An overview of the Leaderful Organizing project and the issues it explores. Stay tuned for the full toolkit to help strengthen competencies for leaderful organizing.
At the end of 2020 four organizations based in Europe joined forces to tackle some hard questions on what was keeping social movements from having bigger wins in a wide range of struggles for social and ecological justice.
Searching for answers, the project partners soon after started a two year and a half journey exploring new ways for social movement actors to relate to building power as well as to leadership development.
This exciting journey, including doing participatory research as well as running several week long pilot trainings, has led to the creation of a brand new curriculum, a complementary trainer’s handbook to support implementation, as well as to this toolkit. It consists of a wide range of tools, both old and (re)new(ed), contextualised for the purpose of supporting groups and individuals to acquire or deepen the necessary skills to practice leaderful organizing.
Building capacity for change in a world on fire
Dedicating yourself to the struggle for social and ecological justice is not for the faint-hearted. Today social movements have to address multiple mutually reinforcing crises simultaneously. Crises such as the climate crisis, increasing inequality, the erosion of democracies and the rise of the far right, are deepening as more and more people are affected by their consequences.
Moreover, lot of these crises we face, share common roots (check our problem tree tool!) and years of struggle have proven how challenging it is to really address the root causes rather than to get stuck with some limited reforms focusing on symptoms, while keeping a fundamentally injust system intact.
At the same time yet another crisis, a crisis of legitimacy, has further eroded those institutions which are expected to act on these injustices and to tackle inequality and discrimination. This is certainly true for many official state institutions, which under neoliberal policies have rolled out a conscious strategy of abandonment, but equally for a significant number of NGO’s, unions or even activist groups whom all too often have lost touch with the needs and reality of significant segments of their base and especially with the wider society.
The result of a strategy abandonment of some and the lack of meaningful engagement of others has been a society which is increasingly fragmented.
Strong and resilient communities have been replaced by atomised individuals, who no longer have access to one of their main sources of power: forms of collective organization.
In this context, lasting structural unequal power relations often make it hard to even conceive how we as social movements can win in a meaningful way.
Faced with this reality, it is implied that any strategy that wants to work towards system change, will have to prioritise building power.
Only by building collective power we can change the power balance in society, which is a condition if we want to successfully challenge the structures and institutions creating, maintaining and deepening injustices and the aforementioned crises.
The main motivation of the project partners has been from the onset to create training materials and curricula that would support organizations and social movements in stepping up to the challenges of our current times. This meant that we had to first identify a series of competencies that enable what we now refer to as leaderful organizing, before designing a series of materials that allows groups and individuals to learn and grow these skills.
Before we could do any of that, we needed to get back with some questions to a broader network of partners and sympathisers, who are day-to-day involved in a wide range of social movements.
How do individuals and organizations working for social change relate to power and leadership?
Based on their years of active involvement in a wide range of social movements, the organisations involved in the leaderful organising project early on assumed that one of the stumbling blocks to more sustainable and effective social movements exists in the ways both individuals and organisations relate to the ideas of power and leadership.
On the one hand we are regularly confronted with organizations that mimic the power and leadership structures from the corporate world and mainstream politics. Despite many good intentions, they often reproduce similar problems of a lack of representation and meaningful participation and unhealthy power dynamics inside some of these organisations can escalate up to the level of blatant instances of power abuse.
Despite many good intentions, attempting to establish effective and impactful organisations, they often reproduce similar problems of a lack of representation and meaningful participation and unhealthy. Unhealthy power dynamics inside some of these organisations can escalate up to the level of blatant instances of power abuse.
On the other end of the spectrum, you find organisations, as well as the people taking part in those, which are highly uncomfortable with even the mere idea of holding any power and having positions of leadership at all. This should be no surprise, as we are all daily confronted with examples of the abuse of power, unequal power relationships, lack of accountability of those in power, etc.
However, the question that logically arises is how on earth you can confront the powerful institutions ruining both our world and so many livelihoods without putting any power in the balance yourself?
Obviously many people and organisations hold a more nuanced position, anywhere on the spectrum between the most vertical (or hierarchical) and the most horizontal (or leaderless) organizations. Still, we could clearly feel an uncomfortable tension surrounding ideas and practices related to power and leadership. In order to test our assumptions and to engage with this tension, we first got started with a participatory research phase.
During this research phase we had conversations with participants in a wide range of social movements, covering both a wide geographical spread (within Europe) and a whole range of topics from climate justice over anti-discrimination, over anti-poverty to movements fighting for democracy and citizen participation.
During our conversations we encountered time and again similar challenges. One of the key tensions is between either more “vertical” (or: hierarchical) organizations, with a strong leadership that functions top-down or on the other hand “horizontal” (or: non-hierarchial) groups which formally often are considered to be leaderless. Read more about the key learnings in our research report.
Participants who were mainly involved in horizontal groups reported about issues considering difficult decision making, with never ending meetings and once a decision has been, issues arising with implementation.
Vertical approaches to organising tend to reproduce hierarchical organisational structures and relationships, with leadership representing the role of those higher in the organisational structure making key decisions and determining direction. The primary challenges related to the vertical forms are the ways they tend to reproduce unhealthy power dynamics and overt or subtle forms of oppression/disempowerment.
Figure 1 mapping strengths and pitfalls of both horizontal and vertical organizational structures
Neither hierarchical nor leaderless: a hybrid approach on the road to leaderful organising
As has been touched upon before, there is a clear tension – which is often as much ideological as practical – between more vertical and more horizontal forms of organising.
