some thoughts on leadership in co-ops

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Who’s afraid of leadership?

I was once at a housing co-op event, held to promote the co-op and recruit new members. All the members – 8 or 9 of us – turned up at the community centre to arrange the room and get ready for our audience. There were chairs stacked against the wall, and we all started lugging them to the centre of the room – but it was soon apparent – not just to us, but to the early arrivals who began to sit down, that we had no idea how to arrange the seating, no idea how many people would turn up, no previous agreement whether we would make rows of chairs or a big circle – it was chaos. So much so that some of us began to laugh to try to make a joke of it, while others got more and more frustrated and anxious. We finally got it sorted, but it was obvious we’d made a pretty negative impression on our audience who – no matter how impressive and persuasive our subsequent presentation – had had a clear demonstration of our inability to work as a team and our lack of leadership skills.

I have often remembered that moment and wondered why it happened like that. We were not totally lacking in team skills – in fact one of the impressive things about this group was the way in which they were able to pull together to organise things – but I think there was a fear of showing leadership. An idea that perhaps in a co-operative, showing leadership is wrong. I believe this is due to a misunderstanding about the nature of leadership, and an assumption that a ‘command and control’ style of leadership is the only way.

Leadership theories

Nothing can be further from the truth. It’s interesting to review the many theories of leadership but for our purposes here, let’s look at commonly-held assumptions about what leadership means and what leaders do. In ‘traditional’ hierarchically structured organisations, power is located at the top, and leaders lead from the front. Leaders have authority, take control and attract followers. Line managers tell people what to do, who then have others that they manage in turn. In such a structure it’s hard for individuals to be innovative and creative. Someone at the top who doesn’t understand the day to day realities of work at the ‘coal face’ takes decisions which workers may not agree with but must comply with if they want to keep their jobs. Of course employees can and should join a trade union which will support them and lobby and campaign to change things, but in some circumstances, confrontational approaches can be counter-productive.

So perhaps we need to get rid of the structure and the leaders and all decide everything together? Apart from the impracticability of such a step (you’d never get any work done) Jo Freeman, in ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ explains how misguided it is to assume that without a structure, there will be no leaders. Leaders will always emerge, attracting followers by dint of their charisma, power, or resources, but without a structure or a system of accountability, you’ll have no way of getting rid of them.

Leadership in worker co-operatives

So we need a structure. And of course co-operatives have such a structure, where people can be elected to a Management Committee, or Board of Directors, but will have a specific term of office, and will only be re-elected if members feel they are doing a good job. However, like every democracy, it only works if people have information accessible to them about how the co-op is doing and how successful it is in achieving business, social and environmental goals. The MC then is accountable to the members, but they will also need Terms of Reference so they understand their roles and their delegated powers.

Run the group delicately, as if you were cooking small fish”

So how do you show leadership in a worker co-operative?

In contrast to a typical hierarchy, leadership in a worker co-operative is collective. It’s not just the MC who need to be leaders – anyone can show leadership at any time. But what does this mean and how can it work?

The Tao of Leadership, by John Heider provides simple and clear advice on how to be an effective leader: be unbiased, trust the process, pay attention, and inspire others to become their own leaders. For example:

lead in a nourishing manner
  • give away control
  • look for opportunities to give others control
  • try to ensure that decisions are taken by the people most likely to be affected (subsidiarity)
lead without being possessive
  • lead by example rather than by telling people what to do
  • avoid egocentricity
  • be’ rather than ‘do
  • be aware of what is happening in the group and act accordingly

“specific actions are less important than the leader’s clarity or consciousness. This is why there are no exercises or formulas to ensure successful leadership”

be helpful without taking the credit
  • be modest, allow others to take the credit.
lead without coercion
  • promote collaboration
  • provide tools for collective working
  • clarify roles, authority and accountability
  • delegate
  • create an environment for thinking

“Run the group delicately, as if you were cooking small fish. Too much force will backfire; the leader who tries to control he group through force does not understand group process. The wise leader stays centred and grounded and uses the least force to act effectively”

The result will be thinking, passionately proactive and creative people who communicate effectively, who understand how to work as a team, how to respond positively to conflict and how to help new members feel at home and hit the ground running.

So in our housing co-op example, should we have been dreaming about the best seating layout for our meeting? Well perhaps not, of course there are circumstances where simply delegating a few tasks will avoid such a muddle. If someone had shown leadership by asking everyone what would be the best layout, then suggesting we divide up the tasks between us: someone to stick up notices so people know where to come, a couple of people organising chairs, a couple of people making tea, someone putting the recruitment leaflet on every chair – etc. Simple stuff, but someone does need to take that initial lead.

Here’s some useful reading on leadership in collectives by Alanna Krause

About Co-operantics

hoot if you're a cooperatorCo-operative skills aren’t just for co-operatives! We believe that these skills – developed in co-operatives of all kinds – can be useful for any groups of people wishing to work together to solve problems or achieve social goals. Of course we consider the co-operative to be the best model for any kind of enterprise, with social aims at its heart and democratic ownership and control its body – but our aim is to promote co-operative ways of working throughout all sectors of the economy.

Co-operantics Mission

To improve co-operative skills* in co-operatives. To promote and develop cooperative skills throughout all sectors of the economy and sections of society.

*Co-operative skills include communication, running effective meetings, decision-making, coping with conflict, negotiation and team working.

Co-operantics can save you money!

