Co-operating without leaders

wedding head shot airbrushed eyesThe word ‘leadership’ is regarded with deep suspicion in radical co-operative circles, most of which are implicitly, if not explicitly anarchist. In other words, they promote non-hierarchy, consensus decision-making, collective action and personal responsibility. And generally challenge authority!

A succinct definition of a leader is someone who has followers. No wonder anarchists are suspicious. If this is how one defines leadership, then it’s not a desirable trait in co-ops, because small collectives can’t afford members who identify as ‘followers’ or readily defer to a ‘leader’s’ opinion.

From my vantage point on the sidelines, it looks like the 3rd sector has a somewhat fuzzier definition, which is something to do with being proactive and/or bold, taking responsibility, being self-directed and being willing to convince or command other people to join in with you. The confusion for me is that ‘leadership qualities’ are encouraged in everyone – thus making the word meaningless. Maybe ‘good-member-of-society qualities’ would be a more accurate term.

I have lived in Cornerstone Housing Co-op, an intentional community for social change activists in Leeds, for nearly 20 years – two houses, 16 members, 2 monthly meetings, 6 annual work weekends, 1 annual fancy-dress party. During that time I’ve watched numerous other co-ops and communities implode – nearly always due to a combination of one or two dominating members and the rest unwilling or unable to challenge them and often remaining ignorant of the co-op’s financial affairs, procedures and policies. Some people might recognize this as a fair summary of The Co-operative Group’s own recent history and the thoughts below can be roughly extrapolated to medium and large membership organisations.

Leadership in the culture, not the people

It seems to me, that in mainstream hierarchical organisations you have to keep your fingers crossed that you will get good leaders who can manage people well and bring others with them. A small co-op, however, can’t take that risk of depending on a couple of individuals being all-round brilliant all the time. Rather than spotting and encouraging specific individuals’ leadership potential, small co-ops need structures which foster responsibility, a sense of ownership and proactivity in all the collective’s members. The structures support a culture of non-hierarchy and mutual accountability, facilitating any and all of the members to take the lead in various areas at various times.
This protects the co-op when long-term members leave and it helps those co-ops with a high membership turnover to maintain a healthy group dynamic and positive inter-dependence.

These are some of the principles and mechanisms which Cornerstone has in place to keep itself strong and vibrant, which are not by any means exclusive to non-hierarchical groups:

1. Information is Power

This is basic, a no-brainer: everything gets written down and kept in an accessible place. All probationary members are given a manual for living in the co-op, a finance induction and have to prove they’ve learnt things as part of the joining process. This reduces the incidence of abuse through information control and allows challenges to poor practice or dubious behaviour. Everyone knows where they stand in relation to general process, rather than allowing a clique to control the organisation by keeping knowledge to themselves.

2. Responsibility breeds ownership

It is often hard for a new person coming into an existing group to feel able to intervene, interfere, change or just comment on stuff. In discussions we often have ‘go-rounds’ where everyone is expected to voice an opinion, which gets them into the habit of having one! If you don’t raise and deal with issues that are annoying you, it’s partly your fault if they don’t get fixed.

3. Honest communication fosters trust

Create space for exploring negatives – at Cornerstone we have monthly ‘feelings meetings’, both as a way of keeping each other updated on what’s going on in our lives and also to encourage niggles, worries and annoyances to be dealt with constructively and openly. Airing grievances in a group helps to moderate language and reactions and allows for group oversight of agreements and behaviour change. There’s nothing worse than people complaining behind each other’s backs, so half the group is unaware of brewing resentments. Many of us brought up in polite and repressed middle-class English society need to overcome a fear of honest and direct communication, so creating a culture where that is the norm, based on structures which facilitate it, is crucial.

4. Regular and open accountability

We all know who’s done their action points and who hasn’t. We all know who’s behind in their rent and we know why. We all know who’s responsible for cleaning the bathroom this week. Reporting on all this provides an opportunity for members to hold each other to account, to seek or offer support and to nip vicious circles in the bud and it undermines opportunities for resentment to develop. Open accounting and oversight is a strong process in itself, an opportunity to learn new skills while checking that good practice is being followed.

Co-operative leadership qualities

In this context it is hard to be a leader in the traditional sense – it’s not impossible, but all the decision-making processes should work against one person being able to dominate easily. What is essential is to have a good combination of:

enthusiasts – people wanting to explore the values or try out new ideas, often seeing the bigger picture and thinking about the future health of the co-op;
sociable, caring people – providing emotional support and encouragement, passing on news; and
responsible, reliable people – dotting the Is and crossing the Ts, ensuring minutes are circulated, policies are remembered, collectively agreed procedures are followed.

Each of them leads in a different way, exemplifying behaviours that are needed, setting the standards for others to meet. Of course no one just fits into one of these categories and everyone exhibits all those characteristics at one time or another. It is not straight-forward: besides the wide variety of needs and skills, there is the added difficulty of coping with people who are completely new to non-hierarchy and collective responsibility. Members with more understanding and advantages need a willingness to share and those without the necessary skills need to commit to stepping up to the challenges.

