Leaderless organisations…

I have been thinking about leadership again of late. This is in part because the group I belong to Aoradh has had to tackle some thorny issues without a ‘leader’ as such recently and we are not part of a wider network from which external advise/encouragement might be sought.

The way Aoradh has stumbled upon doing leadership is something like this;

  1. We started out very task centred – we were promoting a festival – for which an organising committee was more than enough. We asked one of our members to take leadership of this committee, as we were a disparate group and there was a need for clear communication with media/professional clergy/local authorities.
  2. There was a process of chaotic competition of ideas and principles concerning what we were about. Some people left, and the ones left were mostly in the process of considerable change- and this was reflected in what Aoradh was becoming. The group was small enough not to need ‘a leader’ and there was general resistance to formality and structure.
  3. Aoradh progressed from task focus towards an increasing community focus. More people joined, some left. There was a real sense of freedom to do things differently, which was highly valued in particular with people who had been part of hierarchical and even oppressive church structures. Because of this, despite a general feeling that leadership was an issue, we just decided to defer it.
  4. So we entered a period in which leadership was mitigated according to specific tasks or events. We met regularly to decide business collectively, and different people either took or were asked to take leadership for specific things. For example, Michaela is a natural organiser, so tends to circulate dates, and keep us on track. I am a dreamer, so always have my eyes on the next thing, the coming horizon. Andy is practical and technical and so will always want to roll his sleeves up etc etc. And for the most part, it works with very little conflict, and only a little confusion.
  5. There are of course different levels of comfort with this process however. It can be messy and frustrating, particularly for those more structurally-minded. The best we can say now is that leadership is still a work in progress.

Along the way I have found some ideas useful to inform our debate;


Jonny described a similar process as ours that Grace went through. They too decided to ‘defer’ the leadership question- and did so for years it seems. Eventually however, a structure did emerge in the form of a leadership group that rotated annually, and had the task of ensuring that the principles of the Grace were upheld and protected.

The common table

I read an article by Mark Stavlund, who is part of a community called ‘The common table‘, describing a kind of process that he called ‘negative space’. I wrote about this here. Mark describes a process of leadership in small groups that very much fits our current model.

There is an old idea about leaderlessness based around the idea of a starfish. If you cut off any limb of a starfish, it can operate independently. It has a separate nervous system. Translated to a small group of idividuals this might suggest that a group of people can connect together without formal leadership, and indeed, like the starfish, flourish without a head because all of its limbs are independent from the control of a central nervous system. Cut off a limb and it survives.


And it is quite a big however.

Back in 1970, American feminist activist Jo Freeman wrote a paper called The Tyranny of Structureless GroupsIt seems that each new generation of activism makes similar mistakes around leadership. A couple of quotes might illustrate the point;

…The term ‘structureless’ group is as useful and as deceptive, as to aim at an ‘objective’ news story, ‘value-free’ social science or a ‘free’ economy. A ‘laissez-faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez faire’ soc iety; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones…

…Thus ‘structurelessness’ becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement it is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). The rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is curtailed by those who know the rules, as long as the structure of the group is informal. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware…

A group without a leader can easily become a group in which leadership takes place in dishonest, even underhand ways. Just to say that decisions are taken in common does not mean that actually happens. It does not mean that everyone is encouraged to participate, or facilitated to use their own skills talents and abilities.

There is a difference then between not having a leader, and not having a structure through which leadership functions are mitigated.

For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be openand available to everyone, and this can only happen if they are formalised. This is not to say that normalisation of a group structure will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and makes available some means ofattacking it.

Which brings us back to leadership.

Small groups like ours should really be measured by the degree to which we hold, serve, love, encourage, facilitate. The kind of leadership that might achieve this will be of a very different nature to that of a factory or a political party (even if we might need to use some of theses skills too at times.) I think that the best fit for small missional groups is a kind of leadership that seeks to make creative nurturing space, and to keep it safe.

This will include making a space to make inclusive and safe decisions. Deciding how to do this well is an essential developmental step, and (if you are anything like us) will need to be constantly revisited.

It is possible to achieve this without a ‘leader’, but not without ‘leadership’.