Initiate & everyone leads

To initiate means: 1) to begin, to set in action; 2) to instruct in the rudiments or principles of something.
To lead means: 1) to go before, or with, to show the way; 2) to conduct by holding and guiding; 3) to influence, induce, or cause; 4) to guide in direction, course, action, opinion, etc.

Too often we associate leadership and leading with the exercise of power over others through structural authority created by hierarchies.  But power is never limited to those on top of an organizational chart.  Everyone has real power and people may choose to follow a leader, supervisor, or manager.  The authoritarian and heroic leadership mindset may be adequate for managing and solving most technical problems.  However, it is a liability when it comes to overcoming complex adaptive challenges.

New models of leading are emerging.  The younger generations’ have different expectations about engagement and leadership.  Traditional distinctions between leaders and followers are becoming obstacles to solving complex problems..  People are learning to work in highly connected ways, sharing ideas, information, and contacts.  People are learning to exercise their power and lead in more distributed, relational, and interdependent ways. 

Learning to lead with a network mindset is more complex than acquiring new technical skills or knowledge.  Many leadership programs continue to explicitly or implicitly promote the model of heroic, individually centered leadership that undervalues collective or collaborative behaviors.  To catalyze social change work in ways that produce major impacts, we need to transform leadership development. 

To support an ‘everyone leads’ or collective leadership mindset, we need to cultivate leadership according to the following principles:

  • Connecting and weaving.  Intentionally introducing and linking people, strengthening their bonds, and building bridges among diverse groups.
  • Self-organizing action.  People feel authorized to take action.
  • Learning that embraces risk-taking.  Rapid-cycle prototyping solutions and adaptation.

Leadership Development strategies that work:

  • Convening processes that build relationships across boundaries.
  • Cultivating and practicing collective action, co-leadership, and a network mindset.
  • Questioning and disrupting deeply held leadership assumptions – especially those that promote one person as the leader that others follow.
  • Facilitating action learning in groups; encouraging a spirit of experimentation, risk-taking, and accountability.
  • Build and invest in communities of learning and practice including online collaborative tools. 
  • Introduce resources, skills, and tools for leading in complex systems; develop big picture systems thinking including understanding the levers for systemic change. 
  • Walk the talk.  Give up some control in favor of encouraging participants as co-designers of their development experience.

Robyn Morrison is a collective leading development practitioner who initiates, facilitates, and engages diverse people to grow as networked leaders.  She is committed to strengthening our collective capacity to create innovative solutions to wicked systemic challenges by engaging everyone in leading. 


Questions for rebel leaders?

As my social and environmental consciousness has deepened, I have become more of a rebel. Rebels feel at home in movements dedicated to cultural transformation. I am not alone in my progression from “liberal strategist” to rebel catalyst. In my studies of the evolution of leadership, I understand it is the evolutionary path.

I have always struggled with leadership; which is probably why I have spent so much time and money learning everything that I can about leading and leadership. From as far back as my high school days, I have also had a desire to teach and develop other leaders. Because the culture of leadership is going through a paradigm shift, my ideas about leading and developing leaders have evolved. Now, I find myself at the fringe of the huge multi-billion dollar industry[i] developing a new social enterprise to support an emerging style of leadership.

As an alchemist and rebel, I have journeyed through the various transformations of leadership (Torbert) and I understand the process, what worked, and what did not work. I have developed a deep curiosity and commitment to being a part of a community of practice with others who share my commitment to cultural transformation.

One question that truly engages my imagination is this:

Given the failures of leadership and the masses of people who are rebelling against authoritarian leaders, how do we reclaim the language of leading and transform the culture of leading?

I have experienced leadership development training programs within several systems or sectors: financial services, corporate, community development, nonprofit, religious leadership, and nonviolence movements. My Master of Divinity degree focused on spiritual leadership. My current Master of Transformative Leadership is the most progressive leadership education program I have experienced, and still I find myself on the fringe. Yes, I am a rebel, even among those who are passionate about leadership development.

Another question I wrestle with is how do we nurture and support rebel leaders? I believe the inquiry and exploration of this paradox is important to a number of movements involved in saving the earth and creating a world that works for everyone (all creatures).

