How to grow distributed leadership

You use archetypes or personas to describe different types of leadership which have their corresponding shadow aspects. How can people become aware of their shadow aspects and make the most of them in group situations?

One of the chapters I wrote in the book describes a leadership development framework I created called Full Circle Leadership. In my work at Enspiral, I noticed an eight-step life cycle projects went through, and saw how projects fell over or fizzled if they missed some steps.

Full Circle BWT

It partly came out of my annoyance that, as a network, we were great at coming up with new ideas but not as good at taking them all the way to completion. I needed to get the word “operationalisation” into our collective vocabulary. I also saw other organisations with the opposite dynamic: great at maintaining but struggling to innovate.

In parallel, as an operational leader, I went through a process of developing empathy for visionary leaders, and came to understand that we weren’t at two opposite ends of a spectrum, but part of a circle. Each of the eight steps represents its own unique kind of leadership, all of which are valuable and important.

This became a lens to better appreciate and nurture diverse leadership strengths. Equally, it’s a lens for awareness of the shadow sides. I got better at seeing my own shadows as a leader, and seeing both the light and dark sides of my collaborators. This is why working alongside diverse, respected peer leaders, who are different to you, is so important.

How can groups leverage people’s strengths and also take team members out of their comfort zone to learn new skills?

This work asks a lot of us. There is no way to keep engaging deeply, purposefully, and vulnerably in community without a lot of self-development. Sometimes we call that The Work. It never ends because humans are dynamic, complex, living beings, and groups of humans even more so.

On one level, it means always being out of your comfort zone. On another level, it means gaining a profound sense of purpose, confidence in you abilities, and unambiguous commitment to guiding values that stay steady in the face of enormous change. It’s great if you can be responsibly and safely held and guided by someone who “knows what they’re doing”, but really, no one knows what they’re doing when you’re charting new territory and constantly experimenting. It can be risky. You need a lot of self awareness and excellent boundaries.

My seven or so [years] at Enspiral felt like a never-ending stream of intensive challenges and growth opportunities. I learned so much about myself, at the same time I was learning about startups, facilitation, building technology, social impact, money, and everything else. It was incredibly rich — and, frankly, exhausting. I miscalculated and burned out multiple times.

There’s a lot in the book about self care, well-being, group processes for looking after each other, and strategies for avoiding burnout when you’ve got a fiery passion in your heart. The risk and challenge are inherent, so I’d definitely encourage people to regularly reflect and check in about how it’s really going. But to me, there is no question that it’s worth it.

Power dynamics are an inevitable characteristic of human groups. What advice do you have for groups for making them more transparent? When does it make sense to share power and what steps can groups take to get there?

The first step is to practice talking about power dynamics openly, regardless of their shape. A healthy culture means being honest about power. If you are a hierarchy, admit it. Own it! Sometimes hierarchies are the right shape for what you’re trying to do. You can have consent-based, ethical hierarchies. A lot of people actually just want to be told what their job is.

Talking about power dynamics will allow you to collectively ask important questions, like “How is our structure working for us? Could it be improved?” Sometimes groups that aspire to less hierarchy will treat power like a taboo, and try to pretend it doesn’t exist. This will not result in shared power, only in implicit, unaccountable power.

Power dynamics are an inherent property of human groups. Your collective task is to take ownership of your group’s power dynamics and make them work for you. One frame I often use is “align power and responsibility.” If people have responsibility for things they don’t have power over, or are exerting power over things they aren’t taking responsibility for, you’ve got a problem.

Sometimes that’s about an internal emotional boundary around what you will feel responsible for. Sometimes it’s about restructuring roles to give power over their scope of responsibility. Sometimes it’s about calling out unacknowledged power. It’s a frame I find useful to examine in a lot of situations.

Finally, consider how our work on power in the context of human society overall [is] inextricably linked to social justice. We need to consider how power dynamics function at every level, from the macro to the micro, to truly understand them.