Leadership in small co-ops is not about individual power but about collective power shared by everyone. Having the right structures in place is fundamental to achieving this.

Cath Muller is a co-operative development advisor with Co-operative Business Consultants. She is a member of several other co-ops, including Cornerstone Housing Co-op and Footprint Workers Co-op, which are both members of the Radical Routes federation of co-ops working for radical social change.

4 Comments on Co-operating without leaders

  1. I think that this is a very useful way of understanding leadership in the context of non-hierarchical organisations. Leadership needs to be built into culture and structures in order that an organisation is not dependent on individuals and their must be a buy-in to that by all those involved and a commitment to everyone to be a role model in their own sphere.

  2. Thanks Cath, this is really interesting and challenges the “Our glorious leader” paradigm.

    I lived in several different community settings, each for a short time. Sometimes it is easier in the short-term just to elect a leader, or to assume leadership, but for longer term objectives to be achieved and maintained and passed on beyond the tenure of the existing members I agree that collective responsibility and structures to support this are paramount.

  3. Excellent piece and very informative. I have encountered the barrier between autonomy and collective responsibilty. Most of the time it works within projects and groups but has tended to fall down on the critical or strategic issues, namely when those ‘in the know’ keep crucial information to themeselves (a fear based approach) or when the Executive allow for a more collective process provided that they themselves are not required to conform (ego based approach). I am sure that theses scenarios are familiar to those of you who have worked in non-co-operative ventures!
    It is heartening to hear that there is a proven commitment to this collective responsibility approach. Justa couple of questions, however.
    1. how much time/energy is deployed in finding and encouraging individual responsibility within this framework? Are some people just unable to adapt?
    2. Are there issues when a single decision maker is required or are all decisions made collectively? How does this impact strategic direction?

    • Hi Phil – good questions

      1. well, yes, the time required for all this is the drawback. We mostly focus this effort on the recruitment process.

      In all the co-ops I’ve been in, we aim to get a lot of people to self-select out, yet recruitment is still energy-intensive. And in most of them the current members are busy doing other things and struggle to find the time. Certainly the requirement to meet all 13, 14 or 15 members of Cornerstone for a good long conversation with each one is usually the most time-consuming hoop to jump through for prospective members. When we do meet them, some of us present the joys of living in a political community, while others of us make sure they know about the meetings, the responsibilities, the disagreements, the meetings, the possible police raids, the meetings…

      The selection process has got longer in response to the point you raise – which is, yes, some people just can’t adapt. Our co-op has had a few people who just didn’t pull their weight, but the peer pressure to do more is pretty strong and people often come to the conclusion that they’re not right for Cornerstone.

      When recruiting for small workers co-ops, the publicity has been mostly filled with the job description which is 65% being a member, 35% being a printer or PC repairer or whatever – again to get people to self-select out. Subsequent interviews have included a mixture of practically demonstrating what they can do and then having lunch and group conversation with the rest of the co-op. This means the interview period can be 2 weeks long if we want to fit in 5 people and still get some work done. But then the turnover is incredibly low if you get it right.

      Each co-op will also have their own training or induction programme for new members. At cornerstone the probationary period is 6 months and we have an internal membership officer who supports the ‘probos’ and current members to do the various inductions, usually at a monthly meeting. At the end of every co-op meeting we look for volunteers to faciitate and minute-take the next one. New members get supported in doing either of these jobs, to make sure it’s still done well. We spend a lot of time date-setting – meetings, finance inductions, fixing the roof, doing the wood splitting – each of these tasks is an opportunity to share skills.

      It’s reasonably straightforward to apply this to a small housing co-op situation,
      a) on which people’s livelihoods don’t depend and
      b) which are small, with reasonably low turnover and
      c) where the surplus from rents are generous enough to allow for longish voids while finding the right people to be new members.

      It gets progressively more difficult as organisations get bigger and the range, significance and amount of tasks to do increases. I’m sure it’s true for every business that takes on new staff, but when Footprint takes on someone new, we can expect our surplus to go down for a minimum of 6 months, if not longer, as we put so much time into training.

      Which brings us to point 2:
      Rule of thumb – the bigger the decision, the more people need to be involved in making it. Doing the monthly wholefood order can be down to one person and there’ll be a bit of grumbling if it’s not quite what I wanted, but ultimately it’s not too bad if we get the wrong kind of rice. Strategic decisions however need to be collective, particularly if they involve a lot of money. The way it should work is this:
      – someone brings up an idea, usually informally, but possibly they want it discussed in a meeting.
      – they have to go and work it up into a properly researched and budgeted proposal and circulate it on email for everyone to read and digest.
      – a subgroup might be formed to work on it. There will likely be queries and clarifications via email discussion.
      – eventually it’s brought back to a meeting and agreed – probably it’ll then need to go back to a subgroup for implementing, or someone might be delegated to go off and sort it out.

      But there’s no one size fits all – it depends on levels of trust: trust in other people’s values & principles, their reliability and their capacity. Where this trust doesn’t exist, either people develop the safety net of pairs and groups, or a difficult tendency towards control or they become disengaged and cynical. Obviously the first of these is preferable!

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