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"We Are All Co-Founders"

At Arukah Network we’ve been thinking about leadership, and how healthy organisations and communities emerge and develop. In this interview, our Co-Leader ELIZABETH WAINWRIGHT shares some of her own thoughts with Jake.

Jake: When I think of an organisation, I typically think of a hierarchy: there's a boss at the top with key decision-making power, then layers of management, and then workers at the bottom, who often don't have much control. How do you see Arukah Network as different?

Elizabeth: Hierarchy can be a helpful model, for example in the military, where many of our modern day leadership models have come from. But as societies evolve, and as people come together more easily - whether in person or not - there are many other ways that we can think about organisational health and development.

A classic hierarchical structure maintains a ‘predict and control’ way of working, where bosses tell, and workers do. Targets must be met, budgets strictly planned, and long-term strategies developed. A less hierarchical way of working can, for instance, be about creating space for small, decentralised, self-managing partnerships and teams to respond organically to goals and challenges. Everyone feels valued and gets a say in how the organisation moves forward. As an organisation, it feels like Arukah Network is being continually created and shaped by all the people in the network. We are all ‘co-founders’ of this evolving, responsive way of working. Of course, many organisations combine elements of a more traditional hierarchy alongside other ways of working.

Arukah Network is a series of local networks in different places that are connected via our international network. They are made up of talented and unique people, and we want to amplify their strengths, ideas and voices. We support them to guide, lead and model. We have much to learn and improve, but we see that making the network the best it can be involves investing in individuals and community connections.

Jake: This must be difficult - changing people's ideas of authority and hierarchy that have been around for so long. What do you find challenging about working in this way?

Elizabeth: One challenge is people not wanting to think about change because of the attitude that “this is just the way we’ve always done it”. And so I think it takes pioneers - whether ideas, individuals, communities, organisations - to move things forward, and be prepared to get things wrong in order to show how others might benefit and grow. Wonderfully, we seem to have many pioneers in Arukah Network! We are learning how best to nurture this pioneering spirit, and work toward common and appropriate goals.

Another challenge is the ego. It gets in the way! It can be threatening for someone who is used to being the ‘boss’ to have to work as an equal with others, especially with others who - in other circumstances - they may be in charge of. Part of the role of emerging organisations that are fit for the future must be to model ‘taming the ego’, by showing that each of us succeeds when we all succeed.

Lastly, it’s much easier to stick to what you know, than move into the unknown. Generally, I’ve heard people talking about new ways of working with interest but caution, saying that it’s all very nice but does it really work in practice? I am determined to show that you can build people-centred, ‘soulful’, purposeful organisations, whilst also creating something that has deep social return on investment, and is fit for the future.

Jake: I know you've found the book 'Reinventing Organisations' helpful. Can you summarise its main themes, and why you think it's so important?

Elizabeth: Yes! This book helped me to step back from how we are told we should create organisations, and instead, to think about how we could create organisations that serve people, community, planet and future. At Arukah Network, we look at the strengths, skills and ideas that already exist in a place, before we discuss needs and challenges. Something that I like about the ideas in Reinventing Organisations (RO) is that they also start from a place of trusting and building on strengths.

RO encourages a whole new way of looking at an organisation. The basic idea is that an organisation is more than just a static vessel for helping managers and shareholders to achieve targets and profits. Rather, it can be a meaningful entity with its own soul and clear purpose, made up of self-managing and self-organising teams of whole, connected, creative people. It better reflects and adapts to complex realities. And as well as case studies, the book (and subsequent research) outlines the tools and practices that can support organisations wanting to work this way. These tools can support meetings, conflict resolution, team building, decision-making, strategy, budgeting, structure, and more.

The model is not a perfect one, but it allows people and teams to self-manage. To do that, they need to understand themselves and each other. Which means they need to listen and really get to know each other. And so a by-product of working this way is that we see the emergence of respectful, self-aware and other-aware communities. Of course, all of this needs appropriate support structures, processes and tools. RO offers helpful ideas and tools, based on research in successful organisations that work this way. The book did not look at any charities that are as small as we are, or work on the kind of things we work on, and so I am keen that Arukah Network and its Clusters can contribute insights and learning to this thinking.

Jake: Some of the job titles in Arukah Network are a little unusual: we have Cluster Mobilisers rather than Cluster Leaders. And you describe yourself as Co-Leader rather than Director. Is this deliberate?

It is. This is where the idea of ‘inner rightness’ is also relevant - something that RO talks about (it may sound a bit ‘fluffy’, but it’s very helpful!). My job title used to be ‘Managing Director’, which felt grand, but wrong. Yes, my role involves a bit of management and a bit of direction, but the connotations of the title ‘Managing Director’ didn’t feel right to me. It didn’t seem to suit our organisation, or me as a person. I am now ‘Co-leader’, which feels more collaborative, and more aspirational.

As you say, we have ‘Cluster Mobilisers’. We also have a ‘National Facilitator’. These terms reflect the fact that - as Daniel said in his last blog - you cannot lift a stone with one finger. It takes every member of a Cluster to make a Cluster work. Mobilisers and Facilitators help join dots, make links, and channel ideas and support. They play an active, organic role, meeting people where they are, and investing in relationships - it’s not about sitting behind a desk in an office all day. Which sadly is common.

Jake: I know you've talked a bit about 'biomimicry' - this idea that humans can lead better lives if we imitate structures found in nature. How might that concept serve organisations?

Elizabeth: When I'm not co-leading Arukah Network, I think and write a lot about the natural world, and try to spend lots of time in nature. And I notice so much when I do! There are tiny, fleeting moments that we can pass by, or that we can notice and learn from.

Biomimicry is most commonly applied to design and architecture e.g. copying the structure of termite mounds in building ventilation and design (termites create complex cooling systems to protect their homes). But I am interested in how we can learn from nature in our human systems, societies and communities too. How can the way that trees talk to each other inform the way we network and communicate? How can the way that honeybees organise themselves guide organisational development? How can organisations better mimic complex yet harmonious natural ecosystems? Whenever I visit a Cluster, I try to spend some time in a local natural space to see if it stimulates thinking -- whether tea plantations in Kenya, beaches in Sierra Leone or the bush in Zambia. I have learned a lot!

Reinventing Organisations has a ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ model, whereby you read the book and pay for it after you’ve read it, based on the value it has given you. Find out more here.

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