Action Spectrum graphic

Co-Creative Leadership sounds compelling and exciting perhaps, but how exactly do you practice it? The Action Spectrum helps reveal how to engage with others while still moving projects forward. For those new to co-creation, I find that many are concerned that they will have less control, extend deadlines, and be tossed into chaos. While that can happen, it by no means needs to. Others believe leadership is antithetical to the emergence and peer respect that co-creation involves. For those, I would say that the old command and control form of leadership won’t work, and yet, there is a role for a different style of leadership. That everyone involved in co-creation can be leaderful.

1. Control

It may seem counter-intuitive for co-creation to be clear about, yet it is actually essential at the individual level. Know clearly what you do control. When you are clear on your realm of control, you will find it easier not to control what isn’t yours. (At least that helps me, since I have a long-standing habit of trying to control everything around me. Now I just work on controlling myself and what I stand up to be responsible for.) Control is the realm of simple even mechanical systems. Often the language of the control space sounds mechanistic. What do you control:

  • What story do you want to have about the facts? You control your story and how you experience those facts. How you talk about co-creative efforts helps create culture, excitement, and sets expectations. Telling stories about resourcefulness, generosity, flexibility, gratitude, and learning encourage co-creative engagement.
  • How do you want to respond to what comes your way? Following from controlling your own story, you control your response. You can’t control what comes, but you can control how you react. Your reaction to what happens demonstrates the kind of culture that the collective supports. Are you reacting with patience, curiosity, appreciation, and resourcefulness?
  • What about moving forward or next steps are not dependent on someone else that you can take to demonstrate your own commitment? What are you taking action on right now? You can’t control for all the variables for next week, month, or year, but you can control what action you are taking right now. Can you name small actions that you can start on right away that can be reciprocated by others stepping forward with their small next step?
  • What do you want to be held accountable for – what commitment to output can you make to the group (that you have control over)? For example, that could be drafting an invitation, hosting a discussion or posting to a dialogue space, or reaching out to speak with someone else, etc.

2. Guide

Guiding and influencing others can seem a bit paternalistic from the wrong angle, and yet actions in this realm can be helpful in co-creation leadership too. The guide space tends toward complex systems. We hear the language of cooperation, partnership, and agreements. Engage generatively with others using guide-like actions:

  • How are you inviting others to partner with you? Is your invitation acknowledging the value that others bring to the co-creative endeavor? Does it demonstrate that you have listened to their concerns? Does it inspire them to bring their best, most creative, and insightful versions of themselves?
  • What actions can you take with someone else or a group of others? Does your invitation to action have a clear next step that resonates with why others are interested in co-creating with you?
  • How does your invitation to action together build on what others are already doing or already have expressed? Avoid offering your pre-scripted plan, especially a multi-step plan, if it doesn’t take into account what is alive and emerging in the present with others.
  • How is your guidance on a next step spontaneous and playful?

3. Nurture

Co-creative leadership shows up most in the realm of what we nurture. Older styles of leadership remained in command and control spaces. Co-creative leadership flourishes in the realm of what we nurture. Look for words of gardening and not the language of machines. The nurture space tends toward complex adaptive systems where predictability is challenging and emergence, probability, and ongoing learning rule.

  • How are you cultivating patience and an openness to what arises from the group and beyond?
  • How are you planting seeds of possibility with others? Is your story speaking to a desired vision of the whole?
  • What actions can you take that shine the light on the magnificence of others? And is that replicable in a way that they can then shine the light onward?
  • What simple agreements can you create with others that enable each contributor a great deal of autonomy? Often emergence of rich possibility arises from just a few simple parameters. Avoid lengthy rules and policies, and instead elucidate clear principles.
  • Is what you are doing easy to share and replicate? Can others see not just what you did but how you did it in a way they feel invited to try it themselves? It is crucial that they believe they can try it themselves and not that you are the privileged expert that they need to rely on.
  • How are you providing the resources and opportunities for others to flourish? to bring and be their best selves? Are you enabling other people to lead from where they are? Do you acknowledge and encourage what others are doing in a way that they feel seen and supported?

Co-creative leadership leverages the full action spectrum, enabling each individual a great deal of personal control and freedom, encouraging individual agency while rallying around clear agreed upon principles and visions. There is an immense range of variety in co-creative leadership. I hope these questions have helped to surface some of the edges to play with as you extend your co-creative efforts.

I’ve written about scale-up (scaling) many times before, as scale-up or under another ‘label’ for the scaling concept – international outreach.   Working with a number of groups involved in various aspects of scaling, as well as writing about these experiences over the past few decades, I have seen our perspectives on scaling change.

