Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cooperative Leadership from A to Z

I've spent almost all of my adult life (from age 23 onward) seeking, developing, and promoting cooperative culture. Progress has not been all parades and laminar flow, but it's a labor of love and I'm committed to it in my bones. (It's a relative no-brainer to object to the excesses and inequalities that are the hallmark of competitive culture.)

As a student of cooperative culture, one of the most painful things to observe is how poorly groups have done in developing healthy models of leadership and the appropriate use of power. It is, however, not enough to have a critical analysis of what one doesn't like about power and leadership in the mainstream; we have to articulate and model a constructive alternative.

Apropos of this challenge, I recently participated in an open conversation on the subject of leadership in community settings, and I want to devote this blog and the next to sharing highlights of what bubbled to the surface in that foment. 

In this opening essay I want to illuminate the amazing breadth of ways in which leadership can manifest: it is decidedly not a monolithic concept. In fact, I've cooked up a whole bowl of alphabet soup describing the various facets of cooperative leadership:

A.  Accountability
Similar to N (see below), this quality is addressing the perception that someone has broken a promise or failed to keep an agreement. The leader sees to it that this does not get ignored.

B.  Bridging disparate views
Related to Y (see below), this is the ability to help people see connections that they are missing (perhaps because of the heat of the dialog, the strength of their attachment to their thinking, or their uncertainty about whether other stakeholders understand where they're coming from). One quality of leadership is the ability to articulate a pathway through the gnarly thicket of viewpoints, such that all parties find the path accessible.

C.  Covener 
This is the person who calls the meeting, makes sure notice of it and the draft agenda are circulated far enough ahead of time, responds to email queries, makes sure the minutes are posted in a timely way, and generally covers all the logistical bases. Maybe they make the coffee and sweep the floors, too.

D.  Delivering feedback in ways that the recipient can hear
Related to both N & R, this quality highlights the ability to tailor the feedback to the person, which includes sensitivity to setting, who's present, whether or not they prefer advanced notice, whether they prefer that the giver not be in active distress at the time of delivery, whether they prefer to receive it first in writing or orally… in short, it's complicated!

E.  Energy balanced with content
One of the hallmarks of cooperative culture is that it matters how you do things as much as what you do. In that context you need to track the energy in the room just as much as you're tracking what's being said, and it's a quality of leadership (often seen in effective facilitators) to be cognizant of both aspects and figure out the best way to blend them in the moment.

F.  Following through
This is the flip side of A (being accountable oneself), and a version of I, where the leader is careful to deliver on commitments, and to walk their talk.

G.  Grace under pressure
There is a special quality about being able to perform well in an emergency (a tornado has ripped a section of roof off the common house), or under a severe time constraint (the $150/hour bulldozer hired to do excavation work nicked an unknown live power cable; now what?).

H.  Handling appreciation well
This is: a) seeing that others are appreciated for their contributions to the collective (either publicly and privately, depending on the recipient's preference and the needs of the group); and b) modeling the ability to receive appreciation with grace (by which I mean not deflecting it) when it's their turn to get recognized.

I.  Inspiring others
This comes in two flavors: either by deed—pulling others into engagement (or continuing to stay engaged) simply through modeling engagement themselves ("If so-and-so can do it, so can I"); or by word—accomplishing the same thing through persuasive oratory or compelling writing.

J.  Judicious
The is more subtle than knowledge. It's about being trusted to be fair and balanced in the assignment of tasks, in offering public praise for other people's contributions, and in how—and how frequently—they use their power.

K.  Keeper of knowledge & tradition
This can refer to a deep understanding of the group's history (including why as well as what), the group's agreements, where things are kept, or who to call when trouble arises. It can also be the person who leads ritual in the group: the hierophant, who invokes the scared and the spirit of all that has gone before.

L.  Little Dutch Boy
This is taking a hit for the team—not necessarily because they are the best qualified, or because they need to be the hero, but because it needs to be done and no one else is putting their thumb in the dike.

M.  Minimally reactive
Your effectiveness as a leader can be significantly compromised if group members experience you as prone to reactivity, or if you have a reputation as someone who seizes up or gets dogmatic under pressure.

