Shared or revolving leadership comes about in two ways: first, when “subordinates” break custom and become leaders, and second, when someone’s particular expertise is needed and they take over the leadership during that time. Revolving leaders are indispensable in our lives because they take charge in varying degrees as they are needed.
Such leadership relies on three things: (1) inclusivity, which presumes that lasting solutions require the participation of all affected parties; (2) mutual accountability, which presumes that sustainable solutions depend on all sides taking responsibility for answers (which means mutual blaming is not enough); and (3) cultivating the skills of democracy, which presumes that we are not born knowing how to be effective within a democratic system of government and must be taught the art of participation—from active listening to negotiation and evaluation. When we view government as distinct from civil society, we exempt it from practicing inclusive, participatory approaches to interpersonal relationships.1
Revolving leadership is the basis of day-to-day expression in the participative democratic process required in any sustainable community. Such participation is both a person’s opportunity and responsibility to have a say in the future of their community through the example and accountability of personal behavior, by influencing its government through participation in the democratic process and by extending a willingness to accept ownership in the resolution of its problems.
Because no one person can be an expert in everything, the person in the official position of overall leadership must have the good sense and grace to support and follow the lead of a person whose expertise is momentarily in demand. It is difficult for many people to be open enough to recognize what is best for their community and to step aside, when necessary, in favor of issue-oriented or problem-oriented leadership.
In the last analysis, leadership must be shared (but neither given away nor sold) because a time will arise when we must count on someone else’s special competence. If we think about the people with whom we share our community, it becomes apparent that we must be able to count on one another if our community is to meet our needs while protecting our deepest values. By ourselves, we are severely limited, but together we can be something truly awesome.
According to Max DePree, CEO of Herman Miller, Inc., a furniture manufacturing company, “The condition of our hearts, the openness of our attitudes, the quality of our competence, the fidelity of our experience—these give vitality to the work experience and meaning of life.” Freely and openly shared revolving leadership is one of the vehicles we can use to help ourselves and one another reach our potential as both human beings and citizens of our respective communities.
“But,” you might say, “I’m only one person, what can I do? My actions account for so very little.” Because so many people feel this way, it might be instructive to consider snowflakes.
When snowflakes begin falling, those coming down first land on the warm soil and melt, entering the ground without a trace. One after another, they come into view out of the sky, fall past our faces, and land on the ground, only to disappear as rapidly as they appeared—or so it seems at least.
But each snowflake does something as it touches the soil. Its coolness dissipates the soil’s heat. As flake after snowflake touches the ground and melts, the collective coolness of their beings creates a cumulative effect by which the soil is eventually cooled enough that falling snowflakes melt progressively more slowly until some don’t melt at all. Now snow begins to gradually accumulate until the land is covered in a blanket of white.
Is one snowflake more important than another? Is the one you see sparkling in the sun more important than the one that melted upon landing? Neither is more or less important than the other. Without those that melted and cooled the soil, the ones that ultimately formed the blanket of white would not have survived to do so. Therefore, just as every snowflake (individually and as part of the collective) is important to the whole of winter, so is each person (individually and as part of the collective) important to the whole of a community.
Just as no two snowflakes are exactly alike, no two people are identical. Thus, each individual has a unique gift to offer, a special talent, which in the collective of a community, is complementary rather than competitive. Each person’s belief, being a little different from all the others’, helps a community to see itself when that person’s voice is raised in expressing their particular point of view.
Series on Qualities Of Leadership:
Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.
This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.