There are a number of pilot projects and studies exploring aspects of this question. A handful of progressive foundations are funding studies of coleadership, collective leading, shared leading, and distributed leadership. A 2002 report to the Annie Casey Foundation[ii], reported that leaders of social change nonprofits and programs disdain advanced degrees and believe existing management and leadership programs are irrelevant to their type of work. They are interested in applied learning and new organizational structures that will support their social change work.[iii]

The Create, Initiate, Engage: Our CoLeader Connection is a brand new (still in the formation stage) community of practice for rebel leaders.

One of our biggest challenges is overcoming preconceived ideas related to the language: leading, leaders, and leadership. Rebels are rising up against authoritarian leaders in all sectors of our global culture. The words (leading, leader, leadership) are incendiary for many rebels. Our words (more specifically the meaning we assign to words) create our worldview.

The distinction “CoLeader” is essential. Our CoLeader connection is not about an individual process of developing the capacity to exercise power over others. There is an abundance of conventional leadership programs that continue to try to shape leaders for a style of leadership that no longer works (see previous blog posts about the failure of leadership and followership).

My question for readers is this: How do we reclaim the language of leading in ways that creates a culture where everyone leads? Do we need new words? If so, please share the language that works for you.




[i] According to January 2014 report by McKinsey & Company, U.S. Companies alone spend almost $14 billion annually on leadership development.

[ii] Frances Kunreuther. Generational Changes and Leadership: Implications For Social Change Organizations

[iii] This is the work that Create, Initiate, and Engage is doing with social movement programs and organizations. We use leading edge (fringe) strategies and frameworks designed to release and support shared power and cultural transformation.

My personal co-leadership philosophy

pacifica beachAs I write this post, I am on the beach in Pacifica, California. I am here to participate in my fourth California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) Transformative Leadership intensive (retreat). This program  has been beneficial for my personal transformation. It has helped me to identify and articulate my personal philosophy for leading. Although I have been a “leader”, I now consider myself to be a co-leader. I will exercise my ability to lead when the context, situation, and people need me to lead. The following is a philosophy statement that helps to explain my insistence on shifting my ways of being to show up as a co-leader rather than a “leader” (as defined by the dominant culture).

Leading is:

  • For everyone. There are no genuine leaders without willing followers. The true sign of a leader is their ability to create contexts wherein others are able to use their leadership abilities.
  • Chaotic and complex. The world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Leaders have a role to guide and lead people through chaos and complexity. To lead is to become comfortable acting without certainty. To lead is to embrace the creative possibilities of chaos.
  • Contextual and provisional. Although positional authority is often necessary to organize human endeavors, it is always important to acknowledge that commanding people is not leadership it is dominance. Genuine leadership is granted by the people being lead or organized. Positional leadership is granted in order to accomplish shared goals, or in response to a shared vision (a context). When positional power is abused, people will replace their leaders, or they will refuse to be influenced by, or follow, those with power.
  • Emergent and divergent. The ability to lead rises out of the passion and commitments of people. Leadership naturally emerges from within groups of people. Everyone has an innate ability to lead. When the context is ripe, when enough people are passionate about making a difference or changing something, leaders emerge to organize human efforts. If there is a vacuum in leadership, a leader will emerge. Leadership is also divergent. There is no right way or wrong way, no single style, no clearly defined traits or attributes of those who lead. Leaders can lead people towards destructive actions or positive constructive actions.
  • Relational, dynamic, and perichoretic. One can be commanding and controlling without being in love with people, but one cannot be a genuine leader without knowing how to form and sustain dynamic relationships. To be perichoretic (borrowed from Christian Trinitarian theology) is to be engaged in dynamic relationships that allow the unique individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that the group of people also share their lives (diversity in unity). That leading is perichoretic means a community of being is created through the act of leading. There is no separation and yet there is diversity.
  • Mysterious and mythical. There is something in human nature that creates legends and myths. Leadership rises out of mythical ways of knowing. Leading is not always logical or sensible. It is important to acknowledge the limits of our conscious thoughts, and to welcome the wisdom of our subconscious. Growing as a leader is a process of many transformations in consciousness. In the higher levels of human development, we are less attached to our ego and basic survival needs, and more concerned about the well being of all creation.

What is leadership to you?  How do you lead?  Do you prefer to follow, or to lead?  Do you have a philosophy of leading, or leadership?  Please share your comments.


Evolving beyond ‘pack animals’ (part one)

We are in the process of integrating a six-month-old English Springer Spaniel named Micah into our family. We also have a six-year-old English Springer Spaniel named Isaiah. Isaiah spent the first six years of his life in our family with our older Sheltie (Mocha) who passed away shortly before we adopted the new puppy.

