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Report from the Board:
Distributed Leadership in a Global La Leche League

Jean Moneyhon, Nan Jolly, and Susan Deo
LLLI Board of Directors
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 40 No. 5, October-November 2004, pp. 98, 118.

La Leche League has become a large and diverse organization with over 7,600 Leaders and a presence in 65 countries around the world. Although our mission remains the same as when we were a small local organization—helping breastfeeding mothers and babies—we now encompass much more social, economic, and cultural diversity. Physically, members and Leaders are located farther apart than ever before, making it hard to know everyone’s needs and capabilities or the impact and effect of our work. As we become more diverse, we are linked together only through common interests and our passion for the La Leche League mission. Breastfeeding is what connects us, while geography, time, money, and culture separate us. No wonder our traditional organizational leaders (Board of Directors, Executive Director, and Administrators) find it increasingly difficult to know and administer the organization in ways that best suit each individual part.

One way we have tried to meet the diverse needs of the organization is to make policies and processes generic enough to fit all areas and cultures around the world, sometimes at the cost of losing their local flavor and possibly even their meaning. This has seemed inevitable because publications are translated and published in over 20 different languages and for so many different audiences. These are not new predicaments, or even ones only faced by our organization. They are the issues of most international organizations and they’re compounded each year. At some point successful organizations face their situation head on. We believe that it is time for La Leche League to find ways to work through these challenges so we stay focused on our mission rather than on our structures. We want to truly become a global organization; an organization whose members and member entities share a common purpose as well as a way of working together and at the same time have autonomy and accountability to each other and the central core of the organization.

The Board of Directors and others in the organization have been exploring solutions to these concerns for many years. The Renewal Initiative and our work with several Chaordic Commons consultants were some recent attempts to find more effective ways to connect with one another and work together—ways that would minimize our differences and maximize our capabilities.

This exploration has also helped us look more closely at ourselves, reevaluate our goals, think about our work, manage using different approaches, and communicate with a wider breadth of styles. Just as we urge new mothers at our meetings to take home and try out that which works for them, the Board is currently preparing to employ approaches and ways of working together that have proven useful to us in order to improve our organization. At the same time, we want to leave behind approaches that haven’t worked.

One of the approaches we will use is called distributed leadership, where resources, responsibility, and leadership itself reside across the organization rather than in only one part or at only certain levels. Modern organizational researchers find that it is often more efficient and effective to break a global organization into small local units for leadership, organizational management, communications, and everyday work in order to support creativity, motivation, and flexibility. Rather than a top heavy centralized effort, leaders are everywhere, making decisions based on the needs of what’s happening around them. In smaller locally tasked and locally led units, people can identify better with one another and see the impact of their actions. They can connect with local needs and resources; they can enjoy more autonomy, and they will provide direct input into, and feedback from, their local unit.

Leaders throughout La Leche League are familiar with the idea of distributed leadership. We began this way nearly fifty years ago and many of us have, at one time or another, been involved in some activity that demonstrates this approach. Here are some La Leche League examples that might seem familiar to you and describe instances of distributed leadership:

  • Teams of Leaders review one another’s articles or Conference sessions.
  • Leaders form collaborative relationships with external companies and sponsors, such as teaching daycare provider classes or working with local doctors’ offices to organize an informal lunchtime meeting.
  • Leaders have get-togethers across state and Area lines with Leaders who are closer geographically to one another.
  • Leaders hold joint training sessions or create common projects. For example, Leaders start or join a local breastfeeding helpline not specifically for LLL, they join a local taskforce or group that impacts breastfeeding or vice versa.
  • Teams of Leaders work together to revise LLL publications, such as the recent edition of the Leader’s Handbook.

Do you have other examples you would like to share? Send them to a member of the Board of Directors.

