What does it look like to radically reinvent leadership?


[Image description: A small figure of a mountaineer, standing on a peak, holding a stick and carrying a backpack, surveying the snow-covered land. The sky is a clear hazy purple. Image by Noel Bauza on Pixabay]

A couple of years ago, I stepped down from my position as executive director of RVC, a capacity building and leadership organization serving communities of color in Seattle. I helped found it after realizing that leaders of color are not being supported in our sector, organizations led by communities of color continue being screwed over by funding and other dynamics, and that even the stuff designed to help them—like capacity building—is often useless, if not harmful. RVC went from a budget of $180,000 to over 3M, Managing Director Ananda Valenzuela became Interim ED, and I left to tend to other things, stopping by the office occasionally to get free snacks and merch (a lifetime perk of being a founder).

After a couple of years of learning amidst the pandemic, RVC announced its new leadership structure. It is exciting and will probably blow some minds. Instead of the traditional path of finding someone to replace me as ED, and heck, instead of even a co-ED structure like Ananda and I were engaged in (with me being the external leader and Ananda the internal leader), RVC decided to have FOUR CO-EXECUTIVE-DIRECTORS–Chris Rhodes, Anbar Mahar Sheikh, JoJo Gaon, and Roshni Sampath! Each director will take charge of a specific area of executive leadership duties, while also engaged in the critical work they had been doing before.

If you shook your head in disbelief at such a structure, no one will blame you. A few years ago, I was talking to a colleague about co-directorships, and he winced a bit. “Co-directorships tend to fail,” he said, “there’s role confusion, interpersonal dynamics, weird board issues, and so on.” He was talking about co-directorships of two people. What he said may be true, especially in the past when the idea was novel, but we now have lots of examples and case studies of successful orgs embracing this model, including CompassPoint, Building Movement Project, and of course, RVC. The chance to explore even further, to shake things up even more, should be encouraged and supported. How else will our sector grow and evolve?

Because let’s face it, the current default leadership model that we have often sucks. As Ananda wrote in “The Executive Director Job is Impossible,” this traditional model of having one person at the top frequently leads to leaders rapidly burning out. Why wouldn’t they? They are responsible for all the decisions, successes, and failures. The weight of that burden never decreases. Having been an ED for 13 consecutive years (across two organizations), I saw the toll it took on leaders. They wake up in the middle of the night on a weekly or daily basis, occupied by thoughts of whether there’s enough cash for the next payroll, which staff members might quit or need to be let go, which funders or community members are unreasonably angry at their org, etc. It is a lonely, stressful job that rapidly ages you. No wonder fewer and fewer people want to be an ED.

And why should one person have so much power in the first place? Why hire staff who have skills the ED may not have—HR, program implementation, evaluation—and yet not provide them the autonomy to make decisions in their areas of expertise? Before I was an ED, I worked under some EDs who were horrible, who constantly vetoed my and other colleagues’ ideas, even though we had more experience and expertise in certain areas. It was frustrating and demoralizing. 

With thoughtful, progressive EDs/CEOs, the traditional leadership structure becomes a benevolent monarchy, but still a monarchy nonetheless. And it is ironic that we still hew so close to this structure, despite the fact that so many of our organizations are wrestling with dismantling injustice, which is rooted in white patriarchal systems. Can we do that effectively with the white, patriarchal, top-down, hierarchical, often burnout-inducing and resentment-building model of leadership that we accept as the default?

This is not to say that the traditional model does not have its use. For certain organizations and purposes, hierarchy can be effective. The problem is when we believe that this is the only way to do things, a “best practice” that everyone must follow. This leaves little room to consider that other structures may be more effective for certain organizations and communities. And it also leads to orgs and communities being punished by funders and donors for not conforming to this established norm.   

With that in mind, it’s time for our sector to explore some new structures. Luckily, we have organizations like RVC as case studies. It took RVC years to get here, through lots of trials and failures. It yielded some critical lessons for others who are interested in going down this path. For instance, our sector has deeply held archetypes of leadership that are very sticky and often unconsciously held. So just splitting an ED’s role into multiple positions by itself may not work; it may just result in several top-down leaders instead of one. RVC spends significant time exploring and iterating a new decision-making model and strengthening skills around giving and receiving feedback and resolving conflict, which are vital components to successful shared leadership.  

Another lesson is how pivotal it is to be aware of cultural and other dynamics when moving toward distributed power. For example, when we first implemented the Advice Process of decision-making, where the person closest to an issue makes the final decision (as long as they check in with those who will be most affected by their decision as well as those who have advice that would help them make the best decision), the significant and unprecedented autonomy was overwhelming for many team members, all of whom were people of color. POCs, especially women of color, working in mainly white dominant environments, are often not trusted to make decisions, and are also more likely to be punished for making the wrong decision, which then reflects on other POCs. Untangling these dynamics and the conditioned and internalized fear surrounding them, took time, but it was a vital step before true distributed leadership could take place.

You can learn about RVC’s journey here, here, here, and here, written by Ananda, who has been instrumental in leading RVC through these multiple intersecting transformations and has been crucial for RVC’s success, and who is also a reason that I remained in nonprofit leadership several years longer than I had intended to. I can’t wait to see RVC fully implement this model with four EDs of equal power working with similarly empowered colleagues in a thoughtful approach grounded in values of trust, equity, and justice. It will yield more important lessons for all of us. 

The nonprofit sector is in a necessary existential crisis, brought on by the pandemic and by long-simmering tensions across the decades. We must question everything we thought of as the default, from board governance, to fundraising, to capacity building, to data and evaluation, to philanthropy. The traditional structure of a single ED/CEO at the top of the pyramid with vast power over every aspect of “their” organization may work for some, but it often leaves orgs and communities behind, especially marginalized communities who could benefit from flat or hybrid models of leadership. It’s time to question, explore, and experiment around leadership philosophies and structures, decision-making models, and distributed power.

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