a pervasive scarcity mindset. Knowing that shifting towards greater collaboration would require trust and take time to build, a number of partners from across the region envisioned a 3 year runway to build this network with secure funding and dedicated human resources.
In the early days we were on track for a new approach to this complex work: leaders from all four Atlantic provinces offered shared contributions based on experience and strengths, we showed we were able to work through differences of opinion, and we were all committed to the work. In the first 18 months this idea went from a two-page pitch for funding and grew into a broadly shared vision with solid representation from each province. We secured funding from a rare foundational funder who understood our need for a multi-year commitment to this work. We co-created a platform that would develop local knowledge, pool resources and offer a collective voice from Atlantic Canada in regional and national conversations. We believed our work would create a new ecosystem for funders and policymakers to engage with powerful regional innovators. It was in the way we accepted funding to provide support for this growing network that we made our first mistake.
Now that we have identified what not to do, we will use this series to look at successful models of non-hierarchical governance, to glean from their experience and find positive role models for future networks.
We blurred the lines
Predictably, the foundation who supported our vision requested that this grassroots initiative align with a reliable regional entity — one with proven fiduciary responsibility who would agree to house the network as it took shape. Beyond flow-through funding, there wasn’t any obligation to align the growing network with the host organization but the opportunity to share resources and learn together made for an easy fit. The backbone team of the network began attending staff meetings for the host organization, sharing staff resources, contributing to strategic discussions about the host organization’s work. Our host organization had never engaged in work of this nature but were keen to be present as the network was growing as it broadened their own scope of work at a time when their own funding was tenuous. Diversification was appealing and nesting this network when it was young and could benefit from support meant this safe place to land was appealing for both parties. We did not anticipate that blurring the lines between this independent initiative and our hosts would mean sacrificing the commitment and engagement of regional partners. Where did we lose them:
We didn’t name the power at play
Looking back on those early days it is easier now to see how small steps and good intentions can miss their intended mark. When we brought this work under the umbrella of a provincially based NFP we did not name and plan for the power dynamics both within the existing host organization as well as the region at large. The power imbalances weren’t obvious at first. This project was nested by an organization that became increasingly involved in the labour of lifting up a network of this nature so they began to question fit and place — bringing the network into view within their own organizational strategic plan. Slowly, the independent and collaborative regional network became a subsidiary of a hub — one that was firmly planted in only one of four provinces represented by the network which created a barrier for shared ownership.
Within the growing network in 2018/19, there was space for questioning power, plenty of room for co-creation, but after the funding was received the co-leadership slowly waned, especially when attempting to engage regionally. Meetings were missed, deadlines extended, and within the backbone team we found ourselves regularly questioning, “where is everyone?” What we failed to recognize was that the funding and alignment had shifted the sense of shared ownership — it became an offered ‘invitation to participate’ rather than growing from a sense of co-ownership. What was the incentive to contribute volunteer hours to a project this consuming when there was a well-funded backbone organization to do the leg work, especially if they are provincially aligned and will most likely concentrate their work locally as has happened so many times in the past?
We did not clear the space for new leadership
The additional power imbalance came from the influences/ers that touched the work. While the host organization has an enviable degree of community involvement for their own provincial work, the organization itself had positions of concentrated leadership that were positional. The influence of this style was at odds with the collaborative nature of a regional network that was trying to grow as a garden rather than a pyramid. As a network we nurtured the idea of distributed leadership with co-created agendas, open and self-selection to projects and decision making meetings but still the work fell victim to the ease of hierarchy, relying on invitations and coordination to come out from the centre because there were resources to do those tasks and patterns established within the host organization where the team was located.
We stopped investing in the relationships
The network experienced a shift in resourcing in early 2020. Pre-pandemic, the primary coordinator left the team and the role of care-taking and connecting was not backfilled. The intention instead was to reallocate those financial resources to provide direct support for regional projects from all four provinces. This was an attempt to bring funding directly to the grassroots and to re-engage regional leadership, but without a conduit to connect back to the network itself, months passed where regional projects were back to operating in silos, shared learning was limited, and the energy that had been building was dissipated. Then, we were in the middle of the pandemic and available resources were reallocated to building out an online learning platform without authentic engagement of the network membership and most of the work ground to a halt.
We’ll probably do it again…
I know I’ve made these mistakes more than once. On another project since leaving the organizing team of WeavEast I hired consultants to work with my new team to co-create a horizontal model of governance with stars in my eyes. We still managed to blur the lines between a regional and international scope of work putting local work at risk, I invited participation without naming the power concentrated around the “founder” in the work and had to backtrack, and failed to acquire the resources to provide a continuous level of relationship support for a growing network and am currently drowning while trying to do it all myself. I write this now in hopes that I can break this cycle and that others can join in a conversation about the challenges of Distributed Leadership in network growth. Work in new horizons will require new forms of leadership but it feels like we are repeating the same mistakes over and over and using it as an excuse to fall back on hierarchical models. Now that we have identified what not to do, we will use this series to look at successful models of non-hierarchical governance, to glean from their experience and find positive role models for future networks. We’ll probably make similar mistakes again…but let’s work together to find ways to get a little better with every try.
Jennifer DeCoste is an Affiliate Fellow with Ashoka Canada, a social change leader in Atlantic Canada and founder of the LifeSchoolHouse movement (www.lifeschoolhouse.com)