(Re-Examining) Co-Leadership As An Organizational Model

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Given the concerning lack of transition planning for leadership, there is increasing discussion about how general non-profits should adopt a shared leadership model, in some cases citing the example of the performing arts.

In the meantime, many performing arts organizations have been moving in the opposite direction consolidating artistic and business management roles into a single person in order to save money.

The performing arts model, as well as some of those suggested in the other articles I have linked to, tend to have the roles separated along right brain/left brain responsibilities with the artistic almost inevitably placed subservient to the business operations. Even if the degree of authority sharing is only slightly less for the artistic side, the final decision and veto power generally resides with the business role.

Earlier this year, Non-Profit Quarterly profiled Ruby Johnson and Devi Leiper O’Malley who are co-directors of FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund. Their model may not be completely parallel to that of most arts and cultural organizations given they are geographically separate from each other and those that work with them, but many of their reflections argue for a dynamic where both leaders are passionately invested in programs and responsible for management decisions.

Devi’s core area is resource mobilization and communications, while mine is in programs—FRIDA’s grantmaking and capacity development. We share the advocacy work and all the management pieces such as finances and human resources, splitting things here and there.

There is benefit in having shared knowledge and authority both in terms of maintaining consistency of leadership during a transition when one leader leaves, but also in allowing one to truly go on vacation and avoiding burnout.

Devi and I have naturally developed a system of shifting intensity, where one person has some downtime while the other goes at full speed. This has helped us cope with the stress and amount of responsibility as well as the realities of family and life. Sometimes, we are both on fire—but yes, generally, we have tried to give each other moments of much needed rest and respite throughout the team when one person is the “go-to.”

A co-leadership model really offers built-in peer mentoring. We each have, and serve as, a safety net, someone to stop you from going over the edge, to hold you accountable, and keep you sane.

They also mention times when one urged the other into a course action they were reticent to take that was very productive for the organization, framing it in terms of complementary personalities. This might have been less likely to happen had one been subordinate to the other.

Obviously, a constructive co-leadership dynamic can be difficult to achieve, but the potential problems are no greater than those that already exist in the workplace in terms of personality conflicts and degrees of trust. Perhaps the bigger challenge would be to prevent the leaders from distinguishing their roles in a way that reverted to, or reinforced traditional practice. (Thus the “Re-Examining” in the post title.) The board and/or the leaders would need to possess the strength of will to prevent that.

A co-leadership arrangement of this type in an arts organization may mitigate the negative implications that the business minded director is there to inject reality into the plans of the artistic minded one. Likewise, it wouldn’t allow the artistic minded director to abdicate responsibility for making reasonable decisions and letting the business minded one worry about how to pay for it.

It may be cheaper and easier to invest both responsibilities within a single person, but the question is if that is the best decision for the continuing health of the individual and the organization?

About Joe Patti

In addition to writing for ArtHacker, I have been writing the blog, Butts in the Seats (buttsseats.com) since 2004.
I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)
I am currently the Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts at Shawnee State University. Across my career I have worked at University of Hawaii-Leeward Community College, University of Central Florida, Asolo Theater, Utah Shakespearean Festival, Appel Farm Arts and Music Center and numerous other places both defunct and funky.

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1 thought on “(Re-Examining) Co-Leadership As An Organizational Model”

  1. These are very interesting points indeed. I recently helped set up a music not-for-profit in which the Artistic Director is the primary driver with the support of the Executive Director, although both report to the Board. However, should the organization not find a suitable Executive, the Artistic may take on both roles as a General Director but… for a limited time (up to five years, which should be enough time to stabilize the org and find a new Exec) and the General Director’s salary can be no less than 80% of the combined Artistic and Executive compensations. This bylaw was included to help make it difficult to just save money by eliminating an individual position. Not quite the co-leadership Devi and Ruby enjoy, but a slight improvement to normal practices we hope.

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