Humans most often seek an absolute definition of leadership. We want a concrete technique or job description to go with our leadership role. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple, if it always worked like that? As leaders we would be completely on task all of the time and never miss a beat.
No leader knows everything. To convince our followers otherwise is dishonest. If we take the stance that we are all knowing it requires increasing levels of posturing, deception, and finally, intimidation. Yet it takes significant self-esteem and discernment to conceive of others taking the lead now and then without letting them dominate us. We have to maintain good boundaries without feeling the need to order everyone else around or to be seen as the expert in all possible situations.
Consensual leadership draws on the wisdom and sentience of the entire team. It is, to a great extent, improvisational. Though I am considered the official leader of Lodestone Leadership, I am still in business because I've gathered a group of people around me who can both lead and follow, whom I can trust to support me when I'm feeling vulnerable and who also can admit when they’re feeling unsure. When we’re uncertain or triggered by whatever is happening, we look to the person who seems the calmest and most centred in that situation. Sometimes when we’re undecided about which road to take, we look to the most confident, invested, or enthusiastic person. When there’s unresolved conflict, we agree to consult outside experts, and sometimes even then the path is not clear. In these cases, I may have to follow my gut, though I’m still dubious about the exact, right course of action.
Mostly, however, we all have to acknowledge that we do not know the one true right way. Authentic community and shared leadership are challenging, cutting-edge concepts with no clear rules and referees. Some people find this disconcerting, even frightening. But as we tread into this uncharted territory we will develop the emotional and social intelligence skills associated with this empowering approach to leadership.
Horses are natural at sharing leadership and switching roles as needed. These gentle animals show us how we can model this sophisticated form of leadership and empower those around us. Science also gives us concrete evidence that this form of leadership works in some of the most demanding situations. Equine Facilitated Learning gives you a first hand experience with all the practice to master these new views. When you learn to achieve your goals in a round pen with a 1200 lb. animal, you begin to see the possibilities of shared or consensual leadership.
Learning and observing the animal world have given scientist compelling evidence of shared leadership. In the article “Consensus Decision Making in Animals,” published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution in 2005, Larissa Conradt and Timothy J. Roper offer an extensive overview of relevant studies. They write;
Researchers have often assumed a priori that a particular group member (usually the most dominant) leads consensus decisions about travel destinations and group activities. However, more recent studies have reported variable leadership and the absence of a correlation between leadership and dominance status in several bird and mammal species in captivity. Information about decision makers in wild birds and mammals is often based on small data sets or anecdotal reports. But in general, decisions seem to be made in a partially shared manner between the adult group members of a least one sex… In small groups, the opportunity exists for all members to vote.
Democracy, it seems, is not a recent human invention. Like mutual aid and competition avoidance, it’s one of those long-ignored options nature provides that kings, conquistadors, and predatory business leaders have actively suppressed. Whatever you call it———Consensual, shared, or situational leadership, this concept encourages mutual empowerment.
Optimal consensual leadership requires developing teams that display a high tolerance for vulnerability. In our upcoming workshop The Gifts of the Horse we will explore consensual leadership in more detail.