N.  Naming hard things
Related to the emotional strength mentioned above in D, this is more about the ability to name a problem accurately—especially when there's reluctance or fear in the group to go there. Often this entails giving someone direct critical feedback about their behavior.

O.  Organizing 
This is administrative leadership, inspiring others by their ability to juggle many balls (with minimal drops); by their deftness with slotting the right people into the right tasks; by their attention to detail.

P.  Protecting and promoting opportunities for others to grow into leadership
In cooperative culture, there tends to be a high value placed on sharing skills that the group relies on, and one of those is leadership itself (assuming it's well-defined). The effective leader actively works at grooming replacements, and appreciates that different leaders will make different choices than they would.

Q.  Questioning the status quo
This is where people are pulled along or are inspired to be more creative in the presence of someone facile with new ideas or willing to experiment with novel ways of doing things. ("That looks like fun! Let me see what I can do.") Note that this kind of leader can be seen as the opposite of K.

R.  Reaching out to give succor
This might be styled "emotional leadership," where the guide brings the group into the heart realm, setting aside (for a time) the affairs of the head and the hands. It is about holding people when they are in distress—be it rage, grief, befuddlement, or tears.

S.  Strategic thinking
This is the ability to grok and balance: a) the needs of the group at present; b) the anticipated needs of the group in the future (which should include an allowance for a reasonable amount of shift in the composition of the group over time); and c) the goals of the group. When wrestling with proposals that have a long-term impact it is relatively easy to get out of round, and to emphasize one aspect ahead of the others. The leader holds the whole.

T.  Transparency about thoughts and actions
In cooperative culture there tends to be a high value placed on sharing information. In the case of a leader, that means letting the group know, at least in broad terms, how they came to their decisions, or why they took the actions they did. Better yet, they offer this information without having to be asked first.

U.  Undertaking hard choices
Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, all parts aren't fitting together and changes need to be made. It could be a project that needs to be reconfigured, or even abandoned; sometimes there needs to be a personnel change. These choices can be hard to face and some people are better at helping the group "bite the bullet" than others.

V.  Vulnerability
This is the reverse of G, where the leader models an emotional availability that facilitates a heart connection and a sympathetic exchange. While this tends to contradict the John Wayne stoic, tough guy, can-do image that is idealized in the mainstream culture, cooperative leaders who are not able—or willing—to let others in the group see their feet of clay are often viewed as cold-hearted (or emotionally armored) and therefore less trustworthy.

W.  Willingness to initiate
It can be hard to overcome inertia, to leave the comfort of stasis and the known world, or cut the tether to the controlled environment of planning and research to shift into action and the messiness of change.

X.  X-ray vision
This is the ability to see below the surface (or around the curve) to bring into the conversation otherwise unseen factors that can have a significant impact on the outcome. A leader in sync with the group will know when there are things missing from the consideration.

Y.  Yoking energy
The ability to bring people together to make common cause. In particular, people who are otherwise motivated to get involved, but would probably proceed independently or separately if not for the leader's efforts to get them pulling in tandem.

Z.  Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah
This is cheerleading; raising the energy of the group by being positive and emphasizing that the work is being done together, being done now, and being done joyously.

• • •
Lacking an explicit understanding of what we want from our leaders (which presupposes that there's broad recognition that leaders are needed—providing only that it isn't the same person in that role all the time), people filling leadership roles are left to guess at how to be. Most commonly, they will offer what is attractive to them, or that which they think they're good at. 

Given the many and varied threads of the A-to-Z tapestry displayed above, it should not come as a surprise that you may not be responded to warmly if you're offering one style of leadership when others in the group are hoping for another. The upshot of this is that leaders often feel bashed and learn to not be so quick to put their hand in the air the next time there's a call for a honcho. This is a tremendous problem, and all the more sobering when you realize that this mischief can readily be achieved without anyone being wrong or ill-intended. Ugh!

If you want leadership to be effective, you need to define what you mean by it, and the qualities you want to encourage.

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