Jun 15, 2022 | Helene Wolf

Deciding not to decide

The following is one of six case studies on Feminist Leadership from the FAIR SHARE team in our latest publication Leading for Change. Explore the rest as well as 10 case studies from Committed Organisations.

As the executive director of FAIR SHARE, my Feminist Leadership journey is a lot about unlearning: unlearning the typical leadership behaviours based on hierarchies, power, privileges and our deeply entrenched concept of a “hero leader” at the top of an organisation.

One of the biggest powers a CEO typically has is making final decisions. And reflecting on this is a key element of Feminist Leadership practise. Who is in the room when decisions are made and who is not? Whose voices and perspectives are considered valuable and whose are dismissed? Do we prioritise speed or impact given the pressure under which we usually work?

Almost on a daily basis, I decide not to decide straight away, but to pause for a moment when someone approaches me with a question. Should I advise, recommend, make a decision myself or leave it up to someone else entirely?

Taking this moment might seem banal, but for me it has become a powerful tool of my unlearning journey. I don’t think about whether I have the time to make this decision (which used to be my main challenge in previous leadership positions). Instead, I ask myself what my role should be. It is also powerful because these moments remind me almost on a daily basis of the wisdom, experience and expertise around me—making the CEO role much less lonely than it used to feel.

I use this rethinking process not only with the team but also apply it to our partnerships with other organisations and individuals. One example is the Women Leadership Lab we are currently piloting in Germany. We invited all committed organisations to co-design the objectives, criteria for participation and spirit of a new leadership programme based on feminist principles. The 16 participants now co-design their own year-long learning journey alongside us and an experienced leadership coach.

I’ve observed that, especially in the beginning, this was irritating to some people I work with. Some might have even thought (or still think) that I am a weak leader by not exercising the typical CEO decision-making power. And yes, sometimes this prolongs the process, challenges me to answer tough questions and sometimes even give up my original idea altogether. But what I also observe is that I like the results that we achieve through truly collective decision-making much better. They seem to stick longer, get more buy-in and support, and create a new level of trust and appreciation among the team.

What this approach does not mean to me is retracting from accountability and the formal responsibility that still rests with me as a CEO. I also don’t pretend that we don’t have any hierarchies or different levels of power in our small team anymore. There are certain decisions that I still need to make as they might have legal consequences for the organisation. I try to be transparent in these situations and share why and how I came to a specific conclusion.

Redefining decision-making continues to be an intense process as it touches on some many critical points about power and privilege. I don’t always feel I get it “right,” but I am already much more comfortable in highly collective decision-making processes, where responsibility and power is shared, than I was when I held all that power myself.

What does Leading for Change look like?

Explore more experiences, insights and learnings from our team and 10 leading social impact organisations.