Sharing Leadership

Brenda Peddigrew, RSM .....written for Wheaton Franciscan Newsletter, July 2006


          Since the Province Gathering in April, I have been pondering both the lively spirit and expressed concerns of that event. I continue to be moved by the willingness of the members and covenant members present to open to new possibilities and different ways of doing things together. A high degree of awareness of what it means to act in new ways, and to move towards a new story, was expressed by someone in a small group at the end of the meeting, when she said "I am feeling uncomfortable, because we're not coming to conclusions, AND I realize that that this is the discomfort necessary to getting to a new place."

          One of the interests echoing throughout the reports of our time together is the desire for "shared leadership." That this was spoken so frequently might seem to indicate a common understanding of the term, but it would be confusing and dangerous to assume that such is the case. Indeed, another of the small groups spoke of the need to explore what is meant by certain terms, "shared leadership" being one of them. Though we don't want to define - that would indeed be going back to an old way - we can no longer take it for granted that in religious life we share a common understanding of terms we have been using for many years. "Shared Leadership," as a relatively new term among us, and one that carries a charge for many, invites our exploration, both individually and together.

Some New Ways of Leading

           Leadership is a continuing topic in organizational literature. It is no longer taken for granted, for example, that leadership is an innate gift that occurs magically in some and not in others. Below is a beginning reflection on a few of the trends in current explorations of leadership.

 1. From one leader to collective leading

           Not only in religious life, but in the world in general, "leadership" is a term whose meaning has been changing for several decades. From a time not too far back in years, when one person was sought, honored and followed, often blindly, as the best leader, huge transformative shifts are moving us towards ways of leading using a collective or collegial approach. Individual and diverse gifts are sought for the rich interplay that allows for more depth and appropriate complexity than leading by one alone. The adverse effects of overvaluing one leader above all others, even for a defined period of time, have been illustrated many times over, not only in blatant abuse of authority, but in a poverty of power that characterizes even well-meaning and benign dictators. In our time, often through more sensitive approaches evolving from women's unique contributions to leading styles, we begin to see that sharing leadership equally in a collective way offers richer possibilities for service of the world and for the common good. In the simplest of ways, "a leader is anyone who is willing to help," (Wheatley, 2005, 24). Notice here that this leader is not necessarily chosen, but chooses to offer her gifts where they are needed.

          Part of the downfall of single-person leadership in any field is that it creates an atmosphere of paucity of gifts. When one person's light shines overwhelmingly, other lights, other, needed gifts are permanently lost to a group.  Personal over-investment in apparent "leaders" subtly negates the gifts of the many. In religious life, when the same people do the same job for every event, when the same people are elected leaders again and again, when the same person is chosen for a job or takes it on because she's always done it, we lose the multi-creativity in any group. This ongoing situation has deprived us of unknown riches. It also places unrealistic expectations on the ones designated as leaders, who have, after all, the peculiar mixture of vision and blindness that is the human condition, and who carry the same loneliness, the same fatigue, and the same tendency towards mistakes as everyone else. In past religious life, we have expected too much of those we call leaders, wanting them to be more than we are, and blaming/criticizing them when they're not. We are indeed, all of us, often hard and demanding with one another. It's no wonder that so many foundresses emphasized loving one another again and again; would they have needed to if it really existed?

          Group leading differs greatly from the old way of one-in-charge. More time is given, based on the knowledge that what is needed in a particular situation emerges best through the layers of presence that only emerge in contemplative attention of the heart. Then there is the dialogue, the weighing, the discernment: decision often becomes clear only after time and listening are given to what arises. Sometimes the very space opened by a diverse group of people who are leading together emphasizes the presence of Mystery, and the necessity of waiting on it, in ways that one leader, sure of her authority, might not.

          So it would appear that the capacity for listening, waiting, genuinely believing that others' insights - especially if they are different from mine and at least as valuable - could lead to something that none of us is seeing now - these would begin a conversation on shared leadership.

