leadership handstyle
We discussed the meaning of truly "Cooperative Leadership." To begin our discussion, we first explored the damaging impacts Neoliberalism has had on shaping our notions of success, democracy, and leadership.
CoopYouth Statement on Cooperative Leadership




Within cooperatives, leadership must be participatory, transparent, empowered, and shared. Given that shared leadership runs counter to the individualistic notions of leadership predominant in much of society, maintaining cooperative leadership within an organization is a constant task of resisting the creep of uncooperative culture. Multiple interviewees indicated that, if power is not consistently and clearly defined as shared within the cooperative, leadership will eventually degrade into a deferential model, as those holding titular roles (e.g. staff person) compound and consolidate their power at the expense of other members. One lesson that these observations underscores is that building leadership into an organizational structure is ineffective or counterproductive, as building leadership is more a function of culture than structure. The 2015 CoopYouth Statement on Cooperative Leadership, drafted at an ICA Conference in Turkey, identified three definitive areas of cooperative leadership:

  • participatory democracy,
  • leadership succession and shared representation, and
  • autonomy of youth;

so this key issue section is structured accordingly. Much of the leadership observations from the statement primarily address the governance infrastructure of the Cooperative Movement (e.g. federations, associations), though its lessons apply to leadership in all aspects of the movement. The tenets the statement enumerates comprise a minimum standard for maintaining a strong, distributed culture of leadership both within individual cooperatives and movement infrastructure. 


In the 2015 CoopYouth Statement on Cooperative Leadership, participatory democracy was defined as processes or methods that “seek out consensus and engage large numbers of people, rather than rely heavily on representational models.” This implies that members are informed of and understand all issues facing a cooperative and have a way to influence decision-making. The demoractic distribution of influence and power within a cooperative is a requisite for cooperative leadership.

Representational governance models in individual cooperatives often look like a subset of a membership meeting regularly (e.g. Board of Directors or comparable) and making decisions for the entire membership. The subset is typically selected via elections, with some positions being filled by the representational body itself (e.g. appointed Directors from outside the cooperative), and/or others being reserved for representatives from within subordinate bodies (e.g. Committee Chairs). Within federations or other forms of movement infrastructure, individual cooperatives may select among themselves who will serve in a representational entity (e.g. federation) on which multiple cooperatives are represented, or individuals may be able to run for election at-large. These movement bodies often have a representational governance structure within them, as well, comprised of committees, task forces, etc.

In representational models, leadership is built into the structure of the cooperative organization, which does not preclude other forms of leadership - but can hamper them from developing, as well as can result in members deferring to titular leadership and becoming disengaged. Participatory democracy is not achieved by any specific structure, though it can be harder to achieve in some structures than in others (e.g. representational models). Some cooperative movement organizations (e.g. federations) are able to maintain participatory democracy in a representational federation when all the individual cooperatives comprising their members have truly participatory democracy - that culture permeates the representational model and keeps it from degrading into deference and disengagement.


For leadership to be authentically shared, it is necessary to take steps to specifically empower peoples conventionally excluded from leadership in society, as well as ensure that positions of power within organizations are rotated to avoid consolidation of power by individuals or factions. Additionally, the practice of sharing leadership among various people with different life experiences and perspectives assists in creating a style of leadership that effectively represents both most people and more kinds of labor. Most conventional leadership models are patriarchal (i.e. consider “feminine” labor and expertise to be less valuable) or white supremacist (e.g. enforces notions of “profesionalism,” which you can read more about in “Cooperative Culture), which doesn’t create space for all the kinds of labor and contributions necessary within leadership to be successful. Still further, these conventional leadership frameworks consider the labor of leadership to be “better” or “worth more” than other forms of labor, when all kinds of labor requires skills, time, and learning; the former framework just works to manufacture unhelpful power imbalances and inequitable distribution of benefits. The steps towards creating successive and shared leadership are required in governance, operations, and all aspects of cooperative functioning. 


In the 2015 statement, coopyouth insisted upon the maintenance of “term limits and gender equity,” in governance roles. Throughout the world in cooperatives, far more men hold positions of influence and power, an issue long acknowledged by the International Cooperative Alliance, which skews leadership styles and methods in a narrow way, as mentioned above. Within coopyouth spaces, the significance of “gender equity” is expanded to name the need to include more peoples of other marginalized identities beyond gender, including the poor, people of color, equatorial islanders and others most impacted by climate change, among others. This ensures that, over time, governance leadership remains representative of and accessible to all cooperative members. Strong “term limits” also help to ensure shared leadership over time, but - more uniquely and immediately - serves to dismantle current monopolies on power by certain peoples, such as men, those with more educational credentials, etc. In service to the correcting and redistribution of leadership needed now, the aforementioned 2015 leadership statement also asserts the need to “proactively include youth on [...] Boards through statutory seats.” Maintaining a statutory youth seat is a practice has existed for some time in some corners of the movement, but it is not yet a universal practice - most notably within movement governance organizations that provide strategic leadership guiding the Cooperative Movement, at-large, into the future. In 2019, the ICA Board responded to this call for more explicit and codified inclusion of youth in movement governance by formally mandating that all regional Boards maintain a statutory youth seat with full voting powers. To date, this measure has not been fully adopted by all regions, but efforts are continuing to bring about equity in representation of youth globally within the ICA


