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Notes from the Field : Autonomy in the Land of Shared Leadership

By Caitlin Dourmashkin

It’s not the shared leadership that is hard, it is the not-shared leadership. When we started, one of the first big ideas about this work was the non-hierarchical approach, i.e. distributed leadership where there wasn’t a single person responsible for “executive” decision making. That makes sense, right? We are becoming a WORKER Self-Directed Nonprofit. However, the second big idea that followed almost immediately after the first was the idea of autonomy. Shared leadership is big, but autonomy is an equal partner in this work. We believe that with our new system of leadership we will all have more freedom to work autonomously.

Circles are our baseline form of organization at GWI. All work is done in circles, and all circles have more than one person. Autonomy doesn’t mean one person making decisions independent of the rest of the team; we are not silos. Instead, as circles, we are free to make the choices we collectively feel are right for our work. No one gets to drop in and tell us we have to do it one way or ELSE!

Sounds great, but there is a catch. When we are the ones doing the work, we are given the radical trust of the organization to make decisions. When we are not the ones doing the work, when we are not a part of the circle, we step back and give that trust to those who are. Our default is to respect the wisdom of our fellow workers, and this is the real practice of being a WSDNP. Like the hard kind of practice, not the get-it-right-on-the-first-try kind of practice. 

We all have ideas and opinions and we love to share them, and this is still welcome in our new system. No work is off limits and we can always talk to our fellow workers. However, when we are not in the circle we can really only share an idea and then walk away confident that the circle will decide how best to use our advice, solicited or not. When it comes to big picture questions around mission alignment or budget, us Worker Trustees (which is all of us, for now!) do get to weigh in. When it is a decision about program design, facilitation partners, outreach strategies, or accounting procedures, if you’re not in the circle, it is not up to you! 

This is hard, and we make mistakes all the time. It will never be perfect, because each circle is a different combination of the same six people, and we cannot silo who we are. That is ok, and as with everything, we do our best to hold the practice. But for every decision we share, we need to recognize the ones we don’t. 

When we tell people we are a Worker Self-Directed Nonprofit, the first response is often a question about efficiency. “How can you get anything done if there is no one person tasked with making the final decision? Does everyone get to weigh in on everything?!?!?” And our response is always some form of this: this work is a constant practice of knowing when to make a decision and when to step back, when to offer a suggestion and when to let go of your idea, when to check back in and when to move forward. It takes work to hold it all, but when we get it right, we move faster and farther, and we do it all with a sense of integrity that feels almost revolutionary. 

Articles and personal reflections from the GWI team as they navigate their lives and their shared work.

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