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Clarifying Roles and Sharing Leadership

By Susan Grove & Hélène Lesterlin

By naming and filling roles with awareness, we can individually offer defined contributions toward collectively achieving shared purpose, avoiding default ways of operating.

“Leadership is accepting responsibility to create conditions that enable others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.” 

What we love about this definition from Marshall Ganz  is that it makes space for everyone to step into leadership. It is not just for the director or the convener or other “positional leader”. Some may experience discomfort at the thought of such distributed leadership and imagine downsides like confusion, messiness, or nothing getting done. Enter role clarification!

Just because everyone has the potential to be a leader doesn’t mean that everyone occupies the same role or roles all the time. By filling different roles at different times, we can exercise shared leadership as we individually offer defined contributions toward collectively achieving a shared purpose. To avoid the perceived downsides of distributed leadership, we name what the roles are, what they entail, and who will fill each. 

There are different ways to go about naming the roles a group needs. Scroll down to our Tool below for some ideas to get you started.

We like to think of roles in the context of a shared journey, in that roles may be stable or they may rotate. A rewarding and memorable road trip entails travelers taking turns driving, navigating, expressing needs or wishes to stop, and deciding when and where to stop. It also includes sharing snacks, stories, and songs along the way! This is a metaphor for shared leadership: the engagement of each traveler to contribute to different roles at different times according to group need and individual capacity. You can read more about this in Susan’s blog post, We All Shape the Shared Journey (part of our Shared Leadership series).

With so much attention in our culture on positional leadership, many other essential contributions often are overlooked, taken for granted, or undervalued. Being explicit about roles can make these contributions more visible.

We know that collective work is effective when needed roles are filled. However, it is easy to replicate default power dynamics when roles are filled in default ways. For example, white men may fill speaking roles. Or women may quietly notice and take care of tasks that are needed but never named. And then we wonder why many men feel entitled to take up more air time and most women are paid less for their efforts. 

When we name and fill roles with intention:

  • We offer a clear way for members to engage and participate; it helps distribute tasks and care for the whole while encouraging individual and collective accountability. 
  • We have an opportunity to make explicit choices – perhaps counter-cultural or disruptive choices – about roles, in alignment with the group’s values and purpose. 
  • We can choose to take turns at different roles to round out our skills and practice sharing power. 
  • We can foster a culture of transparency, trust, and mutual respect for all the different types of contributions we need for our group to function well.

TOOL: Naming Roles

There are many ways to go about naming the roles a group needs. Here are a few ideas to get you started: 

  • Look at role names and descriptions used by others and choose the ones that feel most relevant. Adjust the descriptions to clearly express what the role means in the context of your group. You can customize the role to the needs of the group and the group expectations of the person filling the role. 
  • Start from scratch by brainstorming what is needed for the group to function effectively, then group the needs, following the guidelines of the affinity mapping tool (see Facilitation post for more on this). Roles will then emerge to meet the identified needs.
  • Resource mapping gives participants the chance to reflect on what they are willing to offer to the group and can include talking about roles like facilitation or planning support.

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Susan Grove, GWI

Susan (she/her) strives to express callings and longings to facilitate learning, support collaboration, organize information, engage conflict, connect across difference, create lasting conditions for greater equity, and contribute toward justice in the Mahicantuck Valley.

Hélène Lesterlin, GWI

Hélène (she/her) is inspired by what can happen when creativity, collaboration, and clarity come together. She works to illuminate narratives that change our outlook and understanding, and helps Just Transition-aligned people and projects move into action.

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