Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cautionary Tales in Cooperative Leadership

In my previous blog I outlined the incredible variety of ways in which leadership can manifest in a cooperative setting, and tried to illuminate how groups get in trouble by not making clear what kinds of qualities they want in their leaders—and then creaming them afterwards for failing to live up to standards that were never articulated or agreed upon. 

This is a problem for two reasons: 
a) When boundaries have not been defined, how the heck can leaders be expected to know when they've crossed them? In fact, backing up, how can would-be leaders do a reasonable job of self-assessing their suitability for filling leadership roles when the qualities have not been laid out?

b) What is wanted is likely to be, to some extent, situation specific—which means that a person can do an excellent job of bringing certain qualities of leadership to a task, only to be criticized for not bringing other qualities because the leader and the observer are not evaluating performance the same way. This aspect of the dynamic is not so much about the leader operating in a fog (they have a clear idea of how to serve the group well) as it is about the leader and the observer not singing from the same hymnal. 

In this follow-up essay, I'm going to explore a handful of additional ways that leadership in cooperating settings is fraught with navigational hazards. (Did someone tell you this was going to be easy?)

A. Leadership Damage from the Mainstream
We all bring to the experiment of cooperative culture personal experiences of leadership damage (by which I mean stories of hurt and disappointment—even disillusionment—with leaders having misused power for the benefit of some, and at the expense of others). Because this phenomenon is one of the express things that many people are hoping to get away from in seeking community*, there is often a knee-jerk suspicion about why someone is motivated to put themselves forward to fill a leadership role.

* While the overwhelming majority of people who approach FIC looking for information about intentional communities are seeking ones where leadership and power are broadly diffused, there are a number of successful communities with an identified leader, or leadership core (effectively an oligarchy) and that is every bit as legitimate a model as groups where all members have a say in decision making. As far as the Fellowship is concerned, it's all a matter of what consenting adults agree to.

Because this old damage can result in bad motivation getting projected onto leaders in cooperative settings, it can be quite delicate sorting out whether the leader has an out-of-control ego, or the critical person is having trouble distinguishing a leader with whom they have an honest difference of opinion or clash of styles, from someone hooked on self-aggrandizement. Who's seeing things clearly and how do you tell?

Hint: Is the leader's first response outrage? While it may seem obvious what the "right" answer is (why would the leader be so reactive if their motivations were innocent?), don't be so quick to judge! In many cases a person chooses to accept leadership with an intent to serve. In their heart, they are making a gift; in the their mind it is sacred trust. When those conditions obtain, questions about one's motivation land as a dagger to the heart, and can be extremely difficult to receive with grace. When your integrity is questioned, reactivity is not necessarily a symptom of guilt.

Caution: Further complicating the matter, the leader may indeed have an unhealthy desire to be in control and hiding it from themselves under the banner of selfless service (Josef Mengele dressed as Mother Teresa) Ai-yi-yi!

B. Imbalance of Criticism and Appreciation
Because leaders are the ones who, well, lead the group, they tend to be the ones who call forth appreciation of others for their contributions. While that's all well and good, who initiates appreciation of the leaders? It doesn't land well if people attempt to call attention to themselves, and it doesn't land well if leaders are under-appreciated for their efforts.

C. How Long Should Leaders Wait for Others to Step Up? 
While all groups with a commitment to diffusing leadership tend to support the notion of giving members the opportunity to try out leadership roles (within reason), there's nuance to having this go well. Not everyone is equally equipped or motivated to serve as a leader and pushing someone into it can be counterproductive (traumatizing the individual and yielding poor service to the group). This is why strict rotations that include the entire membership are often clunky (I have no problem with a rotation for doing dishes; I do have a problem with everyone-takes-a-turn meeting facilitation.)

In an environment where a leader is encouraged to step down and make room for someone else, notice the dilemma for the outgoing leader who sees what needs to happen and is struggling with others not stepping up, or a replacement who is slow to take the bit in their mouth. It can be excruciating, and hard to watch progress (for the group) suffer in service to the strategic goal of giving the new person time to find their sea legs.

D. How People Learn the Wrong Lesson by Observing Leaders in Action
In moving from competitive to cooperative culture we're intentionally shifting away from institutionalized hierarchy. That does not, however, mean that no one (or no committee) should be given authority to act on behalf of the group. In fact, it is often highly inefficient to not delegate authority widely—especially in larger groups. What you don't want are fiefdoms, agenda controlling conveners, or the arbitrary use of power.

Multiple times I've witnessed people struggle to understand the essence of the above paragraph. They would watch someone exercise power with discernment, yet miss the discernment part; they only digested the exercise of power. Then, when it was their turn in a position of power, they used what they'd seen others do as a justification for acting preemptively, or claiming the right to act without review—because that's what they thought, mistakenly, others were doing.