Vertical approaches to organising tend to reproduce hierarchical organisational structures and relationships, with leadership representing the role of those higher in the organisational structure making key decisions and determining direction. The focus here is often efficiency and effective implementation, based on a clear division of roles and responsibilities and accountability according to lines of command.
The primary challenges related to the vertical forms are the ways they tend to reproduce unhealthy power dynamics and overt or subtle forms of oppression/disempowerment.
Horizontal approaches to organising result from attempts to create alternative ways of organising informed by the values of anti-authoritarian political traditions, ideas of inclusion and empowerment, and critiques of hierarchical power structures. In the horizontal structures the challenges are often characterised as inhibiting initiative, a lack of clarity of accountability and a range of symptoms we are calling ‘leaderlessness’.
There are a number of critiques that we may be familiar with of horizontalist or leaderless movements. We don’t need to rehash them, but Chantelle Mouffe (2018) critiqued the Indignados and Occupy movements for their failure to find ways to engage or build institutional power. And going even further back, in 1973 Jo Freeman wrote an often-cited essay called the Tyranny of Structurelessness about the need for movements to develop democratic structures that distribute power and leadership clearly and appropriately, which does not mean evenly or equally.
Leaderful organising seeks to avoid falling into the shadow aspects of traditional forms of leadership or the failings of a leaderless approach. It is an attempt to create less rigid and more adaptable hybrid structures that try to combine the strengths of both types of organizing.
Key competencies for leaderful organizing
Based on the findings gathered during the research phase, a competence framework has been developed, identifying key competence areas that require attention in order to shift gears to a more leaderful culture, allowing groups to build power in a more healthy, sustainable and accountable way.
Each competence area is fleshed out in a chapter in our curriculum, addressing both the individual (“I”, or: intrapersonal) level as the collective (“We”, or: interpersonal) level. For instance, when exploring the topic of power we identified both individual competencies or skills, which relate to building an increased awareness of power and privilege, as well as a collective level focusing on the competencies that groups need to distribute power in an appropriate way. Although the focus in the spider web model is on the individual level and collective level, for many topics we also pay attention to a third, systemic or structural level, where additional skills are identified.
To again refer to the topic of power, on a systemic level we would zoom out even further, not just talking about power distribution within and between groups, but also about building the right amount of power to challenge the status quo.
This toolkit supports trainers and organizers to create learning activities that enable participants and organizations to focus on specific sets of competencies. The leaderful organising spider web supports both organizations and individuals to identify the specific areas where they want to prioritize growth.
What do we mean when talking about leaderful organizing?
Leaderful organizing is about building individual agency and collective power.
It requires an intentional approach to investing in the development of transformational leaders whose role is to serve, deepen and expand social movements. It builds powerful groups and organisations by appropriately distributing power and leadership. It seeks to build movement structures and cultures that reflect the values of social justice and ecological integrity
How does transformative leadership look like?
Transformative Leadership consists of a set of leadership practises with a focus on investing in people’s growth and capacities.
It is concerned with developing movement’s ability to be relational, rooted in reality, collective, supportive, nurturing, intentional, adaptive and visionary. Transformative leadership enables finding common purpose and reaching shared goals.
The four organizations contributing to the leaderful organizing toolkit are:
ECON is a network of progressive movements, organisations, and groups engaged in community organising in Europe towards social and environmental justice. ECON enables them to build people power, organising capacity, strengthen international solidarity, and support the sustainability of the community organising sector.
- LABO vzw
LABO is a Belgian-based organisation with a focus on critical citizenship. The organisation offers trainings rooted in a range of emancipatory traditions such as Freirean popular education, Theatre of the Oppressed, The Work that Reconnects and others. One of the main aims of LABO is to support grassroots groups and social movements in their work, by offering tailor-made trainings. LABO also runs its own campaigns, selecting issues with a potential to build bridges and strengthen often overlooked communities or struggles.
Ulex Project is an international training organisation based in Catalunya, Spain. We live at a time where social and ecological challenges require a shift from atomised individualism to networks of solidarity. It implies a new collectivity which still honours individuality. It requires cooperation balanced with autonomy. Ulex thrives on connectivity and seeks to be a reference for value-based collaboration. Ulex works with numerous individuals and organisations to design and deliver our training programme. We establish partnerships with organisations across Europe and internationally. We bring diverse groups and individuals together in learning communities. We support organisations, groups, and individuals to foster collaborations, build networks, share experience, and deepen movement resilience through meaningful connection.
- Zelena Akcija
Zelena Akcija/Friends of the Earth Croatia is a non-governmental, non-profit, non-partisan and voluntary association of citizens for environmental protection. We were founded in 1990 and are based in Zagreb. The aim of our work is to protect the environment and nature, and to encourage the development towards a low-carbon society while being guided by the principles of social justice and systemic change. We achieve our goals through nonviolent direct action, campaigning, and education, and we work jointly between our professional and volunteer teams. Since 2015 we have been offering trainings for activists and other civil society organisations on various themes, under the umbrella of the “School of Sustainability”. By using a holistic approach, we seek answers to systemic challenges and place emphasis on reflection and strengthening the ties for personal and collective empowerment. We believe that educators and facilitators, who are also activists, play a crucial role in social movements, as they increase the ability for meaningful social action.
- Leadership and Leaderful Organizing: Research on Building Leaderful Movements in Europe by ECON
- The Power of Organizing: Stories of Community Organizing Campaigns from across Europe by ECON
- More Organising resources in the Commons Library