The Lab |

Lessons in Co‑Leadership

What Every Leader Can Learn from This Frontier Form of Power-Sharing


 How we work impacts what we create.

Traditional hierarchical models have led the way for organizations thus far. 

But to meet today’s global systemic challenges and build a more regenerative and equitable future, organizations — and the human beings within them — need new ways of working. New structures for sharing power, new modes of leadership, and new systems of governance that model the change we seek from the inside-out.

One solution in this emerging ecosystem is co-leadership — where two or more leaders share power and responsibility. This model has the potential to bring wide-ranging benefits — from increased satisfaction for participating co-leaders to better decision-making for the organization. Co-leadership is structural in how it impacts organizational design and workflows. For example, mapping what work will be shared and what work will be run individually takes time to finesse. But co-leadership is also relational in how it asks participants to reimagine how they view power, success, their co-leaders, and themselves.

This article shares lessons learned through practicing co-leadership — specifically, from coaching the co-leaders of Stanford Impact Labs (SIL).

When practice-oriented researcher, professor, foreign policy expert and SIL founder, Jeremy Weinstein, began searching for a co-leader, he knew that he wanted a practitioner to bring a completely different perspective to the table. At the time, SIL was a new initiative born from within Stanford University’s School of Humanities and Sciences. And while the university had its own long standing culture, Stanford Impact Lab sought to chart a more novel course — one that would reflect the central tenet of its mission.

After months of interviews, Weinstein met Misan Rewane, a research-oriented social entrepreneur with deep on-the-ground experience in international development, fundraising and public policy across Africa, Europe and the U.S. In each other, they each found a partner who shared their vision and values — but who also challenged their thinking and often contradicted their instincts. 

At the onset of their co-leadership, Jeremy as faculty director and Misan as executive director, Misan knew that the pair needed support to successfully navigate this unchartered territory. Traditionally, a faculty director holds power over an executive director, and they were looking to radically overturn that dynamic. The duo brought in executive coach Jee Chang and transformation consultant Madeleine Lowenthal from UME. Together, the four of us engaged in seven months of coaching to support the development of a healthy and effective co-leadership dynamic. While this model is absolutely not for every organization, we believe everyone can learn from it.

Here are six lessons we’ve learned, so far.

1. Co-leadership emerges through the relationship.

Every co-leader relationship has its own unique characteristics, chemistry, and potential. Just like molecules coming together to form a new compound, co-leaders come together to create a new force in their organization. Rather than a static platonic ideal, this model is inherently emergent. The specific structure of each instance of co-leadership depends on the unique combination of its participants.

Misan Rewane: “What do you mean when you say you want a partnership? What does that look like in practice? How are we going to lead together?

Jeremy Weinstein: “Well, that’s part of what we’ll figure out as we move through the process.”

The specific structure that emerged for Misan and Jeremy is one of shared visibility, decision-making and thought leadership across all work. After weeks of rolling up their sleeves together, they were able to explicitly corroborate each other’s strengths and challenges, areas of expertise and interests — and distribute operational responsibilities accordingly. This strategic division of labor allows them to focus on what they know and love, and share the responsibility of everyday operations.

2. Co-leadership respects multiple truths.

The belief that “a right answer” exists is a byproduct of centralized power — where the boss’ view becomes the right view. In contrast, co-leadership is rooted in humility and grounded in the worldview that there is no one right answer but instead many valid perspectives, approaches and ways forward. It embraces possibility over certainty and asks us to relinquish the idea of control and lean into our differences. This can be unfamiliar territory, especially for highly intelligent and successful experts, academics, and leaders.

Madeleine Lowenthal: “Co-leadership asks us to unlearn, perhaps even more than it asks us to learn. This process requires self-awareness, a willingness to try on new ideas and shed previously held notions about who we are and what it means to be a leader.

Jeremy Weinstein: “Although we are similar in many ways, Misan and I have very different instincts and orientations. I am a perfectionist — my instinct is high standards, excellence, and pushing forward. While that’s served me well in the past, it does not necessarily support an open and inclusive environment where others freely share differing opinions. Misan is an explorer — her instinct is toward experimentation, prototyping, failing fast, learning and trying again. These differences produce friction, but we use that friction to make our process richer and our outcomes more impactful. This experience has moved me from thinking about ‘right and wrong’ to ‘a and b.’”

