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On Power and Collaborative Leadership

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TLDR (by ChatGPT):

The author reflects on their experience co-hosting a microsolidarity summer camp and the challenges they faced in shared leadership. They encountered a fearful and power-seeking aspect of themselves when the group dynamics shifted, leading to feelings of discomfort and uncertainty about their role in the community. The article emphasizes the importance of letting go of familiar roles, facing uncertainty with self-responsibility, and embracing the opportunity for personal growth and new, meaningful roles within the evolving community.

Long form:

While co-hosting the microsolidarity summer camp this past week, I had a profound and humbling experience: I came up against a fearful and power seeking part of me, that I hadn’t met before. Scary as it was it turned out to be one of the most meaningful things to happen to me in a long time. Here is the story:

Jocelyn and I had been working together to set up a minimum viable structure for the camp, meaning the least amount of structure needed to enable everyone to exercise their agency and co-shape the experience according to their needs, values, skills and gifts. Practically this means we held an opening circle introducing some principles (make it your own, partnership + mutual support, be curious about others, if you feel good: take a risk and try something new) and introduced Open Space Technology as the primary means of organizing our shared time at the camp. Throughout the whole week we facilitated a morning circle at 11:30 each day, consisting of a check-in, space for any logistical announcements from the team and participants, and populating the open space board with offerings for the day. Holding this role of facilitator made me feel good: I knew what my role was, how I could contribute to the larger whole and I was respected for it. This role contributed to a sense of belonging and safety that enabled me to walk up to people that I was curious about and just strike up a conversation, but I also felt a sense of responsibility for the well-being of our temporary community.

We knew that by Friday our number would grow by roughly 50% from 38 to 56 people. To take the load off the hosting team and to share the opportunity for practicing hosting with other participants, Rich and Jocelyn briefed a group of willing folks on how to welcome people – microsolidarity style. This deserves a whole article in itself, which might or might not follow soon. Anyhow, they did a great job at briefing and our friends did a great job at welcoming. So good that on Friday I didn’t even notice how many people had trickled in throughout the day. When the first batch of participants had arrived on Tuesday I was busy for most of the day showing people around, getting them settled in and orienting them in what would happen next. On Friday on the other hand I spent most of my time napping, chatting with people or hosting an Open Space session. In itself this is a huge success: we set out to decentralize our power and responsibility and it worked!

However as the day went on and in the evening everyone had gotten there, I noticed that I somehow felt really off balance. It took me a while to figure out what was up. I first noticed being annoyed at the new people for being there. Then I noticed feeling frustrated about our minimal plan for the opening circle, because part of me wanted to take more space and feel more important. I noticed all these things and didn’t quite trust myself to follow these impulses, so I held back and followed the lead of my co-facilitator, who that day was on top of her game and I knew her intuitions would be spot on (which also annoyed part of me, because I wanted to be the one to bring those brilliant ideas…). After holding a powerful and snappy welcome circle for the newcomers we sat down with the hosting team for a check-in. When my turn came I finally was able to put in to words what had been bugging me for hours: Part of me was afraid of losing my standing in the community. Up until now I knew my role, I was needed and felt good about my contribution. Now that the group had managed to integrate a whole new batch of participants on it’s own, part of me feared not having a place anymore: Will I still belong if I’m not holding this role? Will people still respect me?

Holding on to power out of a fear of not belonging is a really great way to fuck up a budding self-organizing social project. Had I not stepped aside to let others run the show, the experience would have been really icky for everyone. I came up against a growth edge there: can I hold the parts of myself that have a wound around belonging with compassion? Can I get their needs met, maybe by asking a friend to share some appreciation with me or by confirming with my co-host that we’re a great team? That day I couldn’t, I was a bit sulky and not very present. After a long walk with Rich who is a bit of a mentor to me in this space, I saw what was to be gained though: When I’m not busy holding or planning circles, because the group can do it on their own, I can become part of the group again, I can dive in more fully without having to hold the frame up. I’m free to focus on longer term vision with those that are also interested, or go deep with the people I’m curious about. I could offer more focused support to those that are stepping up to co-hold the structure together, or listen carefully to those who are not happy with how we are running the show. In short: once my capacity is freed up, because the group is holding itself largely, I am free to find a new, interesting and important role.

This is where self-responsibility and the capacity to face uncertainty with equanimity comes in. When I was setting up the structure for the week with Jocelyn and holding that structure in the first couple of days my job was fairly simple. I knew what to do and how to do it and there wasn’t much brain capacity left to think outside of that. This made me feel secure. Now being faced with a choice, having come to a point where my old role had dissolved, I couldn’t know for sure what would be a good next step, because I hadn’t been at that point before. A situation like this puts human brains in to high alert: new situation = potentially a lot of new threats. Being anxious, hyperalert and seeing danger around every corner in new environments is how we survived the past millennia. So the impulse of my anxious brain was to go back to the safety of my old role and hold on to the power it came with, when actually what I needed to do, was to look the uncertainty in the eye, stay with the discomfort of not knowing, and just start experimenting again.

Sometimes it can be frustrating to reach a new stage of development and feel like having to start all over again. When we accept the gift and surrender to not knowing, we gain access to our inner voice of wisdom, that got us there in the first place. This is all we need to master the next challenges really: just listen and surrender, listen and surrender. If you want to be in collaborative leadership, you have to be willing to let go of the roles you are comfortable with and adapt to what the context asks of you. Being of service to a greater whole can mean different things at different moments in time.