by Miki Kashtan
Visionary, collaborative leadership is a major challenge to patriarchy. Patriarchy can only continue through keeping us separate from each other, or, when we do come together to transform it, by keeping us ineffective in our response to patriarchy and to each other.
What I think of as visionary leadership is any attempt to lead from within a vision of how things could be in addition to the basic orientation to leadership as caring for the whole while holding a shared purpose. Visionary leadership, in the context of challenging and transforming the legacy of patriarchy, is almost by definition collaborative. Collaborative leadership, as I see it and passionately aim to practice it on a daily basis, is an integrative step towards vision, stepping outside of the either/or of top-down vs. consensus.
We don’t have many models for collaborative leadership. Consciously or unconsciously, we still associate leadership with getting things done efficiently through telling others what to do, and we respond to it accordingly: we either follow along whether or not we agree, or we rebel against leaders in multiple ways.
Collaborative leadership, as I understand it, is a transformative practice. In addition to patriarchal norms, it also challenges the anti-authoritarian, horizontalist rebellion against leadership of any kind. This is how I understand the story I’ve often shared of coaching one of the early leaders of Occupy Wall Street on doing Convergent Facilitation at their assembly meetings, only to hear at the end: “I totally get it. I think I could do some version of it. And I won’t, because I would be accused of taking leadership.”
I can completely see why, for many of us who have awakened to the damage of power-over structures, the very idea of leadership would spell danger. Collaboration and co-creation within a led environment are a different and less familiar way of doing things. Working out what it actually means to do this is immensely demanding. Even with many years of exploring this possibility, I still don’t know how to do this. I don’t know anyone who does. And I am committed to finding pathways, because I have a deep intuitive conviction that leadership is absolutely necessary for any significant movement towards a post-patriarchal vision. In its absence, such movement slows down or halts.
Collaborative leadership is in a delicate and extremely unfamiliar place. None of us are fully free of patriarchal conditioning, the result of several thousand years of collective, intergenerational trauma that is now encompassing the whole globe. This applies both to those of us who find capacity to step into leadership and to everyone else. This often means that those of us who attempt to live into visionary, collaborative leadership will be challenged as a substitute for challenging the true power structures.
In my own history of leadership, which now spans about twenty years, this has resulted in many painful experiences over many years and in multiple settings, including within several organizations, communities, and projects that I founded or co-founded. I am sharing here some examples.
- I’ve been put on many pedestals in my years of leadership. Putting anyone on a pedestal is an act of separation that interferes with full collaboration. It also makes the person on the pedestal very vulnerable to falling from it.
- I’ve had endless expectations put on me, some of which I have taken on and match my own lifelong patterns of taking extra responsibility for everything. The expectations are about what I can do or be, and often, also, about what I should do or be. This has included ironic and painful moments of people telling me that I do too much, and that they want me to do less, which is usually less of what other people want from me, not what the person in front of me wants from me.
- I have experienced, many times, tremendous pushback towards me as a leader, including judgments of me to the point of persistent enemy images and narratives, questioning my use of power, or bringing ever more considerations and “what ifs” for me to engage with before moving forward with things I want to make happen.
- People defer to me, don’t say when something doesn’t work for them, wait for permission, don’t engage with me, don’t initiate, don’t give me feedback until it’s beyond their capacity to absorb and then they lose trust in me, and otherwise leave a gap between my attempts at togetherness and what comes back to me.
- All too often people have heard my requests as decisions, my attempts at integration as advocating for my needs, or my requests for information to support joint decision as decisions already made.
If I were the only person I know who suffers in these ways, I would accept the levels of anguish and grief that I have experienced about all this as pointing to things I need to change within me. It takes enormous strength not to take such experiences personally because what people say is so often framed in personal terms, without awareness of the systemic phenomena that surround visionary leadership.
I have Victor Lee Lewis, friend, co-mentor, and long-time researcher and educator in the area of liberation and oppression, to thank for being able to make sense of this at all and to have some modicum of settling. Based on what I have heard from him, I now understand that there is nothing coincidental about it. Visionary leaders, especially when aiming for collaboration, are accessible, local, and present. Our actions are immediate rather than far away and beyond reach of influence. Each of us is, also, a real person rather than an abstract entity, and we are, usually, accessible and available to challenge. It provides so much clarity to see that what we do as individuals and within our puny spheres of influence is the only place where there can be any sense of efficacy for those who suffer from systemic violence of any kind. It’s where people can imagine creating change, because the larger systems of oppression are so far and so entrenched. This means that what we do as individual leaders within the systems and communities in which we participate and which we shape as leaders is magnified in significance and filtered through hundreds, sometimes thousands of years of horrors beyond words.
