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Collaborative Leadership Retreat: reflections from participants

Written by Esra Tat, Alyna Smith and Claire Fernandez after our recent Collaborative Leadership Retreat in Spain.

What brought us there

The Hum organised a Collaborative Leadership Retreat near Malaga, Spain, from the 10th to the 14th of January 2024, gathering 16 leaders from various non-profit organisations.

The three of us, Brussels-based European network professionals, have different entry points into the concepts and practices of ‘leadership’. The reasons we joined this retreat however are interconnected and related.

Esra: ‘I started my career as an entrepreneur leading an emerging social enterprise, where I followed rather conventional business practices, often clashing with my own instincts. In 2010, I attended my first collective intelligence event at a Mouvement Colibris-hosted Open Space Forum. This experience was a stepping stone in my journey to reinvent what it means to “lead”. Later, I joined Ouishare, a nascent decentralised community, then Enspiral and The Hum as a collaborator with the intention to keep nurturing my practice, and contributing to meaningful work. I have met a lot of directors, via my current role as the Director of Zero Waste Europe and at The Hum, who were trying to strike a balance between our directorial roles and our commitment to fostering a culture of power-sharing and collaboration. Often people who would cringe at hearing the word “leader”. I joined the hosting team for this retreat to design a space for them, for us.

Alyna: ‘When the invitation came to me, I was flattered that someone considered me a “leader” but was pretty sure this wasn’t a place or event for me. “Leadership” is definitely not a term I identify with and is one I generally feel allergic to. It conjures up summits and suits and c-suites. Not to mention achievement and excellence at a higher altitude than I inhabit. It also felt indulgent to be there, like time I couldn’t afford to take. I’d come because of the word “collective”, which spoke to me as something that matters in how I approach my work and my role, and because I wanted to learn from others about what this could look like in practice for me. Another reason I’d chosen to come was that a friend, Claire Fernandez, had urged me to, and I trust her. I’d also worked with two of the facilitators, Nati Lombardo and Esra Tat of the Hum, before and had a very positive experience that made me feel hopeful that the journey would at least be a gentle one.”

Claire: ‘Recently, many people have encouraged me to reflect about my leadership style. A professional contact recently asked me how come someone like me ended up in my current position. They meant well, from a place of curiosity, but this did leave me wonder. What is ‘someone like me?’ What is leadership done ‘differently?’ In my community of support, I am privileged to include Esra Tat, who has introduced me to decentralised organising and the team at The Hum 6 years ago. So when Esra asked me to join a leadership retreat in January in the South of Spain it just felt like the right time and the right process. In the lead up to the retreat and the first moments, I was in my brain, eager to map what makes leadership collaborative, empowering and joyful, to define the next steps in my leadership journey. It felt important to find the recipe for cultivating leadership in a sustainable way, and to share that recipe.’

Charting collaborative leadership together 

The retreat was designed as a spacious process for reflection and companionship, a safe place to meet with peers who might not operate in the exact same environment (read: complete strangers) but who share enough to have meaningful perspective and new insights for each others. The facilitators team designed a process conducive to deep reflection, feelings, exploring, collectively and individually. They used the Open Space methodology for large and small group sessions, open discussions, case clinics and adding enough space for hikes in the hills, rest, and fun. 

Image: collective harvesting from some of the sessions, Nati Lombardo

On the first day, the group identified some the the traits of collaborative leadership. These include: 

  • Vision, clarity, guidance

  • Boldness in holding a vision and taking action towards it 

  • Ability to share power with others

  • Wisdom gathered from life experience, and ability to use storytelling based on that experience to communicate with and inspire others

  • Awareness of positionality and oppression 

  • Capacity to listen to others and to synthesise their views and needs

  • Empathy, adaptability, resilience, reassurance 

  • Awareness of and compassion for their own and their team’s limitations

  • Enabling others to solve problems

  • Deep commitment, integrity

  • Community of support 

  • Practices of care, solidarity 

  • Acknowledging vulnerability, fallibility.

We landed on the idea that these are aspirations, and that no of us embodies 100% of these traits on their own. We reflected on leadership as a way to create space for others, while guiding and supporting the general direction; leadership that is propositional and invitational - as opposed to dominance - and nurturing a sense of community and solidarity. In the lead up to our retreat, Rich summarised this with the metaphor of “leadership as hospitality”. 

Esra: ‘The hosting analogy makes a lot of sense to me, thinking about the need for self-care (you can’t host well if you’re hungry!) which can be counter-intuitive or even guilt-tripping when you are under pressure and accountable for others’ wellbeing. I also like the idea that a host decides on things (decisiveness), even though they might ask guests for their preferences or even co-create the menu or cook together (collaboration). I prefer the idea of moving from leaderless organisations and networks, to leaderful ones, where each and everyone is invited and supported to step into their power. And considering the “collaborative leader” as the one guiding this resonates a lot with me.’