As a few examples, from 1997 through 2012 I helped with the creation and nurturing of the worldwide osteopathic community and their holistic approach to health care through the development of the Osteopathic International Alliance. The success of this effort in many ways can be attributed to the then executive director of the American Osteopathic Association  who was a co-creative leader before we were beginning to call leaders by that term, and the multinational steering committee that envisioned a worldwide community.  In 2011 I helped lead some discussions around scale up at the Ashoka 30th Anniversary Conference in Paris.  For the purposes of the sessions I facilitated we used a working definition of ‘expanding or growing your approach in order to increase impact.’  We talked about various considerations to be aware of and the importance of reassessing periodically why you are doing what you are doing and if your plan might need adaptation.  Although most of the focus was still on ‘scale up’ as defined below, impact was clearly a goal most people had in mind, as perceptions around scaling were beginning to change.

In the past few years we are beginning to see a more robust discussion around different aspects to scaling (including a new Ashoka program Globalizers which is looking at Scaling Social Impact). Below I have outlined some of the different perspective to scaling that are emerging:

Scale Up – The historic approach – an entity or program gets bigger – geography can be a factor but not as important as how many goods are produced or services provided, usually by the one central controlling entity.

Scale Out – A variation on the historic approach that focuses mostly on a geographic spread -spreading good ideas, often expanding them/or an organization geographically, does not have to have as much central control.

Scale Deep  –  A new perspective of trying to spread good ideas that have worked well in one location successfully and sustainably to another, with local customization and focus on scaling long-term impact more than any one specific version of the idea.

There has recently also been some talk about ‘transformative scale’ which also focuses on impact but puts an almost a messianic emphasis on moving in this direction, with some talking about it being ‘the defining challenge of the social sector in the coming decade’.  And even a recent toolkit by those known for exploring how to develop more effective global partnerships which still maintains the mindset of  an inevitable ‘bigger is better’ with little talk about assessing impact around growth: “Once a project or pilot has been successfully implemented, the next step is to build upon this success by sustaining and growing it further. Essentially this means extending the reach of your work to a bigger population.”

Changes in perceptions do take their time.  But to achieve impact at scale, our thinking needs to move beyond the historic definition of scaling as a centrally controlled scale up and the mindset that bigger is better.  As a 2012 report by the Social Impact Exchange notes – scaling impact remains elusive: “Even the most effective mission driven organizations face the daunting challenge of scaling social impact.”  To truly scale deep we need to work closely with local partners and in some cases be ready to say that what worked well in one place, may not work at all somewhere else.  With all of the ways in which the concept of scaling is talked about, one of the most important lessons is that context matters.

Although there is not a lot in one place to guide our thinking about scaling (colleagues and I have tried to collect some of what has been written on a Global Scale wiki) much more has been written about the concepts of scale up and scale out than the newer approach of scale deep.  In some ways scaling deep can be viewed as an impact that the social sector is having on the business sector, as opposed to the opposite direction – of scaling originally being a business term that was adopted by the social sector.

If one is looking to expand good ideas or programs, a major challenge is finding the balance between what needs to be standardized (i.e. done the same everywhere), and what can be customized locally.  With the traditional business sector concept of scale up, the emphasis is on standardization with limited customization, only as needed to sell additional products or services (i.e. McDonalds in India sells chicken burgers instead of beef burgers).  With scaling deep, the emphasis is on local customization – what needs to stay standardized, or core, to keep the integrity of the idea or program, can be kept at a minimum so that the local partners can customize to their own context and needs.  Vesting local partners in this co-creative process raises the chances for long-term sustainability.  Finding the right balance will call for leaders that understand the co-creative process, co-creative leaders.

When all is said and done, the labels don’t matter, it’s the concepts that do.  Here are some of the important concepts to deciding when and how scaling might be appropriate and how to go about it to keep the focus on impact (what we might call scaling deep):

  1. Context –  Instead of starting with the approach that something worked well in one place, label it a ‘best practice’, and look for ways to scale it, let’s start first with an analysis of why it worked well in a particular location/context and try to identify what aspects might be replicable (and what might not).
  2. Partnerships/Collaborations (co-creation) –  For something to successfully transfer from one location to another, and be sustainable over time, it needs to work in partnership from the very beginning with those in the area we might hope to transfer it to.  History is littered with good ideas and ‘best practices’ that have not been sustained when this step of working closely with partners – in a co-creative, not just token approach – is skipped or minimized.

3. Co-creative Leadership –  I recently read an article that argued that the job description of the leader has officially changed from “smartest guy in the room” to chief promoter of the idea that “nobody” is as smart as “everybody”. . .It’s the leader’s job to invite as many smart people into the room as possible, to create opportunities for and channel contributions from the broadest mix of people—wherever they sit in the organization (or the world).”    We are slowly coming to the realization that effective, sustainable solutions cannot be designed from the top by one leader, or a small, exclusive group.  The co-creative leader understands that he/she must lead by empowering others to be part of the design and implementation of long-term solutions.

