What’s Next in Our Exploration of Distributed Leadership?

By Michael Courville, Natalie Blackmur, and Michael Arnold

This past year, we released a series of case studies on how different organizations are distributing leadership—that is, how they bring more of their staff into decision-making processes. Along with our partners at the Hewlett Foundation and Informing Change, we learned a ton about how these organizations share information, authority, and responsibility to make distributed leadership work. But learning about these practices, turns out, raised more questions than answered them. In several of the cases, organizations tapped distributed leadership practices in the process of creating conditions for more equitable and inclusive workplaces. Others were beginning to realize, despite their decades of highly democratized decision-making, that they needed to extend their efforts to reach new audiences and connect with their local community.

This made us wonder: Is there a relationship between organizations’ efforts to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, and the practices and cultural orientation required of distributed leadership? Can the mechanisms for distributing leadership pave the way for more inclusive organizations? Or do organizations need to have a foundation of inclusion and disrupting historical power structures in order to effectively distribute leadership? And a current running through all of our questions is the role philanthropy plays in shaping and influencing the contours of equity and inclusion within the nonprofit sector.

Questions like these have us opening up all kinds of doors. By looking at distributed leadership practices a little more closely, we might get a fresh angle on how organizations grapple with questions of who holds, gives up, and gains power. Ultimately, we seek to shed more light on how tackling these questions can render meaningful change in our nonprofit workplaces, where everyone can belong and contribute.

Posted on August 8, 2019 .

Finding Middle Ground: The Quiet Diligence of Truly Disruptive Leaders

“As I began to look at these organizational leaders up close...I came to understand the value of being in the middle.”

I have been studying organizations and leaders that express a commitment to leading in a more shared and distributed manner. As I began to look at these organizations up close, and really started to sort out my data, I came to understand the value of being in the middle. This is not just in the context of organizational position, the age or rank of a leader. I am not talking about mid-level managers, who are good at supervision and managing up to bring the CEO along. That has been going on for decades. What I am observing among new leaders is an orientation toward leadership from a middle ground. Many of these leaders serve in executive roles, either through shared dyads of co-directorship, or as ballasts to deeply distributed teams. These leaders are figuring out in real time how to adapt to workplaces in transition, accommodate rapid demographic change in our communities, and truly innovative nonprofit practice. These leaders offer instructive guidance on the steady but slow process of leadership as the practice of shared doing. Over the next year, I want to spotlight the quiet but diligent work of this new generation of leaders, many identifying as part of the “sandwich generation”, those born between 1965-1980. I will begin to share additional study findings through future blog posts. I will also work with philanthropic partners to develop tools and document guiding insights that can be shared across the nonprofit sector on many levels. To kick things off, I want to offer a glimpse of what leading from the middle means based on preliminary findings.


Workplaces in transition


Leaders in the study recognize that workplaces have changed and continue to evolve. This means so much more to members of the sandwich generation and their millennial peers than it might for later-career leaders[i]. Having remained in entry- or mid-level positions for far longer than most baby-boomers[ii], mid-career leaders have quietly experienced first hand their own growing desire for more participation and a pronounced frustration with limited power sharing within many organizations. Study leaders also operate with great conviction that self-awareness is a hallmark of good leadership. Leading from the middle means practices that constrain reflection or narrow leadership participation fall to the wayside. Leaders in the study demonstrate sensitivity to sharing power and recognize the time it requires to ensure sharing happens within their own workplaces. Study leaders also demonstrate an orientation toward cultivating the leadership capacity of others along the way. There is a sense of trust and optimism among the leaders in the study that sharing leadership between and among staff and across generations is “just the way it is now.” And, this is incredibly timely given our contemporary political landscape and the diversity of our society.