Alyna: ‘The picture that emerged was one of leadership that speaks to me. Not that I’m there, but it does connect with my aspirations. It’s a vision of leadership that, far from the brilliant solitary decision-maker I’ve typically imagined, is one that can only be achieved and sustained with the support of others.’

Claire: ‘Beyond the picture of theoretical models of collaborative leadership, from the second day it was clear that the real work was to let go of our expectations and go deep into what could help us do better and nurture the parts of us that would help us be good leaders. We had started the hard and challenging work of exploring, being held by the care and support of others, our own objectives and goals.’

Break through moments  

For most participants, explorations came as the result of two powerful exercises. The first was the iceberg model, designed to help us understand our behavioural patterns, and what their key drives might be. It was a powerful, and emotionally-loaded exercise, to look below the waterline and into the invisible, pushing us to look into our beliefs, values and needs that might drive behaviours that we are not always proud of. 

Esra: ‘We looked into a specific behaviour that we wanted to interrupt, shift or shape. Like another participant shared with me, I sighed when I got to the bottom of the needs/belief/values, and realised that once again, I was battling with a well known set of needs and fears. It took me some effort to bring some compassion to that reality, and the afternoon hike helped dissipate some of the gut-twisting feelings.’

Alyna: ‘This exercise was confronting and left many of us with a lot of emotion that we carried into the afternoon and following day. There was a kind of “aha” moment when I could suddenly put a name on one of the major factors that underlines challenges I face in leadership – and in life, frankly. The exercise also made clear that many of things I have going for me are also my Achilles heel.’

On the 3rd day, we looked into the future, starting with sharing a specific challenge and getting support from others. The troïka consulting model (Liberating structure) is undoubtedly a fantastic tool for peer coaching. Many of us came out with a clear set of goals and ideas to test in the coming months. 

Claire: ‘It became clear that the answers are within me, that I need to work through some fears and to trust my intuitions towards spacious meaningful and sustainable work. The exercise was the push needed to get the courage, the ‘boldness’ as one participant repeated, the empowering reassurance to be our best selves.’

The three of us, with other women working in the Brussels bubble or in polarised and often depoliticised organisations, also reflected on our need for a political vision of change and leadership. We reflected on Rich’s theory of change around organising and belonging, and how progressive change must be rooted in connection rather than exclusion. This conversation opened many questions about connection and belonging:

  • Connection for whom, and at what cost? 

  • How much can we carry on our shoulders? How much is too much? 

  • What additional burdens are women of colour directly impacted by oppression carrying?

  • When does this work to foster belonging just reinforces connections among the in-group, deepening exclusion of those outside the club? 

  • How can we work with allies to bear the discomfort and paralysis that can happen when being/not being in radical progressive spaces?

  • Where does the need for reconciliation between circles/tribes/social groups need to happen?

  • How can leaders hold these various paces and circles? 

  • When do we turn the radicality up and when do we turn it down for change? 

What’s next

While we are left with many open questions, we also left with our versions of objectives and action plans. Above all, we gained a sense of clarity and spaciousness that we hope to cultivate in the next months. Collaborative leadership is not a one size-fits-all; it’s a process of uncovering, removing what is blocking or hindering, and leaning in with more courage to traits we already have. And doing that together.

Alyna: ‘I am grateful for the care taken in designing and hosting it by our facilitators, in caring for our needs as participants throughout, in creating spaces of trust and connection through conversation, walks in nature and music. The place mattered too. Being on a hillside with a view of the mountains, in a spacious home, in a quiet and spacious place reinforced the message of space that so many of us took away: we need to make space in our lives for connection and reflection, we need to give space to others and take space when it’s called for. We need to breath and resist the tendency to catastrophise. It’s hard. But running ourselves into the ground, pushing through alone, succumbing to the feeling of perpetual urgency, doesn’t make the world better.’

Claire: ‘It turns out the pathway to collaborative leadership and meaningful work resides within us, so as long as we nurture the self, the peers, the communities of support and cherish the environment(s) and space(s) we belong to.’

Esra: ‘In the next few weeks, I know I might start forgetting the exact learnings of the retreat (my 17 pages of notes will then prove useful!) but I know what will stay: 

- The lightness of having shared thoughts and views that I haven’t had the chance to share anywhere else. 

- The power of seeing myself in others’ eyes, the support of peers and simply being held. 

- The joy of good laughs, silliness, and some random dance moves. 

- The resonance of authenticity, remembering how everyone “cut the bullshit” and was eager to speak from the ‘I’.

- The magic of putting a group of strangers into a space and leaving with a sense of community. 

And above all, the beauty and strength of an open horizon and spaciousness. I felt grounded, calm and at peace. I got to see above the clouds, quite literally, and this confirmed where I want to be, and how I want to bring others along on the journey.’


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