As our conversations deepened, I started seeing how much this also happens to others, and, sadly, this has been helpful in taking it less and less personally when it happens to me. What is even more painful to become aware of is that it happens with crushing consistency, which only becomes more pronounced when it is women and anyone from any marginalized group who step into visionary leadership. I have witnessed this happen to several women and two Black men I know personally and well, in multiple unrelated contexts. I have heard of many more such instances since I started looking, and I have written about this and related phenomena in my article “Grappling with Our Own Power.” I mourn for all the many people around the world who shy away from stepping into leadership because of knowing this is likely to happen to them.
Anchoring collaborative leadership in practice
When I brought together colleagues and students to create the Nonviolent Global Liberation community (NGL) in 2017, my awareness of the phenomenon I just described was still nascent, and I had little understanding of how persistent the patterns are and how much proactive and concerted effort is needed to shift them. As a result, I implicitly hoped that explicitly mentioning collaborative leadership would be sufficient to provide enough commitment, enough clarity, and enough capacity to subvert these painful challenges. Instead, the same patterns showed up within NGL, both in relation to me and, more recently, in relation to others who are beginning to step into major visionary leadership within the community.
As I look at what has happened and attempt to understand why, I am actually not surprised. I believe that humanity is facing a vast gap in our current collective capacity. I see this as a global phenomenon that any group working towards a post-patriarchal vision would need to attend to in order to be able to move more consistently in that direction. Without this, the pull of patriarchal conditioning is likely to continue to create bitter conflicts and result in much burnout, especially among leaders, within more and more communities and movements.
I want to share small parts of what I am learning from what has happened within NGL as a way of illustrating what I believe is needed. I am doing this because I want to model how much sharing such information can support collective learning in an area of global low capacity. Even as I point to some things which aren’t working and to what’s still needed, I want to say, first, that I am in awe of what we have managed to create. However imperfect our community is, we have been engaging in massive visionary experimentation, especially in applying gift economy principles and in integrating purpose and connection.
I hope others will join and share about the struggles in their contexts. The more of us who do it, the more we can all learn together how to attend to these capacity gaps.
When principles are not anchored in tangible agreements
One of the deepest insights that has fed into the Vision Mobilization framework that is now at the heart of all we do within NGL is that the more aspirational anything is, the more we need to anchor it in concrete action agreements that are fully within capacity. This is precisely what we didn’t do when we started NGL five years ago, and what we are slowly beginning to do more recently.
When I put together the list of principles to guide how we function, collaborative leadership was not present in any of them even though it was named in the framework. I clearly didn’t consciously attend to this element, implicitly relying on my own capacity to subvert patterns without realizing that this, in itself, is a pattern (to which I come back below). Only four principles were relevant at all to the tough challenge of making collaborative leadership work. All in all, these principles didn’t have sufficient strength to pull us out of the patterns I just described and towards the vision of collaborative leadership that apparently existed before patriarchy and which I hope resurfaces in whatever future we still have. Here is my current understanding of how the patterns became stronger than the principles.
Conscious choice about leadership and use of power
This was not enough to hold the paradoxical tension of collaborative leadership. For me, conscious choice means discernment, in each moment freshly, along the wide spectrum of options. For example, when someone is struggling, do we respond with offering only empathic support so they can gradually over time find healing and grow capacity? Or do we offer gentle coaching with questions designed to support the person in finding their own ways of responding to the situation they are in? Or do we offer specific feedback and make requests? Or do we invite others to step in and speak truth with love? Or is it a time to say no to the person, even to the point of, sometimes, making unilateral decisions? Within this discernment, I would want us to hold the complexities I wrote about in my six-part series “Myths of Power-With.”
