This past year has been one of deep reflection – as an organization dedicated to gender equity, as communities continuing to lead for racial and restorative justice, and as individuals in our personal growth toward racial allyship. At Legal Voice, we have been reflecting on how we do our work with intention and how we want to lead. After our long-standing and fierce leader of 25+ years, Lisa Stone, retired last fall, and knowing that no one could fill her shoes (!), we decided to reimagine what leadership could look like. Instead of bringing on an interim Executive Director as originally planned, we established a shared leadership model that represents a collective blueprint for decision-making and values-driven leadership.
Now eight months in, there are so many lessons that we are learning as leaders, staff, and board. We continue to navigate this new space – making mistakes and leaning on each other in the process. Here are some of the takeaways that have guided us so far.
What is shared leadership?
For us, shared leadership means co-creating solutions, non-hierarchical decision-making, and operating from a shared vision and set of values. It spreads power equitably across a leadership team, as opposed to being consolidated in one position, and creates a built-in mechanism for accountability: we are accountable to each other and to the entire staff. No one person holds all of the decision-making authority, nor is one person burdened with all of the responsibility. Moreover, a shared leadership team gives staff a choice in leaders to whom they feel comfortable reaching out, and it gives leaders better access to staff since we each have different relationships with our teams. Sharing power and sharing ownership makes the everyday more manageable, leading to less burn out and more balance for each of us. We divide the Executive Director’s tasks amongst the three of us (financial, managerial, fundraising, programmatic), and we navigate decisions as a collective, processing as a team and then as a staff. Having a leadership team from across the organization with expertise in specific areas and with each deeply connected to staff and community leads to more inclusive, transparent, and collaborative decisions.
Here’s an example of how this has worked in practice. The leadership team grappled with the decision about pursuing a particular funder, given the anticipated budgetary shortfall that we could be facing in 2022. We had several conversations as a team, weighing the pros/cons and thinking about how this decision would align with our race equity values. Because we each represent different aspects of Legal Voice, we were able to better understand the programmatic, budgetary, and community implications. We went back and forth, and finally came to a collective place of agreement. We knew this decision would have implications across the organization, and brought in the entire staff for further discussion and next steps. After many conversations, draft plans, and idea sharing, we all came to a final decision as a full staff.
A shared leadership model is a reflection of our race equity values
Our own anti-racist journey took on new meaning over the last year. We carved out space to reflect on our history, adopted a flexible work schedule that values rest and renewal, and shifted our advocacy focus. As a foundation of this work, we developed race equity values to guide what it looks like to be in community and how we want to work with each other. These values focus on honoring the diverse and lived experience of community partners, staff, board, and volunteers; prioritizing the time and resources to build trust and authentic relationships with BIPOC communities; and recognizing the leadership capacity of those who have historically been marginalized by structural racism.
Shared leadership is a direct expression of and fundamental to how we aim to live these values. It reflects our multiple and intersecting identities (two of the three directors are women of color), our commitment to the leadership development of staff of color, and our desire to create space for BIPOC staff and leaders to feel fully seen, respected, and valued. Our board is also engaged in exploring different governance models, shared decision-making, and less hierarchical structures. As we continue to take on responsibilities, we constantly interrogate how to build trust and long-lasting relationships internally and externally, and how all of our decisions are made using an anti-racist lens.
Shared leadership applies across the organization
Shared leadership also translates into everyone leaning into their capacity to lead. Over the last year we have prioritized space for discussion – and dissent – and offered opportunities for feedback related to all decisions, from budget creation to long-term programmatic goals. This can certainly prolong the process and make it messier, but the outcomes are ones in which everyone feels invested. It also reminds us to slow down, to be more intentional about decisions we are making, and to consider any unintended consequences. This is not to say that these types of conversations did not occur in the past; rather creating a formalized structure that prioritizes input and feedback from across the organization creates the expectation about how decision-making happens. And it holds us, as a leadership team, directly accountable to staff.
Through shared leadership, we encourage each of us to invest in Legal Voice in new ways, to see ourselves directly reflected in the process, and to remind staff that they are valued and contribute deeply to the organization. For instance, under a traditional leadership model, the Executive Director, or in our case, members of the shared leadership team, would be designated as the person to reach out to donors. Over this past year, we instead asked each staff member to represent the organization, cultivate relationships with donors, and co-create a plan for expanding our community and donor base, especially outside of Washington. This not only spread out responsibilities across the organization, but also provided opportunities for donors to learn about the different aspects of Legal Voice and develop relationships with staff outside of the leadership team. Staff embraced these opportunities to contribute to Legal Voice in new ways.
Collaborative leading is an ongoing learning practice
Sharing leadership is an ongoing practice of learning for each of us. We are learning how to best split up responsibilities and tasks, who is the “face of the organization”, who should represent Legal Voice in specific situations, how to move the organization forward during a time of deep transition, and how to shift our definition of success, both programmatically and organizationally, among other things.
It is also a learning process externally. For instance, stakeholders and community leaders can be confused about who is leading Legal Voice, who should be invited to particular ED meetings, who is the final decision-maker, and to whom they should direct executive level questions. All of these concerns are legitimate, and reflect the complexities of a shared leadership model. There is no direct line to a traditional Executive Director; rather it’s a bit winding with additional considerations which are often unknown to our community. We have stumbled as we define and redefine roles and as we push ourselves to take risks.
For instance, as we think about a plan for a return to the office in-person, the shared leadership team is not only considering what other organizations are doing, but also how we create a policy that is equitable for all, that reflects our values, and that is one in which everyone feels invested.
For our staff and board at Legal Voice, we embraced this shared leadership model knowing that it would come with uncertainties, that we wouldn’t have all of the answers at the outset. And in some ways, that is its beauty. It both nurtures creativity and normalizes imperfection. Over these eight months, we have shifted workloads and changed roles, put out multiple fires at once, reexamined existing policies, bridged gaps between staff and board and between staff and donors, and tried to recreate a culture of community care and trust. And our staff is energized and excited about this shift, finding new ways to lean in. We have built off of Lisa’s legacy and our 40+ year foundation as an organization that is courageous and resilient. We feel ready as we continue our journey toward transformative and radical change, and we’re looking forward to doing so alongside each of you.
Courtney, Kelli & Riddhi
Shared Leadership Team