2. From repeating the past to choosing new stories

           The idea of "shared leadership" - as we saw in the Province gathering - holds energy of attraction and excitement for many people. What is the source of that energy? Could it come from thinking that you don't share leadership now? Could it come from a desire, hidden even from yourself, to want to exercise authority as you perceive leaders to do? And what is that authority you associate with leaders and how do you exercise it already  in your own life?

          These and other questions at the end of this paper would be worth engaging among yourselves - and especially with someone who might think differently from you - before we meet again in October.

          When leadership has been experienced as oppressive in any way, no matter how long ago - and many have had some of that in our history - there can be an excitement about the possibility of relating to leaders in ways that might heal and empower the parts of us that have been wounded by those to whom we gave authority over our lives in some way.  But even that excitement betrays a hidden expectation that, once again, we are leaving it to leaders to somehow restore and make things whole again. As happened in the past, this expectation is a setup for letdown and even betrayal, not necessarily because of what a leader might do, but because our expectation is one that can never be met in the way we hope and expect.

          "Choosing a new story" might mean reclaiming my own inner authority and relating to others, including designated leaders, from a place of personal authority first, and I collaborate with others' authority as well. I am, after all, the author of my own life, and it is this life I contribute to leading the group.This is no either/or, better/best, right/wrong conviction, but one firmly planted in the belief that each person involved in any situation holds part of the truth and that a willingness to engage a process that uncovers the collective truth, no matter what that takes, is a sharing of leadership.

          he fact is that each of us leads now, in some part of our own lives, and coming to terms with the reality of our own leader-authority is firm ground for our exploration of sharing leadership within the Province. 

3. from power-over to authoring life (Murphy, 2005)

           Each person is a leader who authors life in another, or in a group, or in the larger world. When leaders are designated by a group for its service, the symphony of shared leadership contains the elements of compassion, facilitation and direction. Leaders are consciously clear about their values, and act on them; in doing so, they invite others into the direction they are seeing as life-giving for the whole. This approach requires self- knowing (especially your own inner traps, hooks and conditioned beliefs) and the willingness to move beyond your own limits. It also requires a compassionate facilitation that focuses on bringing forth life for each and all.

          Bringing forth life in others is as messy as any physical birth. There is the unfamiliarity, the inclination to hold onto the old, and the painful resistance to the new even while wanting it. In this case, what is most needed is the willingness  to stay in the messiness of the birthing process until the new emerges, until it becomes clear what it is we are giving birth to, which is far from instant.

          While many want a new story, and love the release of energy that might accompany the possibility, we also have to sober ourselves with the knowledge that, as soon as we actually embark on this task of transformation, "old ideas and habits arise."(Wheatley, 2005, 26). Every one of our organizations began with a new story filled with flexibility, excited possibility, and staunch determination against daunting opposition. Over time, all organizations become rigid, and creativity often lost. People become resentful, resistant and contentious - often because the original creative spirit which drew them together has been locked up. "Life seeks organization, but it uses messes to get there. Organization is a process, not a structure. Leaders fail to acknowledge these unstoppable forces of life when they try to direct and control the members of their organizations." (Wheatley, 2005, 27)

          So here we are with more questions than answers about shared leadership. What a great beginning! I encourage you to speak to one another about some of these ideas, and add your own. Make more questions. Above all, try to speak to people who might think differently from yourself. We depend on diversity to move us to the next stage of the Chapter process, and to an expanded understanding of "sharing leadership."

Freeing the Questions


          Many of the Province meeting participants told me how they loved the "flow writing", and how it gave them a chance to know what was going on inside themselves. This practice is something you might use as you consider the following questions, as well as freeing your own.

What do you already know about shared leadership?

What do you feel uneasy about?

Who might you talk with in order to understand it more?

How do you live your own authority and relate to others' authority?

What would be a symbol or image of shared leadership?

How might sharing leadership benefit the Province?

How do you see yourself in the sharing of leadership in the Province?



 Murphy, Carmelita, OP, lecture on behalf of LEAD, 2006

Wheatley, Margaret. (2005) Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time.

                                  San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler