Co-leading a Team on an Open Project

Open Source Alliance for Open Scholarship
Last updated: Nov 2, 2022

By Daniela Saderi and Monica Granados

[We need to] release any assumption that one person has all the skills needed to lead and support the work. Decentralized work requires more trust-building on the front end, but ultimately it is easier, more fluid. – adrienne maree brown

If our goal is to tackle complex problems, then we need complex organizations with diverse leadership. Co-leadership of a project, a team, or an organization is when more than one people are in charge. The role of open leaders is to listen, engage people, explore ideas, and -- most importantly -- craft a mission with input from the whole team, and communicate it clearly to the world.

The premier benefit of co-leadership is that your project will benefit from more expertise. It’s impossible to do everything, and even less possible to be good at everything. Strong leadership is about having the self-awareness to accept your blind spots and finding someone to fill the gaps.

The nature of co-leadership

If you are in a leadership position, make sure you have a circle of people who can tell you the truth, and to whom you can speak the truth. Bring others into shared leadership with you, and/or collaborate with other formations so you don’t get too enamored of your singular vision. – adrienne maree brown

When successful, co-leadership can be the essence of a resilient project or organization. It is challenging, however, because it’s not the standard structure for organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, and it's not the default way of working in Western society as a whole.

But if our goal is to shift the culture towards open and transparent models for building our future, we need to learn how to work with others, especially those who have completely different stories, experiences, and personalities. Only then we will be able to make sustainable and cohesive change and evolve as a global human society.

The content below is meant to guide you, either as the individual who originated the idea for the project or as the person who decided to take an idea to the next level and begin a project.

How to approach co-leadership

Don't do it alone – turn to the people around you to hear reactions and perspectives on your idea. Find at least one other person who would like to invest time to consider the idea and help you craft the strategy to bring it to the next level.

Now that you have at least one partner, how do you navigate that relationship? How do you ensure that your ego does not take over and alienate others? How do you prioritize collaborating and ensuring all ideas are put forward and considered?

The first step is awareness!

Start by thinking about how you interact with others. Do you like those interactions? Are you open to listening to others’ ideas, perspectives, solutions, and challenging your own assumptions? Are you open to being wrong and adapting to the changed circumstances?

If the answer to these questions is “not really,” congratulations, you are a human being who needs to take the time and spend vital energy to grow into a better collaborative member of your community.

Demystify the charismatic rock star leader

Funders have traditionally preferred the narrative of a rock star leader, and have invested in individuals more than in mission. [...] Rock stars get isolated, lose touch with our vulnerability, are expected to pull off superhero work, and generally burn out within a decade. – adrienne maree brown

The default organizational structure, at least in the modern Western culture, is to have one leader who makes executive decisions and represents the entire project. In its more extreme form, this could be called the model of the charismatic "rock star” leader.

While there are examples in history that suggest this model can be successful, we have also witnessed instances in which entire movements have collapsed because that one leader is crushed by the load of responsibility. While co-leadership can also lead to disaster if disagreement and conflict among group members is permitted to trump the common goal, it is on balance a much better leadership approach if those involved are willing to do the hard work of facilitating successful collaboration.

The best part about co-leading a project or organization is that you are not alone. That can be true also if you are the only leader, but you have put work towards building a team around you that feels empowered to contribute to the “pool of meaning” and speak up on critical decisions.

Ingredients for successful co-leadership

  • Let go of your ego
  • Cultivate trust
  • Have a clear mission
  • Get to know the people you work with and connect on an emotional level
  • Be honest with yourself and others
  • Practice generosity and vulnerability to make connections with others clear, open, real, and durable
  • Relax under pressure
  • Learn how to lean on others’ strength, recognize when you need a break, and ask for help
  • Learn how to give each other space to feel and be human
  • Acknowledge you have limits and that your ideas might not be the best way to approach a problem
  • Be aware that this process is hard; it is nonlinear and necessarily iterative, so be open to learning along the way

Questions to ask yourself and your team

  • How do we build a diverse team?
  • What is the appropriate size for a team?
  • How do we determine what is right for the project?
  • How do we give team members a purpose/role that they can be passionate about?
  • How do we manage conflict within our team?
  • How do we best to respect and use the expertise of the board of directors and the advisory board?
  • How will we handle a public crisis within our team?
  • How do we convert a pass-by into a team member?
  • When do we assign a Board of Directors?
  • How do we choose a diverse advisory board and how do you set the right expectations?
  • Is it useful to rotate/refresh board members or keep consistency?

Challenges of co-leadership

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. – African proverb

Embracing co-leadership often comes along with embracing decentralized teams, since central control and direction is less important when multiple leaders are working collaboratively on a join goal. Decentralized teams are likely to be self-directed, with each person working independently from their respective home offices or coworking spaces. This freedom presents some challenges not faced in a traditional working environment.

Building relationships and trust

Many communities that arise from open projects bring together strangers in service of the greater good. In these circumstances it can be a challenge to build relationships and trust within the team.

Trust cannot be built instantaneously, but there are efforts you can make to facilitate it. Delegating tasks is a great way to build team trust. You show your team members that you trust that they will complete the task, and they are able to demonstrate that the trust was well placed when they completed the task successfully.

To build a team that trusts each other, ensure everyone is contributing to the “pool of meaning,” as described in the book Crucial Conversations. The best way to communicate with others on your team is to focus on the goal, not the person.

Keeping everyone informed

Remote leaders face the question of how to keep team members informed without them having to be involved in every aspect of a task. The increase frequency in remote work has given rise to many tools to help bridge the physical distance of distributed teams.

Project management tools like Asana, Trello and Microsoft Project are helping teams define and assign tasks. These types of software have task management graphical user interfaces that allow you to explicitly define tasks, set deadlines for these tasks, and assign them to team members.

Working with different time-zones

This is another common issue with distributed teams, especially with larger teams spread across the world. People may have to work odd hours to connect with team members around the world, so it's essential to be flexible about when and how people complete their work.

Accommodating various work-life time restrictions

Working with a distributed team of people who are passionate about the project means you'll have people in all different locations with various other obligations to attend to.

If you're a good leader, you'll be encouraging diversity of various kinds on your team, which will further expand the work-life and time needs your team brings to the work. Being flexible and accommodating about people's needs is essential to building team trust, motivating people to do their best work, and ultimately facilitating the success of the project.


Books that inspired this piece

  • Emergent Strategy – by adrienne maree brown
  • Crucial Conversations – by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler


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