4. Customization – what is core and what can be customized?  The historic approach to scale up focused on trying to transfer most of what worked somewhere else.  We are now seeing that minimizing what needs to be core (or standard) to only those things which keep the integrity of the idea or program, and allowing for maximum local customization will make the reiteration more sustainable.

5. Trial (and error) – Sometimes to know how to adapt and customize you need to experiment and allow the ability to fail in order to learn and adapt.  It may also mean being willing to admit that a good idea that works in one place may not in fact work outside of that context.

6. Time and Sustained Commitment– effective scaling in my experience always takes longer than we think.   I recently visited the Twawenza website  and loved their reminder that “Real change takes time. We are not keen to just do easy activities and check implementation boxes.”  We need to have greater commitments (and funders need to commit the resources) to multiyear projects that allow time for ‘failure’ and adaptation.

In one of the first articles I wrote about scaling in the 1990’s “Is it time for you to go International?”  I ended with the thought that organizations should also “Recognize when not to go international”.   I would still say that this concept holds true:  if you are hoping to scale ideas that have worked in one context, that working with local partners you carefully study the context in which you hope to scale and you may decide that it is not advantageous to proceed (or at least not in the way you originally envisioned).  But  today I would also underscore that if you do determine that it would be advantageous to try a scaling effort you work closely with those local partners to ensure that you scale deep – giving your efforts the best chance of achieving a significant and positive long-term social impact.

Last February I was honored once again with the facilitation of an artistic visualization in our 3rd ci2i Global event Learn/ Share Lab for Co-creative Impact and Innovation.

Believe me when I say honored, I mean it.  God knows how much I enjoy creating these activities, and being a vehicle to make things happen not having a clue what will come out but confident that the results will  exceed my expectations (if there is still any, because here I try hard to expect nothing and to let things flow, hard task for us humans).

As time goes by (yes Sam play it again) I enjoy more and more the fact that the outcomes of the artistic visualizations do have own life.

Each artist breathing life into his/ her creation: hands, hearts and spirits guided by the emotional intelligence. Isn´t that a privilege? It is fun time, time to be playful, precious moments to connect with ourselves and with others through the lense of art.

My offer is simple:

  • A name: the activity has a name, as everything must for our sake. A notion that structures the idea to work in, the word (or words) that will structure our thoughts, a path to move on.
  • A comment: brief – very, very – did I say it? once again very brief explanation, never on what is intended to, because nothing is intended, but a brief description of the materials that are offered, the space where we can work and the timing.

One of the things that thrills me most is the feeling that,  by the time I am on my own designing,  I hardly know the people that will take part of the art activity; but when it takes place, there is a  whole new bondage with those  “new dear artists”.

The ci2i team worked hard and gracefully in the design of the Learn/ Share Lab for Co-creative Impact and Innovation   so when thinking in the art activity, the words that came vividly to me were UNIQUENESS and TOGETHERNESS. Somehow they materialized what for me was all the co-creative process in which we, ci2i founders, were immersed in those pre Lab days. Each of us was bringing her uniqueness (personality, experience, light and shadows) to the process convinced that with our togetherness (collective knowledge, social commitment and will for the global good) the Learn Share Lab will come true.

And by the time the cases on co-creation started flowing in for their selection as case presenters to the event, the sense of those two words grew stronger.

The 9 selected practices (from the 21 that had arrived to us from all over the world) on co-creative approaches in social organizations, business corporations, universities and developing communities confirmed that their uniqueness and togetherness should be the guidelines for the Lab´s artistic visualization.

So I found myself on a wonderful February Chiang Mai night facilitating an activity with 25 co-creative artists, case presenters, practitioners and ci2i team members.

Now reflecting on those 3 Lab “juicy days” (reading blogposts, the Edgeryders dialogues, enjoying the pictures) I reflect in the leadership issue, to appreciate its evolution during the art visualization experienced as it developed.

It was night (almost 9 pm) and I proposed to do art to a very tired audience who had worked their heads off on that of the first lab day. I was a bit hesitant on the timing, the willingness and, of course, the success of this activity.

As the leader, I found myself trying to bring confidence and enthusiasm to the group, compensating with jokes and big corporal movements the sleepiness that I assumed was conquering everybody.

It was the way of leadership we are used to: one strong voice, with one strong idea engaging the will and work of the group. I briefly introduced the activity (name), its intention, timing and materials to work with (comment), making a special point that we should have fun.

The invitation was made… now what? As the leader I was anxious. Why?  I was afraid that things wouldn´t flow, though sure as I am that these activities role by themselves. The anxiety dissolved a few minutes later when the colors, glitters, glue, plastic boards and wooden sticks began to flow in the room.