The Coopyouth Statement on Cooperative Leadership from 2015 states the need for the Cooperative Movement and its cooperatives to “maintain shared management structures among leadership and executives to avoid the consolidation of power and foster turnover of leadership in perpetuity.” Similar in nature to the above call for governance leadership responsibilities to be redistributed and cycled more frequently cycled, the same principles and practices must be applied to staff, non-member workers, and the operational responsibilities of worker-members within cooperatives. Often, as staff leadership roles typically have no term limits of any kind, they are more likely than governance leaders to squat in a position of power long enough to shape the work and culture according to their individual views, rather than being representative of the membership and staff’s collective leadership style and perspective. More specifically to this end, the statement also elaborates the need to “put in place policy that plans for the development of young staff upwards into leadership roles.” A common issue in cooperative and non-cooperative organizations alike is the resistance of older workers and staff to transition leadership responsibilities or roles to younger people, and justifying their action based on their relative level of “expertise” compared to their younger colleagues. This is a trap for youth, because, in this paradigm, they have no way to gain the expertise theoretically necessary to advance. A trait commonly attributed to millenials is their transience in work positions, which is sometimes accounted for by the “inability to commit” or comparable by youth, but it is more often a function of the lack of development opportunities. This trap and phenomenon is further caused by conventional notions of leadership, which imply that leadership labor is more “valuable” and should be paid more and leaders should be given more power - such a set-up disincentivizes most people from giving up leadership roles of responsibilities because it can sometimes mean a pay cut. By naming this phenomenon and proactively and intentionally facilitating the growth of youth in organizational work, it can thereby help to reconceptualize leadership labor as just as valuable as other forms of labor. 


One of the most controversial aspects of coopyouth leadership within the governance infrastructure of the Cooperative Movement is how the older movement institutions perceive and relate to coopyouth organizations. Often, coopyouth organizations are - logistically - functions of intergenerational governance institutions, in so far as they often meet in coordination with the larger organization, typically have some level of formal relationship with the larger Board (e.g. power to nominate a Director), and sometimes receive a small amount of funding. Many of the logistical host institutions marry their affiliation function with a sense of control over the youth initiatives. When a “host” or affiliated elder cooperative feels entitled to some level of control of a youth cooperative, not only does it dissuade youth from participating in the controlled organization and its activities, it also stifles the evolution and development of cooperative philosophy and practice by encouraging (at best) and requiring (at worst) compliance with the predominant perspectives and behaviors of the older group. As is true for all cooperatives, youth cooperatives need to be respected as fully autonomous and independent - no matter how they are funded or founded; treating them otherwise degrades the Cooperative Identity of all involved.

Membership Eligibility

From the Statement on Cooperative Leadership - “allow for youth organizations to be autonomous at the ICA, regional, and national levels. More specifically, the ICA Board should allow the Youth Committee (formerly Global Youth Network) to decide who and how people can be members of our network.” Frequently, host or affiliated institutions will express their control over a coopyouth organization by defining who and how youth can become members. This entitlement to defining membership for youth is reasoned by the relationship of membership with the payment of fiscal dues; an incredibly narrow perspective on economic participation and gravely limited interpretation of the according 3rd principle, which speaks to equitable contribution to and control of cooperative capital, not that every person must pay the same dues - which is incongruent with the needs-based orientation of cooperative philosophy on the whole. The movement stifles itself in a grand sense when it defines membership eligibility for youth organizations only to those youth financially affiliated with dues paying members of a host organization. By doing so, it makes participation in the Cooperative Movement incredibly inaccessible to those youth “not already in” the movement and/or those young people already generally marginalized and disempowered within society. This creates a culture of exclusivity that trends towards a much less representative and equitable movement - which is wholly unappealing to most young people. Youth need to be able to lead and steward their generation of cooperators, as they are the best equipped to do so.

Redistribution of Wealth

A correlated way in which the autonomy of youth organizations is undermined is through conditional funding relationships. These financial relationships, whether explicitly stated as such or not, are often conditional upon the youth organization acting in ways the older organization deems “appropriate” - including with regard to membership eligibility. Further, out of fear of losing access to funding or other resources, youth may stifle their own thinking and practices in order to comply with the views of their supporting organization, whether or not those views are truly cooperative. This teaches youth that compliance - rather than progressive and creative thinking - is how to advance and lead within the Cooperative Movement. As was well established by all the research contained in the review of various coopyouth reports in “What Came Before,” as well as via the conducted interviews, the ability to access sufficient capital is perhaps the biggest issue individual youth and youth cooperatives face in their lives and work. In light of this, coopyouth have repeatedly called for the redistribution of wealth within the Cooperative Movement, without the addition of paternalistic conditions tied to that redistribution. One meaningful – and essentially cooperative – expression of leadership is knowing “how to give up what is theirs for the sake of the common good” (Arizmendiarrieta, 1999, 76). Coopyouth identified in statements from 2012, 2014, and 2019 that the common good is best served by redistributing “the cooperative movement’s wealth of resources to support marginalized peoples, including youth, to build autonomous networks and innovate the cooperative business model.” In practice, this means continuing existing relationships funding youth projects and organizations without exerting external control or requiring ideological compliance, as well as nurturing new funding relationships without placing restrictions on them in any way. This has a profound impact on a social movement or system because, at root, when wealth is redistributed, power is redistributed.