Monday, May 7, 2007

More leadership roles in LifeRing

When the founding members wrote the LifeRing bylaws back in 2000-2001, we wanted to create as "flat" an organization as possible, and would have provided for no officers at all if that were legally possible.

However, in order to operate on a sound businesslike footing, we had to form a corporation; and corporations have to at least three officers. That's how we arrived at the triumvirate of CEO, CFO, and Secretary -- the only official officers in LifeRing. If you add the nine seats on the Board of Directors, you get a maximum of 12 people with recognized leadership responsibilities.

Now, "flat" is good and there's much organizational research that validates this concept. You can scan the past decade of Harvard Business Review to find a string of learned, researched articles dissing the top-down hierarchical bureaucratic megalith corporation and lauding the horizontal network-type organization with its short communication lines and rapid response times.

We definitely want to stay flat ... but flat also has its dark side, at least in our implementation. Given our current setup, if you show leadership ability and interest, your options are severely limited. You're either convenor of a local meeting (or of a chat or list), or you're on the worldwide Board of Directors or an officer of the corporation. There's a huge gap of nothing in between.

Having no recognized intermediate leadership positions is bad. There's no ramp for people to move up on as their vision grows broader and their dedication to service becomes firmer. Because there's no transition, convenors may get stuck in a local perspective and may even isolate from the rest of the LifeRing network. I think we're infected with that malady in a number of places.

We do have a number of convenors who take on broader responsibilities than a single meeting. Whenever there's a problem in one of the meetings in their area, they help out. If somebody needs a substitute, they get the call. If there's a talk to be given, they take the lead in doing it. If a meeting is out of literature, they take care of it. When there's an area workshop, they're present. And so on. That's great. What's not good is that we have no express way of recognizing the role they play. We ought to have a formal title for them.

It's unrealistic to expect that literally every LifeRing participant will take on a leadership role at some time or other. But it's also unrealistic to expect that LifeRing can grow and prosper so long as we have a whole lot of nothing inbetween the local level and the worldwide level. That's why the Congress in Denver took up discussion of intermediate leadership. We made a start on it: Robert (Itchy) Bradley is now East Coast convenor. Kathleen Gargan is now Colorado convenor. When everybody gets home and has a chance to look at their local situation with new eyes, we'll undoubtedly define a series of additional intermediate roles, with responsibilities broader than a single meeting but smaller than the universe of the board member.

The ultimate guarantee of organizational "flatness" is our Delegates' Assembly. Each meeting has the power to send one person who has one vote in the DA, and the DA elects the Board of Directors. The meetings through their delegates are both the bottom of the organization, in the sense that they are its foundation, and the top of the organization, because they hold the ultimate power. So long as that remains the case -- and nobody is advocating a change in that -- we'll remain a flat, anti-hierarchical organization. But without creating a ramp of intermediate leadership, and granting formal recognition to the intermediate leaders who are active now, there's a danger that we'll get flat in the bad sense, like a soda with the bubbles gone, or like road kill.

Your thoughts?

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