Shelties are work dogs. They instinctively herd other animals, so Mocha felt his job was to shepherd Isaiah. English Springer Spaniels (ESS) love to run freely, so the two worked out their respective household (or pack) roles. Mocha’s job was to keep Isaiah out of trouble. Whether they were on leash or off leash, Isaiah was always a step ahead of Mocha.

Mocha and Isaiah were devoted and faithful companions to each other, and to my husband and I. We often care for other family dogs managing up to five dogs at a time. There were minor conflicts between the dogs over toys, but generally they established their own roles and responsibilities, and pecking order.

We thought bringing home a new puppy of the same breed as Isaiah would help Isaiah because he was grieving the absence of his buddy, Mocha. We chose another ESS because we thought they would love to do most of the same things; run, swim, chase balls, go for walks.

Micah joins our family

Micah joins our family

I failed to understand that dogs are still instinctively hierarchical pack animals. Mocha exerted ‘authority’ over Isaiah when he was a young puppy, and then he let Isaiah develop as a ‘peer’ in the pack. When we brought a puppy home, Isaiah exhibited aggressive behavior towards Micah. I reacted as though aggression was unacceptable. I just thought they ought to be friends and play cooperatively, including sharing toys and sharing our attention. The pressure built up and within three days Isaiah attacked Micah and bit him hard enough to draw a tiny bit of blood.

Shocked and very concerned that we had made a huge mistake adopting Micah, I began to research ‘problem’ dogs. Although there is a great deal of conflicting information online about dog training, I found a book that made sense to me, The Dog Listener. The author, Jan Fennel, raises English Springer Spaniels (among many other breeds). Fennel refreshed my memory; dogs are pack animals. More important, dog packs are hierarchies. At the top of the dog hierarchy there are alpha leaders (one male, one female) with other levels of leadership for pack members. The pack survives or thrives because dogs know their role and responsibility within the pyramid.

Given my passion for non-hierarchical styles of leadership, I wanted to resist the book’s recommendation that I assert myself as the pack leader. However, when I did assert stronger leadership, I found that Isaiah and Micah became calmer and less aggressive. I also learned to acknowledge Isaiah as the ‘big’ dog and acknowledge his authority over the younger Micah. Things are going much better now.

IMG_2437Since I read the first few chapters of The Dog Listener, I have been pondering dog and human evolution. Even though I am convinced that human beings have evolved to the degree that many of us crave partnership and egalitarian organizational forms, prehistoric humans were pack animals. The bond between early humans and their dogs is older than religion or civil society and it originated because humans became beneficial alpha leaders for dogs. Dogs were better off working for packs of people than just hunting on their own.

Do human beings still need hierarchical structures? Are we still very much like our dogs, do we need to know our place in the ‘order’ of our tribe or pack? Do we need alpha leaders, and are we willing to submit to their authority in the way that wolves submit to their alpha leaders?

Please share your comments and answers to these questions. Tomorrow I will continue this inquiry.

A New Metaphor for Leadership

I wrote this poem to illustrate a metaphor for an eco-egalitarian style of co-leadership.  Since my ideas about leadership have been heavily influenced by my experience as a Christian, it is also a metaphor for spiritual leadership and a spiritual community.


Our Garden
by Robyn Morrison

We kneel, rubbing the moist dark soil in
our weathered hands.  Earth is our source.

Enriched by life composted from seasons past.
The days are warmer.
The time for sowing seeds has come.

We turn the soil (once, twice)
noticing earth worms, uncovering potential,
bringing life giving air to what was beneath.

Rows, patches, mounds, pots —
Wondering what each plant needs;
where each will thrive.

Then — down into the soil seeds are sown.

Patience now. God is our partner.

Only God knows how to release the potential in each seed.

The Garden gathers what she needs;
crawling creatures, winged things,
winds gentle and strong, life giving water,
sunlight, people.

There are structures in our Garden that endure;
apple trees, currant bushes.
Others stay for many years;
rhubarb, asparagus.
The colorful ones come and go, here for a season, then
thrown into the compost bin.

The Garden sustains life.  She feeds us.
In return we, the Garden and her gardeners,
cultivate and tend all who gather in her midst.

Year after year;
kneeling, sowing, tending, harvesting, composting.

From soil to soil.  Life goes on.

Leading from the Fringe: Part three

Timing is important, very important (Kellerman, 2010, 165).