3. Co-leadership requires complete honesty.

This model functions on diverse inputs and collective decision-making. To get there, participants need to practice complete honesty. To be radically open and vulnerable. To be aware of and voice their concerns. To point out each other’s biases and blindspots. To listen and lean into disagreement. This is critical because as Madeleine Lowenthal says, “co-leadership moves at the speed of human development and trust.” But most of us are not experts in brave communications and productively navigating tension.

Misan Rewane: “We needed a coach to help us create guidelines for our partnership. Having this container has been essential to setting us up for success.”

Misan Rewane: “Rather than trying to be a cohesive unit working in lockstep, we try to be a coherent team that invites tension into the mix as an essential ingredient.”

With an open and honest dynamic, decision-making moves from from a private, implicit solo act into a public, explicit collective process.

4. Co-leadership activates collective wisdom.

Diverse inputs make for stronger outputs. By working together, co-leadership yields better, richer outcomes that help the organization make progress toward its mission.  

Misan Rewane: “The beauty of co-leadership is that we bring different considerations to the table, and that makes our decisions stronger. 

Misan Rewane: “I judge the success of our co-leadership based on its impact on the organization. Does the team feel like they get higher quality mentorship, direction and collaboration from the two of us compared to traditional leadership? Are they feeling more supported in their career journey? Is the team thriving and engaged? Is our organization doing what needs to get done?” 

Jeremy Weinstein: “Bringing diverse expertise to address social problems is the driving philosophy behind Stanford Impact Labs. We believe that expertise comes from the systematic study of social issues, but also from the lived experience of working on these issues on the ground. Embodying that in the way we structure our team and leadership just makes sense.”

5. Co-leadership takes time.

Exploring divergent points of view. Checking your biases. Debating which values to prioritize. Agreeing on the way forward. This model is inherently human and inherently messy. It’s not very efficient in the short term, but we believe that it is more effective in the long term. That the quality of the work and the scale of the impact is ultimately greater. But this is a trade-off that anyone considering co-leadership needs to consider.

Misan Rewane: “My biggest lesson through this process has been patience. I've always been comfortable with ambiguity, but I'm less comfortable with slowness. When I’m working with someone on our team, I want to give them the green light then and there. I don't want to be a bottleneck. But as a co-leader, I need to circle back and make sure that Jeremy and I are aligned before giving that green light. It’s an adjustment.”

Jeremy Weinstein: “Co-leadership has higher transaction costs. It's definitely more work. Sharing power is not the same as just seeking someone’s input. It’s not easy. But we believe it’s better. It’s more aligned with our mission and values.”

6. Co-leadership lightens the load.

Leadership, especially of a purpose-driven organization, is mental and emotional labor. It can be inspiring and energizing — and relentless and depleting. But it doesn’t have to be.

Jeremy Weinstein: “Carrying and caring for an organization is more sustainable when it’s a shared commitment. It’s not just a cold calculus, that you offload operational tasks and each of you has more time. It’s that you have a partner guiding and stewarding this organization with you. Co-leading with Misan makes this venture energetically sustainable and more resilient.

Jee Chang: “When leading an organization demands your body and soul, there are so many talented people who opt out. Or burn out. I often wonder about the amazing organizations and movements the world has missed out on because of this. Co-leadership broadens the aperture and allows more diverse types of people to step into leadership roles. And I am thrilled to see what emerges."

We are a work in progress.

What’s next for Jeremy and Misan? They are working to share the insights, tools and ways of working that they’ve learned inside their partnership with their wider team. So that they can understand the practical benefits of this model to their organization, and begin to consider how they might adapt their culture and workflows as well.

More from The Lab

See All

Harness UME's

If you're a visionary looking to grow with integrity and make an impact— let's talk.

Reach Out

Join UME's

If you’re looking for an open relationship, a team you can count on, and a place to do great things — let’s talk.

Introduce Yourself