A better way to lead

There’s a different style of business leadership. And it’s growing.

Most of us, cutting our teeth on Dragon’s Den and watching the likes of Donald Trump yell, “You’re Fired” have a distinctive understanding of business leadership. It’s a ‘just watch me’ style of leader, one who prefers the spotlight, talks more than listens, likes to make all the major decisions. The Alpha leader. But that’s not the only leadership style. In fact, the Wall Street Journal cites six different leadership styles: visionary, coaching, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting and commanding. [The Alpha style would be ‘commanding’, which WSJ says is the least effective].

We came at this question from a different perspective. What, we asked, are the defining characteristics of a co-operative business leadership style? And how was that different from a classic leadership style?

The answers were surprising. While there are aspects of the WSJ styles mixed in (particularly democratic, affiliative, coaching, and visionary), it is the mix that matters. That mix matters, especially when viewed through the lens of rural and rural Indigenous community needs and expectations. Rural, remote, and Indigenous communities, of whatever background, have (and deserve) a much larger say in how a business is run. By extension, they have specific expectations around business leadership.

The top nine characteristics of co-operative leadership are:

  1. Commitment to community. A co-operative leader has a stronger-than-average (and highly visible) commitment to community. The primary motivation is to solve a particular need, collectively, for the good of the community. How they define ‘community’ may be different, but the first goal is to make things better for that community.
  2. Shared leadership. Leadership that ‘leads from the middle’ is shared leadership. It’s a leadership style that fundamentally assumes that good ideas can be made better collectively, that there is strength in numbers.
  3. Working together. Co-operative leaders are less interested in being the voice at the front of the room. They want to hear the people in the room talking to each other. Shared respect, building relationships, and both a willingness and an ability to work through divergent perspectives is critical.
  4. Business acumen. All co-operatives — whether a for-profit, non-profit, or charity — are businesses. There is an entrepreneurial spirit involved, a willingness to build something that solves a problem or capitalizes on an opportunity. Business skills (no matter where they are learned: through formal schooling or the school of life) are part of the package.
  5. Shared vision. A key part of co-operative leadership is the ability to create, and see, a shared vision. While individual charisma goes a long way, that vision must be shared by all the co-operative owners. On the flip side, a co-operative leader accepts and supports when the larger co-operative shared vision changes.
  6. Quiet leadership. Thoughtful. Calm. Willing to listen. These are characteristics of a classic co-operative leader. While willing — and able — to stand in front to articulate the shared vision and set a course to get things done, but it’s about coaching and leading by example, rather than demanding.
  7. Project over politics. Co-op leaders put project over politics. That means two things: one, co-ops are not (contrary to popular opinion) directly connected to any particular political viewpoint; and two, co-op leaders aren’t doing it for personal gain, ego-boosting, or to gain political advantage in other arenas. They work hard to build a co-op because the project matters.
  8. Social awareness. Because a co-op is built to serve the needs of its owners, who are also its members, there is a built-in degree of interest in issues of fairness, equity, balance, and power. While some co-ops specifically identify and serve social justice issues, there is an eye to simple practicality and pragmatism. Like any other business, a co-op must pay its bills.
  9. Controlled energy. A co-operative leader has a deep well of energy, patience, and commitment. Very deep. Taking a project from inspiration through exploration, through creation to a thriving existence is a matter of time — sometimes, more than what you might think.

So the real question is: how well do you match up? Are you a co-operative community leader?

This post was inspired by research conducted during the Co-operative Innovation Project at the University of Saskatchewan Centre for the Study of Co-operatives in 2015. Download a pdf version of their 2-pager on leadership.