None of this was spelled out in any way within this principle. Because many within NGL and similar communities are steeped in the anti-authoritarian ethos, the words of this principle all too easily can mean how to use less, not more power; how to care for impacts on others, endlessly, not how to care for impacts on leaders or the limits of leaders’ capacity or the capacity of the group as a whole. (“Leaders,” in the first few years of NGL, has often meant me.) That unilateral action can be an act of care is something I didn’t hear from anyone until three years into NGL, from an NGL apprentice, Emilia Poppe.
Vigilance in noticing, taking ownership of, and lovingly transforming patterns of dominance and submission, power and privilege, inherited from thousands of years of patriarchy
From the beginning, it has been an important orientation for us within NGL to look at the devastation of systemic violence within patriarchal societies that so many groups of people endure so that we can find pathways towards our vision that are rooted in liberation. This is what this principle was aiming to address. The reason it is not enough is that without clear agreements that ground a “liberation for all” orientation, attention is very likely to remain focused on the actions and patterns of those with any access to power, real or perceived. There is likely to be significant amounts of feedback directed towards those of us who have stepped into leadership with much that is expected of us to do differently. It’s far less likely that attention will focus on examining and challenging the pervasive patterns of disempowerment that so many carry and which often inform the challenging of leaders. I don’t believe that, in social movements in general, people are given much feedback about their disempowerment and internalized oppression. I don’t believe people have many opportunities to look at such patterns and transform them with support, especially if they are members of marginalized groups. This has certainly been my experience within NGL. It goes without saying that I have much to learn, which is the case for any of us and will continue to be the case for as long as I live. And for collaborative leadership to be possible, systemic changes rather than individual changes are needed.
Full collaboration in design and decision-making within the parameters of resource availability
This principle rests on an understanding of collaboration that is consistent with fully distributed leadership and decision making. Our core decision-making practice within NGL is the “Advice Process” – a term coined by Dennis Bekke within his AES company and made widely known through Frederic Laloux’s codification of it in Reinventing Organizations, the book that became an informal bestseller and an inspiration for hundreds of thousands of people. This process invites any individual within an organization to make any decision provided they have engaged in a particular process of soliciting feedback and integrating as much as they have capacity for. This, to me, is a deep process of collaboration. I think to many others it is overwhelming and doesn’t feel like collaboration. Nor is it mentioned within the principle. As a result, I believe that many within NGL understood this principle in a way that strengthened the pull of “everyone participates in all decisions” that transitioning to distributed leadership often runs into. This is another way that the original design didn’t include specific agreements about what this principle would mean and how we would grow capacity in this area in which new forms and practices are necessary to move our functioning beyond the either/or that collaborative leadership aims to integrate and from which it aims to exit.
Distributed responsibility for sensing and attending to needs as they emerge without waiting for permission from anyone
Almost all of us are socialized to keep our heads down and not step into leadership or care for the whole, except in serving others when we are socialized to be women or within segments of the population socialized to serve others, such as certain classes or castes. Within NGL, as elsewhere, we put nothing in place as agreements to catch the disempowerment or to increase capacity in this area. In the absence of that, a very common pattern of disempowerment is likely to prevail. When people notice needs that are not attended to and don’t feel empowered to take action, they are more likely to put pressure on those who do step into leadership to take action to care for all the needs.
Leaning on collective capacity
Given how pervasive all these patterns and many others are, it’s unlikely that any agreement to “change” anything would be within capacity for most people most of the time. This understanding is key to being able both to operate within capacity and to keep growing capacity.
What some of us have learned from many of our experiments is that whenever existing patterns are stronger than capacity to change individual behavior we need to lean instead on collective capacity. This would generally mean that someone other than the person whose behavior is within pattern is going to be the one to take action. This is a radical departure from deeply ingrained norms that put responsibility on this or that person to change whether or not they have the capacity to do so. This is an example of a simple and difficult principle I discovered a number of years ago, which is that only what’s possible will happen, whether or not it would match anyone’s sense of what’s “fair” or “just.” I am putting these words in quotes because I have lost any sense that they are useful in moving us towards making life work for everyone. Instead, I believe that fairness and justice separate us from each other and from staying together as we look, honestly, at the devastation that being human now is made of, mourn the gaps, and find, still together, pathways that keep us in togetherness and within capacity. (See my previous post “Does Anyone Deserve Anything?” with more on this linguistic challenge and how to attend to it.) Given how difficult it is for most of us to actually imagine what leaning on collective capacity can look like, I am providing three examples of such agreements.
