Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Logic of Collective Leadership

Democracy used to mean something...something about equal opportunity for all, for example. Our democratic principles used to suggest that anyone could run for office -- still true, perhaps -- anyone with $5M to blow, or at least that much pledged from vested interests. Jeffersonian democracy used to imply that the common citizen, given a chance at a decent education, could develop the good judgement to vote in his own interest (and yes - in those days, it was his, not hers).

Today, the common citizen is probably doing a lot of head-scratching. People taking hard and fast positions on either extreme have made our democratic processes look anemic when it comes to getting something done. But as my 11th grade history teacher used to say, the flaw may not be in the principles so much as the execution.

University professors Stephen Preskill and Stephen Brookfield have taken a shot at a different approach. Their new book Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons from the Struggle for Social Justice (Jossey-Bass: 2009) suggests another way around this barn. The book is well worth the effort to read all the way through, so I won't attempt to summarize, but I would like to highlight one small part of the chapter on collective leadership.

In corporations and state and local governments, the lone, heroic leader has been the model for most of our lifetimes. Even a casual reading of corporate by-laws (not to mention the US Constitution) should make it clear that this was not the intended model. Non-profits, not-for-profits, and cooperatives - and not just in the United States - have pioneered a different kind of leadership, and Preskill and Brookfield have put their finger on it:

"When collective leadership is being authentically practiced, all group members are committed to creating and implementing a shared vision. All assume some leadership responsibility. All have an opportunity to play a leadership role. All are willing to subordinate themselves to the group's goals and interests."

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and other non-profits and cooperatives around the world have been living and learning this model of collective leadership for years - some perhaps closing in on a century of striving for this model. NRECA teaches board members of rural electric cooperatives to set aside their differences to work for the common good of the consumer-members. The Mondragon cooperatives in Spain (see April post) have created their own unique cooperative economy based largely on this approach. Collective leadership is not easy (just think about the "subordination" part of the preceding quote, for example) but it can be learned and practiced. What's more natural to the American character, to the pioneering spirit, to "In God WE Trust?"

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