Friday, February 5, 2010

Touching the (Leadership) Void

The other day I got the following email from an intentional community for advice about how to fill leadership slots:

We [the Process Committee] just received an email from the Board President reminding us that we need to address the issue of future board leadership (several long term members are expected to drop off the Board next term). Do you have any advice for the community on this issue?

This topic—leadership in cooperative groups—is a terrific one, and I thought I'd share my response to this group.

There are a couple of angles on this.

1. The Board in Relationship to Community Governance

Like many communities, this one is structured as a condominium association and is legally required to have a governing Board of Directors. At the same time, the community has chosen to make its decisions by consensus, and these two systems of governance don't tend to play well together. When a group works by consensus, it's confusing to have a Board that's also doing real work for the group. It can lead to two governing bodies which make decisions by different methods (the Board votes and the community makes decisions by consensus). While it's possible to set it up so that the Board also makes decisions by consensus (which would be less confusing), there's still potential trouble whenever the Board comes to a different conclusion than the community would. Which prevails?

There's also the potential for awkwardness whenever there's overlapping aspects of responsibility. For example, I know communities where the Board handles financial and legal matters, while the community oversees social and membership matters. On paper it looks like a straight-forward division, but it's not hard to imagine issues that spill over into both spheres of influence. Suppose a member is behind in dues payments—which body will wrestle with the consequences? It can become a tangled mess in a blink.

I much prefer that the Board be titular only and do no real work. That is, have a party every year and have people throw darts or draw lots to determine who will be the President and Secretary (as those are probably the only two officers the law requires you to have), and then ask them to do no real work.

Instead, make the community be the Board, such that all community decisions are automatically Board decisions. That way, you have only one governing body. It's much cleaner.

So that's my rap on structure. I'm imagining that the urgency behind the Board President's request is that the Board does real work, and thus it's a relatively big deal that Board slots might go unfilled. Thus, even if you like my structural suggestion, that doesn't solve the problem of how to get important functions covered, and that brings me to my second angle...

2. Filling Leadership Roles

Regardless of what governance structure the community adopts, you'll need leaders. That is, people who will inspire, coordinate, take initiative, and manage things needing to get done. I'm assuming that the Board currently does real work and the President is properly concerned that there is a dearth of people willing to fill non-trivial slots.

If this community is like most other cooperative groups, leaders are expected to shoulder a full complement of responsibilities while enjoying few rights or privileges. People serving the cmty in management positions are typically expected to be available on demand to hear (and hopefully resolve) members' frustrations with how things are progressing in their areas of responsibility, yet they have little power to act without explicit group sanction at every turn. They don't get paid (perhaps not even in hours), they don't get a new car, and they don't get an office with a corner window. In many cases, the leader's well-intentioned best efforts rankle a disaffected few who have no qualms about letting the leader know how unhappy they are with the leader's actions (or inactions) with respect to their pet concerns. Most leaders report that they receive far more criticism than appreciation, and are happy when their tour of duty ends and they can take off the "Shoot Here" shirt.

In many cases, the only thing that leaders get in compensation for their efforts is the opportunity to serve—and for many, that's not worth the hassle.

This is a community issue, and I have two recommendations about how to turn this around:

a) Talk about power and leadership in the group

There needs to be community-wide buy-in with the concept that leaders are necessary, and you need to have a model of what healthy leadership looks like. Absent that, there will always be at least low-level grousing about what leaders do, as people project their past damage (and everyone has personal experience of leaders who abused their power) onto the current leaders.

I'll give you some hints about what this model will need to include:

o High standards for disclosure, so that the work of leaders is transparent.

o Careful selection of people who serve in positions of significant responsibility (don't just take the first person who puts their hand in the air). This includes job descriptions and an explicit naming of the characteristics wanted for the person filling that role.

o Periodic evaluation of leaders (which can serve both to clear the air and to celebrate their accomplishments).

o A culture where all members are encouraged to take on positions of leadership over the course of time. Note that I am not suggesting that all members be required to take on leadership; rather, I'm suggesting that the community encourages members to consider it (to diffuse the tendency to see those wiling to serve as the Leader Elite).

b) Incorporate appreciation of leaders into the regular culture of the community

I believe it's worthwhile for communities to establish a body—perhaps a Participation Committee—whose job it is (among other things) to help lead the cheers for contributions made by members to enhancing community life. The segment of the community that I am particularly focusing on here are the leaders and managers, who would receive this attention as a balm. Note that I am not suggesting that leaders should not be criticized—if someone does something wrong or takes an action that upsets someone, there has to be a known and protected pathway be which that can surface and be dealt with. The point I am trying to make here is that people doing important work for the group deserve recognition for their contributions and that making sure this happens will make a significant difference in terms of people being willing to take a turn.

There are three groups that should be able to help do this consistently and do it well:

—The Participation Committee (if you have one)

—The Process Committee (because they'll be on top of what leaders and mangers are doing)

—Former leaders (who have personal experience of what it's like to walk in those shoes)

While it may be obvious, I want to point out that it's inappropriate to expect leaders to take the lead on appreciating themselves—even if they know it should happen. Some other group in the community must handle that.

If you put all this in place, I think you'll have a lot better luck finding good people willing to step forward to fill slots.

1 comment:

Quentin said...

Very well done. Wish I had known this years ago.