Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Growing Pains: Challenges in Cooperative Leadership

My wife, Ma'ikwe, lives at Dancing Rabbit, a 15-year-old ecovillage with 72 members and residents on its way to hundreds. In anticipation of this growth, they will be making a transition this year from straight consensus to governance by an eight-member Village Council. While this body will still make decisions by consensus, community-wide decisions will no longer be made in plenary.

The Council will be selected by an open process where all people living in the community will have a chance to say whether they are willing to serve, and to give input about who they think is the best slate of candidates based on a recognized set of desired qualities. Council members will serve two-year terms, with half up for selection every year.

In addition to this important experiment in cooperative governance, the DR Board is advocating that the community work toward hiring two or three people to fill three administrative slots—all of which are new or have heretofore been difficult to fill:

o  Executive Director (overseeing the 501c3 educational activities of Dancing Rabbit, Inc, as distinct from the internal affairs of the intentional community—which is what the Village Council will have responsibility for)

o  Development Coordinator (in charge of fundraising)

o  Communications Director (getting the word out about DR's activities as a model ecovillage)

While these changes have been carefully crafted and there's a wealth of good thinking that's gone into what's being advanced, the aspect about these developments that intrigues me most is that the community is moving in the direction of creating internal positions of responsibility such that selected individuals will be getting paid to oversee their fellow members. In some cases, the new managers and coordinators will have the power to hire and fire. Oh baby.

This is significant for three reasons:

1. Cooperative groups are notoriously vague about defining healthy models of leadership. Mostly it's open season on people willing to serve, where mangers get all of the responsibility and none of the perks of their mainstream counterparts. Lacking clarity about what behaviors are wanted, people serving in leadership roles do the best they can and then try to survive whatever slings and arrows are directed their way from disgruntled members. It can be a real bloodbath, and a real damper on people's enthusiasm for filling leadership slots.

To its credit, DR has been diligent about creating job descriptions, defining limits of authority, and delineating the qualities wanted in managers. They've also been establishing the standards for staff evaluations. Hopefully all this good work will pay off in a more balanced mix of appreciations and ouches.

2. Once you start paying one member to manage another in a cooperative setting, you're purposefully moving into a certain kind of schizophrenia, where the same two people can be fellow members with identical rights in one context, and manager and subordinate in another. It can be the very devil navigating cleanly back and forth between the two, as the expectations around communication and how power is shared shift with the context. 

I know of examples where qualified people simply refused to accept leadership roles in their home communities for the express purpose of avoiding being caught in this dynamic. (They moved to community to get away from difficult power dynamics; not to walk into the lion's den!) It will be fascinating to see how well my neighbors handle this volatile stuff.

3. In addition to being skittish about the dynamics mentioned above, it can be hard to fill slots with good people because good people invariable have busy lives already. The old saw, "If you want something done ask a busy person" applies here, in that the most competent people tend to not have room in their lives to fill significant new slots. Their dance cards are already full.

So I'm interested to see how the community will shake down good candidates to fill this double handful of important new openings in community governance.

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I feel fortunate to live so close to this experiment in cooperative culture, where I have a seat near enough to the arena that I can hear people squeal as they try to bootstrap themselves into their tight new toreador pants, so that they can bravely march into the sunlight to dance with the bulls of tough issues, hoping to avoid being caught on the horns.

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