Here are a handful of examples of train wrecks that I've witnessed based on this misunderstanding:

Example 1
Back in the early years of FIC we had a person who deeply desired the cachet of being an FIC Board member. What decided for the Board that this was not a good idea was watching the person bait a representative of a community network that was sent to our meetings to explore relationships. The representative's community had a defined spiritual path and the would-be FIC Board member lived in a secular community. Even though FIC expressly does not take a position about spiritual matters (see the italicized paragraph above) our eager beaver took it upon himself to challenge the guest about the internal workings of their community. Not only was this ungracious hosting, it demonstrated intolerance in an arena that the Fellowship purposefully intended to be accepting about. Ugh.

The young person had seen other FIC Board members ask hard questions of each other and thought that that was the culture we were trying to promote. He missed the respectful context in which the questions were posed, and the boundaries around what kinds of questions were fair game.

Example 2
FIC has produced or co-produced many events over its 27-year history. Sometimes we did well financially, and sometimes we didn't. As a consequence of our up-and-down record, the Board learned to be cautious about risk assessment. After a particularly disastrous experience where the coordinator demanded considerable autonomy and we lost $18,000, the Board insisted on more oversight as a condition of doing other events. 

When we next attempted an event, the person who filled the role of coordinator (which they did ably) chafed at the Board's degree of oversight. He considered it micromanaging, and threatened to quit if not allowed more latitude. It was pretty awkward.

The new coordinator had come from a successful corporate career where he'd learned to fight for his team, and he brought that adversarial mindset into the FIC where it didn't land well—even among the other team members, who could see the tension rising.

While the event went well (whew), it took some time to repair the damage to relationships because the new guy didn't see how the Board had a paramount need for certain kinds of information to met its fiduciary responsibilities. He interpreted the questions as a lack of trust in him, when the Board was trying to live up to the trust placed in it to guide the organization safely. In the competitive, corporate world, information can be used as a weapon and a coin of power; in the cooperative world it's a fundamental tool of trust building.

Example 3
At Sandhill Farm we are in the habit of rotating the role of plenary facilitator among all who are willing to do it. Because our numbers are small, this is not that big a job and we allow the facilitator to contribute to the conversation as a community member. In essence, the facilitator sets up logistics for the meeting, decides on the order of the agenda, and directs how to focus the conversation. All of that said, the prime directive is serving the needs of the group, to the extent that that can be discerned.

While this has mostly worked fine, we once had a member who basically experienced facilitators as having god-like power and used her turn in that role to simply do whatever she felt like doing, without apparent regard to what others wanted. Most of us perceived this as a gross misuse of the facilitator's power, but this member didn't see what she'd been doing as any different from what other facilitators did. She missed the part where the facilitator was carefully reading the group and sensing what would work best.

Example 4
One of the key challenges of an organization that lasts more than a generation is successfully negotiating a demographic transition, where the original core passes the baton to a younger set. As a 27-year-old nonprofit, FIC is facing that now. 

It's a non-trivial puzzle knowing when the new folks have digested enough of the culture and mission of the organization to turn them loose, or how much time they should spend on a yellow light, demonstrating their competence in their area of responsibility before giving them a green light. We've experienced push back from new people who feel they should be given their head right out of the box, with minimal supervision.

The problem is not one of intentional mischief; rather it's that the new person doesn't know what they don't know, and tends to chafe at being reined in. In their view, they're competent and all the checks and reviews are just so much red tape or medling, inhibiting them from doing their job.

Part of what makes this hard to sort out is that new people will naturally do some things differently from what has gone before and that doesn't necessarily mean they don't understand what's wanted or the best way to align actions with mission.

Example 5 
For many years FIC had a program manager who operated alone and did a solid job. Then, when their area expanded operations and required additional staff, it turned out that the manager did not treat staff with the same respect that Board extended to the manager, and it became a problem.

From the Board's perspective, we had been modeling a collaborative culture all along. From the manager's perspective, they didn't understand why their views didn't prevail at times (or why the Board inserted itself into their domain at all) and felt arbitrarily dismissed. If the Board could do that to the manager, why wasn't it OK for the manager to treat staff that way?

And here we'd thought we'd been diligent about explaining to the manager our reasoning  whenever we went in a different direction than the one that person favored. Sigh. So much for good intentions.

The Way Out
As I reflect on the issues in cooperative leadership that I've tried to illuminate in this blog and my previous one I have two recommendations.

1. Talk About It
I recommend that all cooperative groups have a conversation about what's wanted from its leaders and come up with a statement that captures the essence of what the group can agree on. This provides guideposts for would-be leaders to know what is likely to get supported (and by omission, what is likely to get your wrist slapped), and a basis for a conversation about any action that draws a bad reaction—allowing the group to separate a problematic behavior from the judgment that the leader is an unacceptable person.

2. Don't Underestimate the Work Needed to Effect Culture Shift
The strongest lesson I can distill from the stories I told above is that it's hard work shifting culture from competitive to cooperative, and that it's naive to think that because you've written about it and explained it carefully to someone once or twice that the lesson will have been fully digested. Survival-of-the-fittest conditioning dies hard.

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