by Susan Grove
Shared leadership. Sharing power. Someone recently asked me what checks and balances the WSDNP model has to ensure that power is shared. I didn’t have a ready answer. Upon reflection, I can sense, not an answer, but clues emerging from some of the deeper, more subtle ways this model works in practice.
18 months after restructuring and initiating our democratic workplace practices, I am encouraged to discover that the structure itself makes the practices easier. I’m sure it is possible to strengthen democratic practices within a hierarchical structure, in the same way that it is possible to row or swim against the current. Possible, but harder. Restructuring into a WSDNP was like reversing the current, so that the structure flows in the same direction as what we want to practice. Much easier. Practicing democracy in a hierarchy is also optional…when going against the current becomes too tiring to authority, they can just reverse course and go with the flow. There’s a way out. Moving with the current we, too, can get tired, but we don’t have a fall back…it’s the only way to move forward. What we can do is make a democratic decision to head to the riverbank to take a break and catch our breath together.
Imagine that instead of being on a river, we are driving down the road. All Workers are on the journey and able to shape answers to the questions: Where are we headed? How will we get there? We also collectively determine, in a dynamic way: Who will guide the journey? Because merely arriving at the planned destination does not a great road trip make. A rewarding and memorable road trip entails travellers taking turns driving; navigating; expressing needs and/or wishes to stop along the way; deciding when and where to recharge; sharing snacks, stories, songs, etc. The engagement of each traveller to contribute to these different roles is a metaphor for shared leadership. We can keep trying on new and different answers to the question of who will fill which roles. It is energizing that the question invites each of us into greater awareness – knowing ourselves and each other. The question invites us into transparent communication and into growth. I can drive 8 hours straight as long as its daylight, but my colleague sleeps easily in a sunlit electric car and can keep us moving ahead in the dark and quiet of the night. One of us can provide a soothing soundtrack to get through traffic jams, someone else can queue up the beats to keep our energy up during flat open stretches of road.
In a shared leadership model, we have a great deal of collective power. Over the summer, we participated in a Building Racial Equity workshop where questions were posed to help us focus on the parts of our institution where we have discretionary power. Is it in planning, budgeting, personnel, policy development, or practices? We can answer yes to every area. We all have a voice in all of them. Having a voice requires each of us to be willing to wield influence and to be open to being influenced. Having decision-making depend on influence rather than authority encourages beautiful things, like: give and take, sometimes moving up into leading and sometimes moving up into supporting, and tending to our relationships, including thoughtfully acknowledging tension and engaging conflict.
So checks and balances operate less in the way we might typically think of them, as a kind of external audit. My sense is that checks and balances operate within and among us. Not sharing power well leads to things we sense and notice, like tension in working relationships, imbalances in circles, or unhealthy dynamics. We know that the work we care about and are committed to will suffer if we don’t try to rebalance. This model supports us in having the courage to be willing to exercise influence and have a voice.