Our unique leadership model

by Jini Stolk

Half way through a NPQ webinar on Nonprofit Leadership Transitions and Organizational Sustainability (which will be very helpful in planning our November 27th Creative Champions workshop on Succession Planning) it hit me. The performing arts has for years been using a shared or co-leadership model that the wider non-profit community has recently begun to explore as a progressive alternative to top down hierarchical leadership.

The performing arts is one of the only (perhaps the only? I can’t think of another) sector that commonly appoints two people with distinct and separate skills and day to day responsibilities to lead their organizations. Our Managing and Artistic Directors each report to the board and are jointly responsible for the overall success of the organization.

How do they do that? With very little help from either the board (which rarely tries to define how the relationship works when they hire) or any established researchable best practices. It’s essentially left to us to build an understanding that’s productive and mutually satisfying (and that the board is happy with.) I wish our community were more inclined to analyze and write about how we co-lead – and also collaborate, create, etc. – because there are a large number of people in the non-profit, for profit and academic worlds who would be hugely interested.

Wendy Reid who had a storied career in arts management including at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens is now on the faculty of HEC Montreal’s Department of Management, where she studies and writes on dual leadership in the arts. This piece contrasts traditional concepts of leadership with the complex challenges of a shared leadership structure.

Of course success in shared leadership is all about the relationship, and rests on goodwill and open discussion. I wonder if this Definition of the Separate and Mutual Roles and Responsibilities of Board and Staff from Creative Trust  could also be useful to GMs and ADs who are talking through how to define their roles and responsibilities.

Certainly the Artistic Director has to be an active partner in leading the board and in succession planning. It rarely turns out well when the AD leaves board matters entirely to the GM.

Ruby Johnson and Devi Leiper O’Malley, two clearly brilliant young women living in different countries and co-leading the international non-profit FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, have written the most helpful piece I’ve seen on the topic.  Their five good ideas (understanding your unique contributions, accepting your limitations, and building a collective leadership style; getting clear on what decisions you share and which you do not; looking after each other – prioritizing your collective well-being; the importance of flexibility, boldness and documentation; and being comfortable with asking for help, because collective knowledge, power, and celebration are everything!) are as good as it gets.

More on this topic

The webinar materials from Nonprofit Quarterly are well worth reading.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote about the importance of collaborative relationships in developing business partnerships in Harvard Business Review: Collaborative Advantage: The Art of Alliances 


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