Through learning and practising co-operative skills, workers will be able to reduce workplace tensions and solve conflict, thus saving personnel time and avoiding the need for costly employment tribunals. They will learn how to:

  • give and receive criticism assertively
  • cope with the inevitable conflicts that arise and avoid unnecessary conflict
  • use techniques of principled negotiation
  • make it easy for new members to participate

Other benefits include meetings that are more decisive and more amicable, leading to decisions people will commit to and won’t subvert

How we work:

Workshops

Our half-day workshops are highly participative and interactive. It’s accelerated learning with materials available for download in advance. Topics include communication, meetings and decisions, conflict management, techniques of principled negotiation and team working.

Consultancy support

We are experience co-operative support practitioners and can provide a range of co-operative business support services, some of which can be viewed here.

Coaching

We offer coaching for individuals and small groups to explore issues around communications, assertiveness, confrontation and negotiation. Coaching can also be used to support project planning, setting goals, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Coaching can be face to face or via phone calls and email.

Facilitation

We are often asked to facilitate meetings in co-operatives where there has been a breakdown of communications of some kind, and the co-operative needs someone who will be neutral but who also understands the dynamics of co-operative working. We also facilitate members’ days, team-building events and participative planning events.

Downloads

Throughout this website there are free downloads – tools, tips and techniques for improving co-operative working. These will be of special interest to anyone attending a workshop, since they will be able to download and read them beforehand.

Co-operantics Code of Conduct

Co-operantics is itself a co-operative, so in order to fulfil our mission we will abide by international co-operative principles and values.

We will maintain professional co-operative business advice standards, once they are developed and implemented, indeed we will play our part in developing and agreeing those standards. We will regularly review and update our knowledge, skills and experience, attending CPD events, sharing best practice and encouraging peer learning amongst cooperatives and co-operative business advisers.

We will always respect our clients and act in their best interests, seeking to build capacity rather than developing dependency, whilst recognising that it may be in our clients’ interests to utilise our skills rather than acquire those skills themselves.

We will always respect client confidentiality.

Co-operantics members will declare any conflicts of interest where they exist. If a Co-operantics member has ethical concerns with a particular cooperative or sector of the economy, the work will be passed to another member, unless it is in conflict with Co-operative Principles, in which case the work will be declined.

We will at all times abide by Co-operantics Equal Opportunities & Diversity Policy, assessing achievement of goals and targets in an annual review.

We will at all times abide by Co-operantics Environmental policy, assessing achievement of goals and targets in an annual review.

We have a compliments and complaints policy to ensure we gather feedback on our services.

About us

Kate WhittleKate Whittle has been working in the social economy for over 20 years, both in the UK and in the Dominican Republic, where she worked as a volunteer with a federation of co-operatives in the Cibao.

Kate at cooperativa Amor y Paz large

She has worked with co-operatives of all kinds, social enterprises, voluntary organisations and co-operative development agencies. From 1999 to 2004 she was an Associate at the Co-operative College. From 2003 to 2005 she served on the Board of the Phone Co-op. In 2003, together with Bob Cannell and David Dean, Kate founded  Co-operative Business Consultants aiming to promote participative and co-operative management. Together with Nathan Brown and Alex Lawrie of Somerset Co-operative Services, she developed and taught the Understanding Co-operative Enterprise Unit of the ILM accredited VRQ Level 5 training programme for UK co-operative business advisers. Kate also acts as the Internal Verifier for Jim Brown’s ILM accredited VRQ Level 5 Certificate and Diploma in Social Enterprise Support. Kate was commissioned by Co-operatives UK to develop and run Co-operative Skills Seminars for UK worker co-ops. Kate designed and taught the Strategic Planning and Managing Change seminar. The training was very well received by some of the UK’s largest worker co-ops: Suma, Infinity, Delta-T, Essential Trading and Unicorn Co-operative Grocery.

Kate is the Secretary of GO-OP Co-operative, aiming to be the first co-operatively owned open access train operator in the UK, and a member of The Phone Co-op, Sims Hill CSA, Bristol Credit Union and the Bristol Pound.

Kate says:

“Over the years I have collected masses of useful information, tools and techniques for co-operative working, the sources of which are now lost in the mists of time. Some of the material has been adapted from ‘Organisational Issues in Democratically Managed Businesses’, a collection of training materials published by ICOM in 1992. (ICOM was the UK federation of worker co-operatives which merged with the Co-operative Union to form Co-operatives UK in 2000). This small collection of tips, tools and techniques for co-operative working is just a start. We will add more materials over time, and we hope that colleagues and clients will contribute to the development of this site.  If you have other materials you think should be available here, please let us know, we’ll be happy to acknowledge the source, or send us a link to your website.”

Nathan Brown has been working in the co-operative development sector for over 15 years. His hands on experience as a co-op member includes management roles in a Housing Co-operative, Credit Union, Worker Co-operative, Consortium Co-operative and Multi-Stakeholder Co-operative in addition to participating in various informal music, housing and food collectives since he was a teenager.   Nathan is a Director of Olmec Co-operative CIC, South East Co-operative Support Limited, and is also Secretary of a Society for the Benefit of the Community.  He is still a member of the Phone Co-op, the Co-operative and 2 unincorporated food co-ops and served for 12 years as a voluntary Committee member and Research Officer for a national campaign organisation.  He holds a Certificate in Training Practice (IPD) and Certificate in Social Enterprise Support (ILM)

Nathan says:

“I believe that co-operation is a natural choice for anyone with a bone of social justice or humanity in their body.  As children, on our estate we even formed a sweet buying group with its own street stall (less Rochdale Pioneers and more Bash Street Kids) but that’s another story!  The simple, effective, technology of co-operatives can be easily de-railed by competitive behaviours that are nurtured by society – focusing on what makes us different rather than what we hold in common. Co-operantics aims to help people get back on the rails and make their co-op a success.”