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Is Facilitative Leadership an Art or an Ordeal?

By Rich Bell on August 16th, 2017

If you’re a changemaker who is committed to community engagement as an essential practice for advancing health equity and addressing complex problems, you are undoubtedly drawn to facilitative leadership. After all, you’re dealing with the failures of inflexible, hierarchical, and overly-specialized systems in order to solve these problems. And who wouldn’t support leaders who listen, involve everyone, nurture individual and group capacity, adapt to change, grow and distribute leadership, respect difference, leverage diversity, deepen collaboration, build alignment, and focus on systemic and transformational change? Our respect for the art of facilitative leadership is such that we flock to trainings in the hope of developing this magical combination of skills in ourselves, our partners, and our grantees.

But what’s it really like to apply this learning in practice? What’s it like to try to take principles off a page and face the flood of complexity, difference, difficulty, and conflict that real community change throws at us? What’s it like to develop a facilitative culture where none exists?

Fortunately, there are brave souls in communities across the country who try every day to grow into more facilitative leaders. They also share common challenges. Here are a few lessons that leaders have learned along the way.

The better you are at engagement and inclusion, the harder your job seems to become. Each new partner or resident leader brings new information needs, more relationships to nurture, new demands and perspectives to accommodate, new potential for misunderstanding or conflict, and more daily tasks and interactions. Success often brings more work for leaders, especially in the short term.

Taking sole responsibility and getting things done yourself can ultimately slow you down and lead you astray. As the work expands, it’s easy for highly responsible, achievement-oriented people to work longer and harder. Overusing these strengths can exhaust a leader, dulling their ability to pick up on subtle messages and dynamics within partnerships. That exhaustion makes it difficult to bring restraint, receptivity, and flexibility to challenging moments. It can also amplify emotions, skew perspective during challenging times, and lead to burnout.

Control feels important, but it can trip you up. When working with complexity and uncertainty, control may seem paramount. In their desire for greater control, leaders are sometimes tempted to select easily-attainable goals rather than transformative, longer-range ones. Desire for control can also cause leaders to look internally for solutions and tempt them to use unnecessary resources within a partnership. These tendencies can limit community impact and curtail new relationship building.

Keeping a wide range of people aligned and mutually accountable can sometimes lead to resentment and conflict. For a partnership to thrive, leaders are often called upon to balance various interests, maintain procedures and standards, align activities with the vision, and raise difficult issues. This process can sometimes result in people taking things personally, casting blame, and undermining the leader. This dynamic can be intensified when the leader is given a great deal of credit for shared successes or if individuals feel insufficiently recognized themselves.

Conventional thinking and structures never stop tugging at the partnership. Most partners represent organizations with conventional structures and management. Many are used to thinking in terms of their profession’s data, models, and expertise. This influences what they bring and don’t bring to partnerships. Conventional views about power, credentials, efficiency, and issues of race and social identity also affect the dynamics of a partnership. These make it challenging to develop a facilitative culture.

Consensus can bog down large partnerships. Partnerships often choose to operate by consensus in order to ensure inclusion and broad ownership of decisions. At times, the demands of scheduling meetings and communicating with everyone until there is consensus can exhaust both leaders and participants. Partnerships that don’t empower small groups to make some decisions or vary their decision-making methods can risk slowing their progress as the scope of the work grows.

Failure is part of the process. As partners, including residents, learn to lead or lead differently, and as diverse groups do this together, they will fail along the way. Allowing for failure and providing guidance and support to limit the fallout from failure is part of the work. Since partners, funders, and other supporters don’t all react to failure in the same way, this process can create anxiety that needs to be managed.

The point of sharing these challenges is not to discourage, but rather to be clear-eyed about the facilitative leadership path. It is a rigorous process that exposes our preferences, biases, rigidities, and vulnerabilities.

None of us can be fully prepared for a process that requires our individual and collective evolution, but many of us welcome a path that calls on us to improve.

Whether we think of it as an art or an ordeal, facilitative leadership is transformational. We should follow it for our own sake and for the sake of our communities.

Rich Bell

Senior Project Officer

Student of systems change and advocate of the small, slow and connected.