In distributed leadership, formal "managers" are identified but everyone in the group has the opportunity (and the obligation) to lead in some way. Those with formal management roles act more like coaches and mentors than supervisors or rule makers. Vision, planning, and accountability are shared throughout the distributed organization. Recognized leaders—people with the most influence, no matter their formal title or position—are those who have invested time and effort in our community, who provide guidance and encouragement, and who give of themselves and of their time.

This is the right time for us to become a distributed organization. Our sheer size makes it too hard to connect people within La Leche League through traditional lines of communication and traditional organizational structures: they don’t fit anymore—culturally or practically. Consider, for example, that because administrators are no longer local, they have become unknowns to many members and have no practical means to become familiar with remote members. An idea for a procedure or new project might sound good to a staff member or a volunteer administrator, but implementation may prove easy in one area while very difficult in another. Local La Leche League Groups in one community might find a way of working that would be culturally unacceptable in several other communities.

It will be the responsibility of the Board and Executive Director to ensure that care is taken to prevent the small, local units from becoming fragmented and disconnected from the larger distributed organization. We will do that through newly created means of communication; some are new sorts of technology, others are based on time-honored, face-to-face meeting time. We will also help establish agreed upon governance that ensures we all stay connected while everyone, throughout the organization, has more control over her/his own destiny and is recognized as an integral and meaningful part of the larger whole.

In summary, here are some characteristics of organizations that practice distributed leadership and reasons why we find these attributes attractive:

  • Getting work accomplished is based on relationships, and relationships are based on trust, with everyone contributing in some way and people trusting that others will do their part. People work together based on cooperation and collaboration. People alternately give and ask for help to get work done, as the situation requires. People assume the best about others and their expectations are usually rewarded because people are trustworthy.
  • Respect and teamwork are the vehicles used to achieve a common purpose. People are responsible for looking for better ways of doing things. They create change, as needed. There is always room for creativity, innovation, and good ideas. Errors are seen as opportunities to learn and improve things. Everyone shares the work and everyone shares in the resulting success.
  • Everyone is rewarded for her or his contributions.
  • Everyone is seen as an expert based on his or her individual knowledge and experience. In La Leche League we see mothers as experts about their own babies. It just makes sense that we also assume local members of a Group know what is best for their community. Everyone has access to the information needed to do their job. Teams in different areas share resources and responsibilities, as required. Being treated with respect increases confidence and motivates everyone to improve and to work harder and better for the organization.
  • Everyone has freedom to share and develop his or her ideas. Everyone grows and is enriched. Everybody matters and everyone learns. Everyone is interested in and takes pride in tapping the expertise, ideas, and effort of everyone involved.
  • The whole depends on each of the parts. Everyone is responsible and accountable to one another, and everyone is responsible and accountable for the integrity of the organization. Every individual represents and is integral to the health of the entire organization so each individual carries a very real and important responsibility to be accountable to every other member and to the organization as a whole. Together, everyone is responsible for achieving goals and the organization’s mission, for customer satisfaction, and for work quantity and quality.
  • Everyone contributes in some way to the decision-making process. Because everyone participates openly in work processes and procedures, and because everyone has input and gets feedback, each individual is part of the leadership team. Everyone has some knowledge or expertise that contributes to the decision-making process and each person’s values and principles enrich every outcome.
  • Formal "managers" work to facilitate and connect people and projects that maximize individual skills and abilities. Formal "managers" hold the pieces of the organization together in a productive relationship around a common culture and set of expectations.

For a large and truly global organization, the Board feels that distributed leadership would be a better organizational fit than our current traditional hierarchical structure. We believe that distributed leadership will help Leaders around the world to have more freedom and autonomy, and it will ensure that we stay connected to each other, learn from each other, and accomplish our mission. In a distributed organization, we will all share the freedom to try out new ideas, to enact change, to learn from each other, to find creative solutions, and to work together to bring La Leche League forward into the future. We will also all share responsibility and accountability to each other and to breastfeeding mothers and babies around the world. The Board of Directors welcomes questions or comments on distributed leadership. Please contact us at lllibod at llli.org (email).

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