The 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.