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.