Leadership, inclusion, and consent - or why we need leadership to change radically
[This is a fairly long piece where I try to bottom out some of my thoughts, hunches, and frustrations about leadership. I hope you read to the end – and I’d really like to know what you think.]
I play in a local league basketball team, the Bald Eagles (we’re a ‘seniors’ team, so the name is a little on the nose). Up until recently, I held no specific role in the team other than ‘team member.’ One evening, I arrived early to a training session and discovered a couple of the coaches - friends of mine - chatting about what the team needed. I went to sit down with them and join in the conversation, but one of them stopped me, saying it was a “coaches’ conversation” and asked for privacy. I was surprised by this as we’re a very collegial, informal team and I had a perspective to offer, but I did what was asked of me.
I don’t think this incident is especially noteworthy because I don’t think this sort of incident is unusual. In fact, I think it’s the norm. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about who gets included in decision-making – and who gets excluded. It is normal within organisational hierarchies for only people in managerial positions to be included in key decision-making. (Other employees may get ‘consulted’ for ‘input’.) Which decisions a particular manager is included in depends on how high up the hierarchy they sit. From one perspective, decision-making is what the hierarchy is all about.
A few years ago, I was trying to write a book called “We need to stop talking about leadership.” I may never finish writing the thing as my thinking has shifted considerably since then, but the key insight I was pursuing was the fact that there are so many bad leaders out there and I suspect that the way we think and talk about leadership promotes this consequence rather than preventing it. The book instead offered the advice to focus on culture, relationships, group dynamics, learning – all of which is good advice, I think, and the basis of our Anti-Leadership Training.
I recently came across a distinction from Brian Stout which really helped me to clarify some of my thinking about leadership – that of distinguishing acts of leadership from acts of domination. It is incredibly common for us to view and describe leaders as ‘decision-makers’ – they are the people who have to make ‘tough decisions’ and make ‘the final call.’ I think viewing leaders in this way encourages people in positions of authority to exclude other people from decision-maker and to force their opinions on the people they are said to be leading – domination in other words. But the fact that our structures and our culture promote this view of leadership doesn’t mean that’s all there is to leadership.
Recently, I have been repeatedly struck by the fact that someone has to take responsibility for beginning a difficult conversation that must happen, but no-one wants to have it - and for holding it well. Someone has to put their feelings to one side and make space for the feelings of others. Someone has to admit and own their mistakes if any learning is to occur. For genuine transformation to happen, someone has to be the first to take that precarious and vulnerable leap into the unknown. All these things are acts of leadership.
In our place-based work in Gateshead, we’ve recently begun talking about the focus of our work as “transformational participation.” This has two parts (thanks again to Brian Stout):
changing and extending who gets to participate in decision-making, and
changing the ways in which decisions are made and power is exercised.
This is the canvas on which we’re painting. We are working in deeply embedded ways with diverse local communities, creating opportunities for them to participate in decision-making about the things that matter to them, and helping to build their skills and confidence to enable them to step into those opportunities. We also thinking deeply and working hard about how decisions are made, trying to avoid replicating the dehumanising tendencies of the most common approaches. Through this work, it has struck me that traditional perceptions of leadership often prevent people from participating. They frame the leader as the decision-maker, which means all the rest of the people are not decision-makers – so they do not need to be included. Traditional leadership excludes. (This means that traditional leadership will be fundamentally opposed to what we are trying to do in our place-based work as we’re undermining their very identity as so-called ‘decision-makers’.)
Oftentimes, when we work to enable people to participate in making decisions about things that matter to them - when we work with people who feel powerless or, at least, less powerful - we feel embarrassed by the power we hold and try to back away from it. We either reject all leadership structures altogether (“All hierarchy is bad!” which inevitably leads us to the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’) or we demand that everyone is treated with exact equality and that decisions are made by universal consensus, in which case nothing ever gets done and relevant differences are ignored (Stout again).
But if we care about enabling and supporting wider groups of people to be able to participate in making decisions about things that matter to them, this doesn’t entail that we need to do away with all forms of leadership. It clearly does entail that we need to get rid of what I’m calling “traditional leadership” – but it also highlights an even greater need to have someone (or several someones) who will engage in the ‘acts of leadership’ I mentioned above – someone who will begin a difficult conversation and hold it well, someone who will take that first leap into the unknown…
The emergence and proliferation of these acts of leadership is actually essential to the goals of transformational participation. We don’t need leadership to disappear. We need it to change radically. We don’t need to pretend that “everyone’s a leader.” We need leaders who are fundamentally inclusive, generous, vulnerable, and brave. ‘Changing and extending who gets to participate in decision-making’ is initially an action taken by someone who currently holds some power – a generous and inclusive action. ‘Changing the ways in which decisions are made and power is exercised’ requires bravery and vulnerability. It requires someone to put themselves under the spotlight, invite a critique of their own behaviour, and be prepared to actually change their behaviour as a result. One of the radical shifts we need is to stop thinking about leaders as decision-makers. The norm must shift to decision-making being shared. Deep, meaningful, shared participation must be fostered as standard…
…and yet we must also avoid the trap of thinking all decisions must be made by universal consensus. There will always be a need for that first someone who is willing to take a precarious and vulnerable leap into the unknown, even when everyone around them thinks they are crazy. Inclusion still requires leadership – you can’t just chuck the doors open and say, “We’re all the same.” Collective responsibility often entails that no-one takes responsibility. Someone has to break this impasse.
This is where ‘consent’ becomes very important, in several different ways: First off, for any form of self-organizing to work, “individuals have to assert agency: to take responsibility for making decisions with and on behalf of the collective”. This notion of ‘on behalf of the collective’ is critical. There will always be a need for someone to make certain decisions on behalf of the collective in order to get anything done. Without this, everything grinds to a halt very quickly. Somewhat counterintuitively, what this means is that collective decision-making requires the group to consent to not be included in all decisions. The group probably needs to be explicit about what sort of decisions can be made on its behalf.
Secondly, the group needs to consent to who can make decisions on behalf of the collective (it cannot a free-for-all). Typically, there will be a limited number of people who the group consents to making decisions on its behalf, usually based on specific expertise or insight (rather than the rigid traditional authority structure). The decisions made by these people should generally be transparent and open to scrutiny. The group is also entitled to withdraw their consent from someone being able to make decisions on behalf of the collective. There must be a deep trust between the person or people empowered to make certain decisions on behalf of the collective, and this must link to the group’s ability to remove this person’s power if that trust is broken. (This clearly has similarities to our democratic election system, except what I’m describing here has to be much faster, with much less distance between the group and the individual. Removing a person’s licence to make decisions on behalf of the collective needs to be almost immediate.)
Thirdly, consent is also relevant when it comes to the decision-making model used by the group as a whole. Rather than the traditional option of the leader making a decision in isolation or the reactive option of everyone working for universal consensus, there are an increasing number of emergent, workable consent-based decision-making models like sociocracy, which are rapidly gaining increasing traction and popularity.
To sum up, if we genuinely care about inclusion and transformational participation:
We need to recognise that traditional forms of leadership tend to be based on domination and exclusion (the leader is the decision-maker)
We need to change and extend who gets to participate in decision-making and change the ways in which decisions are made and power is exercised.
This does not mean we do not need leadership, but it does mean how we think about leadership needs to shift radically.
Acts of leadership are still required, specifically in the form of making necessary decisions on behalf of the collective.
This must be based on consent and trust. The reason why a person is enabled to make certain decisions on behalf of the collective is because the collective has conferred that power – and can remove it.
Phew – that literally took me weeks to write. If you’d like to explore anything in here further with me, please do reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org