Leadership without hierarchy – how to be a good leader

Language: Español

Most of us connect leadership with power, success, respect, responsibility – but also oppression or abuse of power. Our attitude towards leadership shaped over decades, with our parents, teachers, and supervisors in our lives. Some experiences might have been good – some not so good. And that’s why many people feel mixed about leadership.

Beyond personal experiences, our perception of leadership also heavily relies on the system around it. Systems without checks and balances will make it more likely that power will be abused. But the flip side is also true: in a system that supports healthy relationships and is based on trust and consent-based agreements, leadership is less likely to be abusive. It is also more likely to be liberating and empowering – if we make use of that system. Before we talk about our opportunities as leaders in sociocracy, let’s look at the unhealthy patterns first. 

Unhealthy leadership

sled dogs threatening the viewer
Photo by Ugur Arpaci on Unsplash

In my experience, in sociocratic groups, there are two different types of unhealthy leadership.

  • Bulldozers. This type exists everywhere. They pull their old-style power moves, just in a sociocratic context. For example, they make most proposals and encourage no one to make their own, despite rounds, they dominate all conversations and use their informal power to shoot things down. Of course, these behaviors are counterproductive to healthy and productive culture. It pushes sociocratic tools to the edge and fosters an atmosphere where people are too intimidated to object or give feedback. 
  • Non-leaders. Very typical of horizontal organizations! This kind of leader is confused about power and leadership. Having been burnt in abusive contexts and punished for sticking their head out, they readily cede their power to “the collective” or “group wisdom.” Instead of making proposals, they hesitate. Instead of holding people accountable to their agreements, they wait. Instead of talking about their vision and ideas, they ask vague questions about things one could do. (If one ever did anything.) This kind of leadership means missing out on many opportunities. Those circles aren’t leader-ful, they are leaderless.

The role of leadership in sociocracy

What’s in between those two extremes? The both-and of consent-based leadership is hard to grasp because we don’t have many role models. To illustrate how leadership works in this context, I’ll lay out both sides, the consent-based boundaries and the agency within leadership.

two sled dogs, one looking up, one looking down
Photo by Kristaps Ungurs on Unsplash

“Yes, you’re a leader… but”

As a leader in sociocracy, you have a lot of power because everyone has a lot of power. Yet, your autocratic power is limited by a few rules of the game.

Boundary: Terms

Your role – any role – is limited by a term. No leaders (and no roles in general) hold their role forever and without review. Although I am not at all opposed to long-term leadership, it needs to be a choice. So, for example, if your circle selects you as leader for a term of one year, there’s no reason not to re-select you as leader – as long as this is an intentional choice. 

Boundary 2: Selections by consent, and performance reviews

  • Choosing intentionally means to select by consent. In sociocracy, all roles, including the role of the leader, require circle consent. That means only members who have the trust of the people they work with will be the leader for a certain period of time. Consent for roles is part of the checks and balances of a leader.
  • For ongoing feedback, people can give feedback in meeting evaluations or to schedule performance reviews for all important roles.

Boundary 3: Rounds

  • Rounds. In policy meetings, we make decisions about that general framework that guides us all. In the brainstorms and discussions feeding into those key decisions, rounds (= the practice of talking one by one until everyone has spoken) are a good way to make sure everyone’s involved. The leader is just one voice among all circle members. More time to listen to everyone!

Boundary 4: Policy & domains

A leader in sociocracy cannot do whatever they want to. We entrust people with a certain set of authorities that’s clearly defined. 

  • Firstly, they are powerful only in the domain of their circle. They cannot rule into a domain – even of a sub-circle. You can’t go to a team that works ‘under’ you and tell them what to do and what not to do.
  • Secondly, agreements made by the circle will create boundaries and guidance for the leader (and everyone else).
    Example: if there’s a membership policy, no leader is allowed to violate it in a one-off decision just because they want to.

Opportunities: “You’re the leader, go do something!”

Despite the boundaries, there are a zillion ways of taking leadership.

  • Accountability. Leaders hold circle members accountable to agreements. Ask others, “did you get a chance to write that workflow you promised in our last meeting?” “Where is project YX at, does it need anything to move forward?” Since many organizations struggle with follow-through, this role is key. Notice how the leader does not force anyone to do anything but just check on based on existing agreements. 
  • Clarify. Next, create clarity. Help people do what they need to do, for example, clarify their roles if they are too fuzzy, get outside help if they are stuck, encourage them to talk to a colleague with whom they have a latent conflict. 
  • Attention and alignment. The big overview: many people will be busy doing their work. Their attention is down in the weeds – where it should be to work on their tasks. From time to time, someone needs to lift their head out of the weeds and ask: is that what we’re trying to do? Are we on track? Is there friction we’re not seeing? What could we do better? Asking those questions is everyone’s responsibility, but even more, it is the leader’s responsibility. 
  • Forward motion. Initiate – ask others to prepare proposals, think through new ideas with others, empower people to take on new projects. Use your power to help others make things happen. 

(For inspiration, go print this for example.)

Know yourself, and know your leadership style

dog looking into the camera
Photo by Riley Sullivan on Unsplash

Get clear about your role. I assume that none of us came out of our abusive mainstream culture unscarred. You probably carry unhealthy and mixed messages about yourself, others, your work-life relationship, your power, skills, and performance. A few examples:

  • “I as the leader have to work harder than everyone else”. This thought can be healthy, servant leadership, or a culture of “sacrifice” that will eventually leak resentment.
  • “I don’t want to overpower others.” This can be wise and considerate, or it can mean you’re holding back unnecessarily. What serves your purpose? 
  • “Anyone could do what I do, I am just first among equals.” Again, while this is true, it can sometimes prepare the path to holding back. You might be first among equals but a lot depends on you when it comes to initiatives. 
  • “If you want it done well, do it yourself.” There’s a lot of truth here, but we all know it’s not a sustainable strategy to do everything yourself. 

Your internal messiness will show, and it won’t be pretty or helpful. I recognize myself in all of those messages above, and I try to be more aware when I tap into them. As soon as I’m in one of those mindset traps, I am on autopilot. My choices won’t be intentional and considerate anymore but run by old, unreflected messages. I won’t be able to shake them off any time soon but I want to be aware of them. 

You have power – use it! You have a system – use it!

Agency and empowerment is such an opportunity. Make good use of it, in support of your mission. Because – if you care about your mission and purpose, why hold back?!

If you use your systems, there’s no reason to be afraid of your own power – if you stick to consent, terms, evaluations, and rounds, sociocracy helps you channel your ideas into co-created projects and healthy use of leadership.