Pathways for feedback
Once we recognized the pattern of feedback focusing on and concentrating in the direction of people in leadership in ways that are almost guaranteed to outstrip capacity, we put in place a mechanism for people to be able to offer feedback to someone who has stepped into leadership without that person being required to be the one to hear it. That mechanism is a designated person to engage with those who have feedback to offer to help find what is feedback within what may be judgments and reactions, and then to decide, with the person offering it, where it belongs. This has been initially put in place only for me, and now it’s beginning to be in place for other people who are stepping into leadership within NGL. The results over the last few months have been fascinating to me. Almost all the potential feedback that people initially expressed as being for me turned to be for this or that team, or a pointer to an overall void within our system, or was feedback that went away once the person was heard and realized they themselves could do something different. In that sense, the capacity boost that came from someone else receiving the feedback other than me was immense. In addition, the very few pieces of feedback that did come to me came with clarity and specificity and without emotional charge, so I could integrate them with ease. Since I also made them public knowledge, there are now a few people who have taken on reminding me of things I have agreed to and am challenged to track within me.
Finding capacity to attend to neglected needs
This example isn’t specific to leadership per se, though it is situated within a power difference. It’s happened within the home pod that I am part of, where one person, Emma, is a woman from working-class upbringing, and another, Eddy, is a man of middle- class upbringing. Over some months, we came to see that Emma was consistently mobilizing towards emergent needs within the pod before attending to other needs, while Eddy was carving out time for learning and other activities that are meaningful to him, and only attending to emergent needs at specific times. Unsurprisingly, the initial way that this phenomenon showed up was resentment. Emma’s exceptional capacity to point to specifics and to speak truth eventually exposed the systemic layers of class training and male and female training which landed them both where they were. The agreement they eventually came to, together, came to be known as “watering shoots.” Eddy became Emma’s ally in stepping outside her pattern because they both recognized it was outside her individual capacity to do so. They started meeting weekly to co-hold the task of shifting this pattern, including putting times in her schedule for learning and reading, activities that were never nurtured in her family or hometown. Emma began to do more reading, eventually leading her to choose to write a book which is slowly unfolding (very slowly given our very challenging life circumstances). Eddy began to orient much more to emergent needs and has taken on holding various systems for our pod, especially our transition system, which we jokingly said was developed from unpacking Emma’s stress during transitions.
Beyond over-mobilization and under-mobilization
This last example is also from my own experience. I have a lifelong pattern of what I have heard referred to as “general manager of the universe,” which is a not-so-secret society of those of us who care so much that we mobilize for anything that we see as really needed and for which we don’t see other capacity around us. This is the kind of pattern I have come to call “functional” because it can be quite convenient for others. Precisely because of this, functional patterns are very difficult to shift and often invisible. In addition, they mask places where there may not be actual capacity without someone over-mobilizing. My own version of it was quite dramatic and only partially conscious. I valiantly – and erroneously – tried and failed to singlehandedly attend to the legacy of patriarchy and all the voids in systems and capacity that it leads to. This will never be possible, for anyone within NGL or anywhere else.
Once I understood this, I became very enthusiastic about learning to mourn better and finding ways of shifting out of over-mobilizing. I took on a practice, about three years ago, of aiming to put my needs on the table rather than attempt to address them on my own whenever I can, to expose rather than absorb impacts on me, and to honor my capacity limits rather than override them because of lack of capacity around me. I was making very little progress for the longest time. Not only this, I also added a new pattern that made things even more challenging. That pattern was something like premature demobilization: releasing leadership before others are ready to step into it, before there is enough guidance from me, agreements with people about what they are actually going to do once I am gone, or clarity about ways of functioning outside patriarchal patterns that I hold with immense rigor and that many others haven’t integrated.
