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Leading Through Shared Leadership

By Terri Hall, with Caitlin Dourmashkin

The Role of the Steward at GWI

At GWI, we have done away with roles that place each person on a hierarchical scale of power. There is no one at the top who gets to make all the decisions and no one at the bottom who gets us coffee. For the most part, our roles are defined by the collective wisdom of our circles. However, there is still one role that is specifically named in the structure of our WSDNP: the circle Steward. All GWI organizational circles, (Operations, Development, and Communications) have a Steward set by the General Circle, while our program circles (Network, Academy, Alliance, and Greenhouse) are free to decide if they want to have a designated Steward or hold their work in a different way.

So, what is a Steward? This has been a tough question to answer. In some ways, there are still elements of our old approach to hierarchy baked into the concept. Stewards do carry a heightened responsibility to their circles. However, while in the past we may have called this position the manager or supervisor, i.e. the person in charge, in our new approach, we wanted to do away with the “power over others” components and instead keep only the parts that spoke to accountability and support. 

When we got started back in May of last year, we set aside the Steward role as something important but without much definition. On the one hand, we knew we wanted the organizational circles, or org circles for short, to have Stewards in order to keep accountability consistent to one person, given that org circles take on the regular, ongoing work of the organization. The General Circle wanted to know who would ensure that bills were paid or newsletters were sent out, month in and month out. On the other hand, we also wanted to give program circles the autonomy to decide how to self-manage their work; A circle could decide to appoint their own Steward or they could decide to take a more communal approach to management and accountability. 

So far, it’s worked out well, but now that we are thinking more deeply about what roles mean within our WSDNP, we realize that we are at the point where the Steward role could benefit from some additional clarification. We’ve had about ten months of practice, so we decided to check in with each member of the team and see what we’ve learned so far. 

To start, we asked ourselves what that role really means to us. Was the term “Steward” merely WSDNP jargon that would help us to create the illusion of holding power differently? In practice, does stewardship actually function in the same old hierarchical structure in which a single authority figure has the final say-so, calls the shots, and is, effectively, the boss? After multiple individual and group discussions about what it means to be a Steward, several themes emerged:

Stewardship connotes care. 

First and foremost, the Steward is the caretaker of a circle (or sub-circle.) This care includes tending to the mandate, the people, and the tasks within the circle they are stewarding. While this involves management, it is more of a supportive practice than a leading from the top kind of approach. 

Stewards constantly consider the mandate of their circle.

This means that a Steward is the circle member that really pays attention to the big picture of the circle’s work. While members within a circle might be focused on managing specific projects or taking on specific tasks, the Steward provides cohesion for the circle’s work by holding and reminding the circle of the long view and continually assessing whether the circle is sticking to its mandate over time. 

Stewards create the conditions of their circle.

Stewards work to maintain the dynamics of shared leadership and collaboration as circle members work towards the accomplishment of shared goals. Depending on the responsibilities of a circle, we are finding that some circles require a more Steward-driven leadership approach (with circle members providing support for specific projects or tasks) and others have room for more co-leadership. Either way, the mutual respect within a circle and lack of traditional hierarchy is manifesting in some specific ways: 

  • Same standards for all: Stewards don’t hold others to a standard to which they don’t hold themselves. In that same spirit, Stewards are willing to take on any task they would expect a circle member to take on. While there are valid reasons for having one Worker do some tasks as opposed to others (talents, interest, and bandwidth), we share the conviction that no necessary task is below any Worker. We are peers and there is no one person within a circle who is designated to do the “grunt work.”  
  • Peer accountability: The steward provides support to circle mates by helping them be clear on their goals and roles as it relates to that big picture. However, the steward is not “the boss” to whom circle members are accountable. Circle members are accountable to each other, sharing responsibility for the work of their circle. One tool we use to support this is our W3, a table that captures WHO will do WHAT by WHEN. Review of the W3 is a standing part of most circle’s meeting agenda, and it helps circles to be mindful of work everyone on the team has committed to do. 
  • Respect for circle mates’ time: With all of us contributing to multiple circles, Stewards do their best to take on what can be tended to between meetings so that a circle’s time together can be spent addressing the things that require the full circle. This includes many tasks, big picture thinking, problem solving, between meeting communications, and agenda setting. 

Stewards are not alone.

Support is needed in order to foster success, and this is just as true for Stewards as it is for all circle members. Not surprisingly, we all agree that whether you are a steward or just a circle member, having engaged, reliable, actively participating circle members who follow-through, show up, and proactively communicate is what energizes us and creates a palpable sense of not being alone in the work. Furthermore, when circle members provide thought partnership, healthy pushback, and reflect back the big picture to a Steward when they feel the circle’s going off course, Stewards are bolstered in their role of caring for the circle and its work.

As of right now, every member of the team agrees that Stewardship is an important part of our WSDNP, and we are grateful that the role is available to us as part of our shared leadership toolkit. Collectively, we have a lot more clarity around Stewardship now than we did ten months ago, but we acknowledge that the meaning of Stewardship at GWI is still (and probably always will be) evolving. Through a combination of circle mandate and the personalities involved, each circle is finding the right balance of roles. While some of us are comfortable in the Steward role and others are not, we appreciate the trust invested in us by our co-workers, and the opportunities to grow in providing leadership in ways that challenge the status quo.


We launched this series of articles and reflections in September 2019 to share our journey of moving from a traditional hierarchical nonprofit to a worker self-directed nonprofit. We hope by opening up this transition it might help others take the first steps towards sharing power in their workplaces.

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