Rapid demographic and cultural change in communities


Our nation has become increasingly diverse by race and ethnicity. The voices of LGBTQI individuals are heard with more tenor as members of these communities gain and continue to seek broader civil rights protections. Levels of higher education across the nation have also increased[iii]. At the same time, more people have direct access to seemingly endless sources of information. The tidal wave of social media and the multiplicity of information pipelines –streaming into people’s lives every minute of every day– alters what it means to be an informed leader. And, while these changes continue to play out in markedly different ways across different regions of the country, they have unfolded during the formative professional years of early- and mid-career leaders. It has been interesting to observe how such changes position many study leaders as the contemporary arbiters of a cultural transition, both at work and in their communities. The study findings also cast further light on how an affirmative shift in leadership values can leverage demographic and cultural changes to distribute power more equitable within organizations.


Values of inclusion, equity and diversity


An observable feature of leadership with a middle-orientation is a high threshold for change and a cautious awareness that “saying is not doing”. Leaders in our study have heard the language of inclusion, participation and equity toted by their predecessors far longer than they have seen those leaders put such concepts into effective practice. Leading from the middle is about doing just that, putting these concepts into practice and remaining open to learning along the way. Sensitivity to the exclusion of others in the past (and for many still in the present), helps cultivate a reflective pose among most of our leaders. Their leadership emphasizes action balanced by listening to others and assessing real-time efforts for inclusion. The listening is often cross-generational, incorporating an awareness of difference and sameness across generations. A respect for those who came before, and a genuine reverence for elders, is complemented by a practice of translating expectations between disparate generations.


From the middle outward


Leadership from the middle is emerging while nonprofit workplaces experience a rise in the number of early- and mid-career employees. Yet, a delayed ascension of new leaders to formal positions, along with their concomitant generational ideals, makes the amplification of those now leading from the middle much more urgent. It has been argued by some that there is a coming leadership development deficit in the nonprofit sector[iv], what I will refer to as the deficit hypothesis. The deficit hypothesis goes something like this: late-career leaders will retire in droves, there will be numerous executive-level vacancies, but not enough qualified new leaders ready to fill vacancies and pursue established leadership pathways within the sector. Preliminary study findings point to another explanation and cast doubt on the deficit hypothesis. It is not a deficit facing the nonprofit sector, but a period of deep change, in which the nonprofit sector has not caught up with the innovative potential of new leaders. There are plenty of leaders in the sector to secede retirees. However, new leaders in our study want to evolve old models not just reproduce them through direct secession. They reject faulty assumptions about power and they are willing to share leadership in different ways.


Interestingly enough, as I would introduce and explain the purpose of this study to organizational leaders, they would almost always follow up with a reflective comment about why this hasn't been studied before. My initial response was to point out some past efforts to document and explore these topics. I realized what they were seeking was professional and codified resources to build upon and learn from, not a description of the past and the problems of the present. Study leaders frequently asked about guidance and tools that could have helped them earlier in their own leadership or help others making the path forward now. After several years of studying these leaders, I am not surprised that leaders in the middle would place so much value on sharing their ideas and practices with others, especially generations to come.  And, it is the goal of this continued study to do just that.



[i] Group references to early-, mid-, and late/r-career leaders are used to describe individuals based on their cumulative years of career service. Generational groupings are used to describe individuals who share a similar birth cohort (millennial, generation X and baby-boomers). While these groupings often overlap chronologically for many individuals, this is not always the case in every instance.

[ii] For a good discussion see Working Across Generations (2009) by Frances Kunreuther, Helen Kim and Robby Rodriguez and the 2015 blog post, How Baby Boomers Who Don’t Retire Are Affecting Education and the Economy, by John T. Delaney.

[iii] According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 36% of adults in the US had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2016 as compared to 29% in 2000.

[iv] See The Nonprofit Leadership Development Deficit (2015) for a good summary of the assumptions and data informing this hypothesis.

[ii] For a good discussion see Working Across Generations (2009) by Frances Kunreuther, Helen Kim and Robby Rodriguez and the 2015 blog post, How Baby Boomers Who Don’t Retire Are Affecting Education and the Economy, by John T. Delaney.

[iii] According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 36% of adults in the US had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2016 as compared to 29% in 2000.

[iv] See The Nonprofit Leadership Development Deficit (2015) for a good summary of the assumptions and data informing this hypothesis.

Posted on October 17, 2017 .