It was only recently, in the context of a conflict within our pod, that this began to change. At some point, I responded to the extremely difficult conditions by doing what I called “going on strike” (see my July 2022 newsletter, “Conflict-19: from Covid to Conflict”). As all that then unfolded was happening, the reality that I could not change this pattern by myself was dawning on us. That was when others started checking with me if I was mobilizing. This happened first within the pod and then additional people took that practice on. I really loved being asked, regularly, whether I was mobilizing. Then I noticed it became harder to receive the question, to the point that I noticed thoughts about wanting to lie about it (which I wouldn’t do, as I fundamentally just don’t lie) so that I wouldn’t be expected to automatically demobilize. From there the clarity came rapidly and is still with me: what is really needed isn’t for me to flip to demobilization, which would just be a reactive pattern. What is needed is actual discernment about whether or not it makes sense for me to mobilize given the circumstances of the moment in question. That discernment would be based on purpose, capacity within me, capacity I imagine around me, impacts of voids, impacts of over-mobilization and likely other significant questions. The deeper layer was that doing this discernment is not within capacity for me; I am way too likely to stay in pattern even while I imagine that I am in conscious choice. What is needed in such moments is for those around me to co-hold the discernment with me, so that there is a “we” rather than an “I” who is making the decision. This is what collective capacity ultimately means, a restoration of the deep togetherness and collaboration that is our evolutionary design.
Supporting visionary leaders for the benefit of all
The puzzle of collaborative leadership becomes particularly acute when a visionary leader has a lot of what I have come to call “nonredundant capacity.” Once again, I am hoping that my own experience can be instructive anywhere where people are coming together and trying to forge new pathways about leadership.
In my own journey of leadership, I am now blessed with the support of a growing number of people who are stepping into full collaboration with me. Together, we are trying to figure out how to create what some of us have begun to call “nonhierarchical lineage,” so that what I have been learning, experimenting with, and passing on can outlive me without the distortion of patriarchal forms of leadership.
However uncomfortable it may be, walking this path means, in part, accepting that a significant gap exists between where I am and where many others within NGL are. I live within immense clarity about vision, about my own purpose, about what I want to do with my energy for my remaining days and in each moment, about how to develop the NGL framework, about what I look for in someone to feel at peace with having them carry the work forward, and about where I see NGL going. I also am the source of an enormous fountain of creative output that emerges from me all the time. Many others within NGL are still in the process of learning what their purpose and gifts are, how they fit within what we hold and do within NGL, and what their path of liberation entails. That gap is real. I am quite confident that similar gaps exist in relation to many other visionary leaders within their respective communities.
Simultaneously, walking this path means holding on to the reality that I, and all visionary leaders, are ordinary human beings with needs, patterns, visions, sensitivities, reactions, longings, capacity limits, joys and pains, preferences, aversions, and everything else that every human being is and has, and that, inevitably, each of us is only one body. We need others to engage with in order to do the work we do, or we reproduce the solitary hero patriarchal pattern that won’t bring us to any post-patriarchal future. In this context, what everyone else within an organization, movement, or community contributes is genuinely of enormous significance, especially within NGL, where our entire purpose is about experimentation with nonviolence and with individual and collective liberation. Both the unique role and the one-of-many nature that each of us carries is crucial for the possibility that we, visionary leaders, will be able to thrive and do what was given to us to do. I see this as one of the spots where creative integration is essential for our survival.
Within my own experimentation and work, I see a deep and important need for people to fully step into their full creative power alongside mine, to unleash their own gifts within the context of what I do, to trust themselves, to ground in their own vision, to co-create with me, and to fly. Even as I finally get it that I “have” charisma (whatever that means, which I cannot understand from within, no one can. I am just me, just living my life, breathing, shitting, eating, dreaming, creating, writing, laughing, crying, being), I am determined to work with others to soften and transmute the collective patterns that co-create “charismatic leadership,” and, instead, to co-create with others a vast and contagious collective empowerment.
To do this, to make it possible for all the life energy that is locked within all of us through patriarchal socialization, I want us to celebrate and support rather than challenge visionary leaders. I want us to mourn the depth of patriarchal patterns of scarcity, separation, and powerlessness that are real and that are deep and tough to shift. I want us to grapple with the challenges of collaborative leadership through tapping into bold and uncompromising vision, engaging in tender capacity assessment, courageously and lovingly co-holding difficult truths, and creating meticulous agreements that hold us all with tenderness as we each find what’s next for each of us. The future, if it still exists, needs all of us.
- The leader, by Anett Li Wong, on publicdomainpictures
- Anchor, by Leo Reynolds, on Flickr
- Support Is Everything, by Ipsita Divedi, on thegreats
- Visionary, by 周小逸 Ian, on Flickr
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