Why now?  After resisting the desire to be a writer, why should I start writing this blog now?  The recognition that other women (and marginalized people) have found writing to be a tool for influencing people helped me to recognize the connection between my many attempts to exercise collaborative leadership and my nagging desire to write. 

Authentic leadership emerges from a leader’s lived experience, it is contextual.  For the past five years I have felt the impact of my choice to refuse to submit to an abusive religious authority.  I made a practical choice, to pursue a legitimate path into spiritual power (to be a professional Minister), a career with a salary and benefits, and that choice led to a dead end.

When the religious hierarchy pushed me out of my positional leadership role as a Pastor, I found myself under-employed and floundering in the depth of the economic crisis of 2009-2010. I had lost my spiritual path, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.  I still felt called to be a spiritual leader, to be a source of hope for the hopeless and oppressed.  There was an abundance of need and I had accumulated experience, education, and the skills to help people who had been displaced by the economic crisis. 

The world was shifting — the power and wealth was getting more and more concentrated in the hands of a few.  Our elected leaders bailed out the big banks and financial institutions and left the unemployed struggling to pay their mortgages.  Nonprofits and religious organizations were reeling from the economic crisis.  Foundations cut back their giving.  Middle class donors (more generous than the wealthy) were unable to give. 

It was a humbling time for me.  I was in Oregon and at that time one of five Oregon workers was jobless or underemployed.  The religious hierarchy blocked my attempts to create a new ministry to serve those who were displaced by the economic crisis.  I had no salary, benefits, or career track.  For the first time in my life, I felt like a nobody, so I moved back home to nowhere Montana.

In Montana, I was able to connect with meaningful work as an Executive Director for a couple of nonprofit organizations.  However, I was not using my communication gifts.  I was not speaking in public or writing, I was mostly an administrator.  I was doing what I needed to do to survive, and my continuing commitment to developing egalitarian leaders caused me to search for a connection.  I found that connection through the California Institute of Integral Studies — Masters of Arts in Transformative Leadership program.

(Continued in part four).

Power Corrupts

It is not power that corrupts but fear.

Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and

fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Power over others is a corruptive force.  It is probably truer that power attracts the corruptible.  People, who are more conscious and more compassionate, are usually more attracted to sharing their power.  Power, fully expressed, tends to reveal the true nature of the individual. 

People have plenty of reasons to distrust their leaders. 

One of the most troubling statistics about cheating is that students and business people are beginning to argue that cheating is necessary because everyone cheats.  It has become part of the culture of capitalism; lying, cheating, and stealing are proven ways to get ahead in a culture that values competition over community and compassion. 

Among senior executives within the U.S. financial industry who were interviewed in 2012, over half believe that the rules may have to be broken in order to be successful. They believe that they have to engage in unethical or illegal activity.  Nearly half admitted to being tempted by insider trading.  Nearly one third say they feel pressured to compromise their ethical standards and even to break the law.

The 2014 political campaigns demonstrated a new level of political corruption and lying.  In September 2014, a federal judged overturned an Ohio law that prohibited lies in political ads, claiming it violated free speech.  Free speech = freedom to lie and produce false and misleading political ads. 

Our leaders also make promises to gain our allegiance, or our votes, and routinely break those promises. Maybe broken promises are nothing new.  We want to believe the promises.  We want to exercise our right to vote, and sometimes we have to choose between the lesser of two liars and con artists. 

Maybe it is the cumulative effect of broken promises and outright lies that has brought us historically low levels of trust and confidence in leaders, low voter turnout, and low levels of civic engagement. 

If leaders have to lie and make promises they cannot keep, then we, those of us with strong moral compasses, not only don’t want to follow those leaders, we also don’t want to be that kind of leader.  Hence we are facing the end of leadership and followership, as we have known them.

That is not necessarily bad news.  In a culture where everyone leads, trust is essential.  If we strive to be egalitarian in our leadership style, we must learn to collaborate and share power.  When we strive to exercise shared power, we are mutually dependent upon character traits like integrity, honesty, compassion, respect, and honoring our word. 

What qualities of leadership are essential for you?  What kind of people do you want to engage with, and share power with?  Are you willing to respect diversity of all kinds?  Are you willing to disagree with love and respect?  Are you willing to be accountable to your colleagues or co-leaders, while also holding them accountable? 

Please complete our brief online survey.

We want to know your expectations, hopes, and ideals?  What will it take to create the trust that is needed for genuinely shared leadership?