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The challenges of leadership in the 21st century: yes it’s lonely at the top but does it have to be?

May 14, 2020

How co-leadership can help meet the challenges of leadership in the 21st Century.

For ten years, I built and ran a nonprofit organization based in Central America that works with marginalized youth at the nexus of environmental and social injustice. When I made the decision to step down from leadership we faced the not-insignificant task of finding a new CEO and managing a healthy founder transition. After an extensive search together with the Board we made the somewhat unorthodox decision to bring on co-Executive Directors.

While we were confident in our choice, when it was announced I was surprised by how much pushback we got externally from people who were concerned about the decision. I received all manner of comments ranging from the simple observation that it wasn’t best practice to more specific remarks about lack of responsibility, an inability to make decisions quickly, and even the potential fracturing of the organization due to a differing of opinion. More than 14 months later, I am pleased to say not only has the founder transition gone remarkably well but our co-Directors, Abigail and Sara, are doing a phenomenal job at leading through what is undoubtedly the most difficult leadership challenge of the 21st Century.

In fact it has gone so well I have been inspired to stop and examine with a little more intentionality this model of co-leadership. In doing so, I am convinced no only is it a viable alternative to traditional leadership models but in many respects it is stronger and more resilient. Following are four key advantages of the co-leadership model that make it better suited to the challenges of leadership today and for navigating the rapidly-changing and increasingly complex world we live in.

  1. People and Purpose over Power

    Some people seek leadership positions because they want power. Others find themselves – often reluctantly – invited to step into leadership positions because they are motivated by a higher purpose to serve something greater than themselves. My experience has been that those people with a knee-jerk opposition to co-leadership tend to belong in the first group. The idea that power could be shared in a harmonious and generative process is completely foreign to their understanding of how leadership works. For those who are attracted to co-leadership there is an appreciation that power is not an absolute quantity but something fluid that can be shared, redistributed, used to empower and co-power the people around them. In my experience, I have also seen that those who can readily embrace models of shared leadership have a greater awareness of the interplay of power and privilege, and use their own skilfully as leverage to serve their work. Their leadership feels more like an ushering in of goodness than the firm hand of authority.

    In short, the co-leadership model attracts a certain kind of person who puts people and purpose over power. Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has given us more than sufficient examples of how power-hungry, narcissistic leaders respond to their people and communities during times of crisis. Let’s make sure we have more leaders in place who are guided by their service to people and purpose before we face the next global crisis.
  2. Grounded Action, Not Emotionally-Triggered Reaction

    One of the most common arguments I was given for why co-leadership would not work was “death-by-consensus” – a way of saying that a model of shared leadership would struggle to make timely decisions, which would be particularly perilous during times of crisis when important decisions must be made quickly. Hello COVID-19, aren’t you a convenient scenario for testing this hypothesis?

    As COVID-19 concerns spread around the world, Abigail and Sara had consulted with our staff and beneficiaries and developed a 4-part response plan to communicate with our stakeholders well before most governments had even started to think about implementing containment strategies. It is still one of the most comprehensive, detailed and inclusive plans I have seen of any organization and institution regardless of size or resources, and it has allowed their work to pivot quickly and respond rapidly to the needs of the communities as they emerge in real-time.

    As I watched this scenario unfold, the benefits of co-leadership to behavioural psychology became obvious. At a time when the uncertainty caused by the onset of a global pandemic were causing so many to react from a place of fear and scarcity, Abigail and Sara were able to both challenge and support each other to ensure they were making decisions from a place of grounded action, not emotionally-triggered reaction.
  3. Healthy Conflict Management

    Another of the reasons I often heard against the model of co-leadership was a concern over differing opinions and conflicts between our co-Executive Directors and what this would do to the organization. In fact this is one of the most commonly-cited reasons for why start-ups with co-Founders fail. Yet to me it is one of the most puzzling objections to co-leadership.

    Conflict is a perfectly natural phenomenon amongst people. It happens all the time. What is important from a leadership perspective is not whether or not conflict exists, but how it is handled. Does conflict lead to avoidance or aggressive behaviors, or does it take place in the realm of positive disagreement that can lead to innovation and new learning?

    Abigail and Sara talk about their conflicts as tensions. I will often hear them share some thinking framed as “we see this differently” or “we don’t yet agree”. These are moments to be celebrated. Good management and leadership must find ways to hold creative tensions that generate healthy debate around doubt, rather than alignment and shared fallacies around certainty.

    As noted in this article on collaboration and conflict in the Harvard Business Review, “clashes between parties are the crucibles in which creative solutions are developed and wise trade-offs among competing objectives are made.” Successful co-leadership requires organizational leaders to be able to engage in healthy conflict and if this behaviour is modelled at the top level, it is likely to be reflected in the organizational culture resulting in a more collaborative and ultimately more successful organization.
  4. Daily Practice of Partnership

    Yes it has its advantages, but shared leadership is not easy. It calls for leaders not just with a high IQ, but a high EQ as well. In Sara’s words it requires “a commitment to constant and open communication” and a daily practice of partnership involving deep listening, empathy, compromise and collaboration, learning to see the other person’s strengths and weaknesses as opportunities of symbiosis. But aren’t these qualities we could all use more of in our daily lives? Co-leadership provides the opportunity to practice building those muscles every day so they become embedded into the organization and its work.

    This partnership has an additional benefit. If you’ve even been in a leadership position, you’ll know the old adage “it’s lonely at the top” is a pretty accurate description. But it doesn’t have to be. As Sara mentioned in her interview: “one of the aspects I most enjoy is the trust we have. I believe we are both aware of the commitment and passion that we each hold, and we know we can count on each other.”

    The challenges of leadership in the 21st Century are many and ever-increasing. Perhaps it is time to re-think our leadership models. Co-leadership is one option, giving us important insights into the qualities and attitudes we need to see in our leaders if we are to respond to these challenges in a way that protects the dignity of all people and the planet we call home.

Photo by Jong Myung Lim from PxHere
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