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Leadership as Hospitality
Another distinctive aspect of microsolidarity is how we think about power, leadership & authority.
Microsolidarity communities are designed to distribute authority and maximise autonomy, but it could be misleading to call them "non-hierarchical". Non-hierarchy implies that nobody has more status or importance than anyone else. In my work with non-hierarchical groups all over the world, I’ve never met one that achieved true equality. Even when we remove the formal ranking system of a management hierarchy, some people have more status & influence than others.
So while there’s no formal hierarchy in a microsolidarity community, some people inevitably have more influence than others. For example, if you spend weeks preparing and organising a community gathering, you’ll have more influence on the event than a participant that just showed up briefly. There are inevitably concentrations of power, but they can be temporary & dynamic, flowing through a living system of relationships. We strive to work with these power imbalances with a high degree of awareness and care, sensitive to how concentrations of power increase the likelihood of domination. While we’re used to seeing people use their power to disempower others, power can also be used for liberation.
Whenever we see hierarchical structures, we expect to see domination, but to me it’s very important to decouple "hierarchy" from “domination”. There are hierarchical forms that are not domineering. Think for example of the relation between a tree trunk and its branches, or between an apprentice and mentor.
I’ve written elsewhere about the difference between hierarchy & domination, where I unpack these concepts in more detail and suggest 11 practical steps towards healthy power dynamics: Hierarchy Is Not The Problem... It’s The Power Dynamics.
For a lot of people "leadership" is a dirty word, because we’ve had so many negative experiences with inept & unaccountable leaders. The kind of leadership we practice in microsolidarity has more to do with hospitality than authority: think about host and guest, rather than boss and employee. A boss has coercive authority. They tell you what to do and you must obey or face negative consequences. In contrast: a host has no coercive authority. The host creates a context and invites you to participate, and you are truly at choice: there’s no punishment if you decline the invitation.
This approach to leadership is invitational, generous and flexible. The host’s job is to elevate the dignity, wellbeing and autonomy of their guests. Ideally, the host can tell the guests to "make yourself at home" – this is the point where the distinct roles dissolve and everyone becomes equally co-responsible.
In a microsolidarity community, anyone can make an invitation, e.g. to initiate a project, host an event, or discuss a governance proposal. Everyone is encouraged to take these acts of leadership. But we have to be honest: some people’s invitations are more likely to be accepted than others. So you could say in microsolidarity communities, leadership is the capacity to make a compelling invitation.
How do you develop this capacity? It’s partly about knowledge: knowing what’s happening in the community, knowing a lot of the people, having a sense of what the group needs or what it might respond favourably to. And it’s also about trust: people are more likely to accept your invitations if they trust your integrity, that you’ll do what you say, and that you have their best interests at heart.
Here’s some of the principles of leadership we’re aiming for:
- Temporary: nobody leads all of the time, everyone leads some of the time. We take turns and share roles with a peer or understudy.
- Liberatory: your maturity as a leader is measured by the degree to which you help others activate their own agency and come out of domination-submission habits.
- Legitimate: you can be an effective leader so long as people respect you. You will lose that capacity if you lose their respect.
- Accountable: people with more influence need more accountability. We take extra care of how power imbalances interfere with consent, e.g. when making commitments, divulging vulnerable information, or with issues like sex, money, drugs & spirituality.
- Always a teacher, always a learner. Know who your mentors are. Who do you learn from? Who gives you tough feedback? Who are the specific people you are accountable to?
- Effective: you’ve earned people’s trust because you have a track record of getting stuff done.
- Growing: you own your mistakes and take difficult feedback as an opportunity to learn. You’re willing to work to restore the trust in your partnerships after a conflict.
The next article describes a "developmental pathway" you could follow to develop the competence to take on significant leadership roles within a microsolidarity community. Read on...