So, how do you identify the optimal leadership model for your nonprofit?
Ultimately the decision will depend on the organization’s unique position related to its personnel, resources, goals, strengths, and mission.
Setting the Stage
It’s a common scenario: The existing Executive Director steps down and the board is left wondering how to replace them. They need to determine if they should hire someone new into the existing role as is or take the opportunity to make changes to their leadership structure.
Of course, then a bevy of related questions follows:
Shared leadership is by no means the only alternative nonprofit leadership model available – there is also independent project leadership and constituent-led leadership, as well as others. Shared leadership is just the most common form of alternative leadership for nonprofits. However, even shared leadership can look different from one organization to another. In some distributed leadership models the role is shared between two co-leaders while in other models the role is shared between a small group of people.
Understanding Shared Leadership
The idea of shared leadership isn’t a new one. Throughout history there are examples of nonprofits, corporations, and even governments experimenting with sharing leadership duties among two or more people instead of centralizing them with one person at the very top of an institution. The Roman Republic was probably the most famous example of co-leadership, but it was certainly not the only use that we have seen over the years. In fact, the concept of a Board of Directors is a version of shared leadership that is very familiar to anyone in the nonprofit space today!
The Pros of Shared Leadership
Distributed leadership has gained significant press over the last few years as organizations strive to overcome the vestiges of historical power structures. With today’s modern push towards greater parity, more organizations seem willing to give the idea of shared leadership a try than ever before. But equity is not the only advantage of this type of leadership structure.
Shared leadership also allows organizations to leverage greater experience to achieve better outcomes. For example, if an organization has the choice between hiring an Executive Director from the outside with 15 years of nonprofit leadership experience, or creating two co-Director roles to hire this same individual while pairing them with an internal senior staff member that has 10 years of experience with the organization, the nonprofit can bring more experience into the role by choosing to utilize a shared leadership model. In this scenario, the organization will end up with 25 years of experience in the role by splitting it between two capable leaders.
Additionally, a significant proportion of this experience is within the organization itself, which typically makes for a much smoother leadership transition. For nonprofits that have had the same leader for a long time (especially when the outgoing leader is also the Founder), this is an extremely important benefit to consider. By smoothing out the transition process, the organization reduces the risk that their programs will be negatively affected while power is handed over to new leadership. It’s also possible that a move like this could improve employee perception regarding the change, helping to retain staff better as the organization evolves.
And staff retention isn’t just about lower-level staff like volunteer coordinators and program organizers. Distributed leadership also holds the power to retain senior-level staff like Finance Directors and even the Executive Directors themselves. With the responsibilities of the role divided between more than one person, there is inherently less work being heaped on each leader. But not only that, there is also less responsibility placed on the shoulders of each leader, taking some of the pressure off when the organization is trying to overcome challenges, which can greatly improve mental health to fight compassion fatigue and reduce burn out.
The Cons of Shared Leadership
So, if distributed leadership is so wonderful, why aren’t all organizations doing it? The simple answer is, it’s hard to do correctly!
People are messy and so are organizations, and for shared leadership to work a nonprofit must be firmly committed to seeing it succeed. There needs to be:
These are big asks!
Even if organizations are fully bought into the idea of using a distributed leadership model, the leaders themselves must be aligned on more than just goals and objectives. Co-leaders must also have the personalities, work styles, and ideals needed to collaborate and execute well together functionally. It’s not enough for organizations to promote a shared purpose and allocate the resources needed to support their co-leaders. These leaders also need to have a genuine willingness to learn from each other so that they can develop mutual appreciation and earnest trust in the role. This takes time, which is why successful co-leadership is not typically born overnight. A board can help manage this power dynamic, but ultimately success will hinge on the leaders themselves and their own ability to lead well together. Shared leadership requires a delicate balance between people that have different lived experiences and perspectives that they bring to the role.
Is Shared Leadership Right for Your Organization?
Understanding what kind of leadership model will be the best fit for your organization is a difficult task. There are many factors to analyze organizationally, as well as individual personalities and skillsets to consider.
The current state of the organization will likely figure heavily in a board’s decision about which type of leadership model to select. These days we are seeing an uptick in organizations adopting a co-leadership model at the request of staff who strongly believe that it will improve equity efforts. When shared leadership is implemented in response to pressure from staff for the organization to make a stronger DEI commitment, it will necessitate a vastly different discussion around the feasibility of implementing and managing the model effectively. In a scenario like this the Board will need to firmly understand what the organization hopes to accomplish in utilizing a co-leadership model, how to practically manage any distributed leadership issues that may arise, and what kinds of performance indicators will be used to measure success.
In other instances, external influences like the talent market or economy may be the deciding factor in whether it makes sense to adopt a shared leadership model or not. And yet, all these considerations still may not point to a clear answer. An organization may need to test a proposed leadership model to determine whether it can work in practice instead of theory.
But regardless of what the path looks like, it’s important to remember that effective nonprofit management is about your organization’s journey – a constant striving to improve effectiveness, expand your mission, and affect more positive change. Remember, the right leadership model is whatever is right for your organization where it is right now!
When you need help during a leadership transition, please reach out to us! As nonprofit consultants we work closely every day with nonprofits going through leadership changes to help them make the right strategic decisions and keep their organizations strong. We offer interim executive leadership and board advisory services to clients across the Pacific Northwest and beyond!
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