Materials Mandala artistic visualizations @ Chiang Mai (Feb 2014)

Materials Mandala artistic visualizations @ Chiang Mai (Feb 2014)

Hands on artistic visualizations @ Chiang Mai (Feb 2014)

Hands on artistic visualizations @ Chiang Mai (Feb 2014)

Art was welcomed as a moment to play and relax, a new space where the leadership role naturally adjusted to, taking a step aside. I found myself watching and being at hand to particular questions and needs. Everyone was creating with enthusiasm, empowered in their arts and commenting to the ones sitting near. Uniqueness was excelling.

Respectful of the timing, I reassumed the leadership in informing that the activity would be completed on the following morning. Some artists went to rest, some chose to go on with their creations.

Speaking on the evolution of leadership, the following morning was a quite surprise to me. As soon as I shared the invitation to place creations on a common table to visualize them, participants started to move the pieces, commenting on which they think should go next to which, according to what they were expressing. Hands and words started flowing and relocating the art pieces, debating if there was sense in that move, if the owner agreed on the move.

Suddenly the traditional leader role I was holding was evolving into many leaders, many respectful leaders thinking together in the relations to each other´s pieces and minding the integrity of the whole.

There was even one participant that hadn´t done the art activity the night before but found himself offering a rock from the nearby river to be part of the collective, and was gladly accepted and even relocated in the whole. That was the moment I spoke to myself “wow, isn´t this co-creativity?” Togetherness was excelling.

Now, almost three months later, through the lense of leadership I can shared that I have experienced the evolution of the traditional leader role to a co-creative one. The simple, deep and generous art made it visible and tangible to all.


"respectful leaders thinking together in the relations to each other´s pieces and minding the integrity of the whole. "

“respectful leaders thinking together in the relations to each other´s pieces and minding the integrity of the whole. “

During the open space sessions at the Learn / Share Lab we debated on co- creative leadership and we arrived to some conclusions that totally fitted in the Uniqueness and Togetherness Art Visualization I facilitated such as:

  1. in co-creative approaches there may be many leaders (yes there were!) but they may not be as obvious (though they felt pretty obvious to me in the art visualization)
  2. in co-creative approaches there may be many different coordinators who have different areas of responsibility. Rather than “leaderless”, they “leaderful”  (aha! Leaderful yes! it was sensed in the air)
  3. there is often a difference between an initiator/s and a leader/s in co-creative contexts  (may I call myself initiator in a the co-created art activity?)
  4. there is shared responsibility and authority for activities and outcomes and often contribution from many others.
  5. empowering people to express the diversity of ideas reflected . I HOPE TO HAVE BEEN A VEHCILE TO THIS.

Much gratitude to these co-creative leaders. come in, meet them here  UNIQUENESS & TOGETHERNESS recap pics2 CTocalliArt 2014

Carolina Tocalli


Co-creative leadership; the death of the hero and the need for permeable societal membranes of relevance

 by Irma Wilson 24 April’14 Jhb.


The kind of leadership that engenders co-creation is an emergent field.  Or perhaps it has been there, working in small ways, all along, unnoticed.  Now it is what we need more of in the world.

Co-creative leadership is really an art to be danced: she is the weaver of networks, the tiller of soil preparing fertile beds for ecologies of seeds to grow; he is the combiner, the great big magnet, the flow director; she is the talent spotter & place finder, the phase thermometer, the esteem lifter and the process designer; he is the vision combiner, the worldview translator, the space holder and the boundary patroller; this is the effervescent host and the masterful enabler.   These are the people that can pull many together, empower them and hold them for as long as they need to get on with it themselves and in turn become full of leaders embodying these qualities.

It is an art to be able to see what different people bring ‘to the party’, to value their differences and identify what motivates people.


Here are two of the things we need in order to engender more co-creation:                                       (it also helps to define what this kind of leadership looks like)

1/. Overcome the hero mentality

This culture of individual & fame glory that we grow up in teaches us habits that are hard to break.  All our focus on the achievements and prestige of the individual leads even those who want to contribute positively to the world to land up competing against one another. There is much talk of collaboration; actual dropping of private agendas is few and far between. This points to the depth of the cultural shift we have to undergo, even those working at the edges building the alternatives and bridges for others. The objective is to scale this out, fast.

We live in a world where the CEO, the IP holder, the owner, the organisational Director/Founder, the individual brand is what gets chased and rewarded. This branding mentality and the need to be ‘the hero’, where everyone wants to put their own brand on something, is holding us back from co-creating. In addition, it increases noise and competition for resources and attention. Without intending it so, people pushing for change land up speaking against one another. This is the ‘death of the hero’ I refer to: to drop the old ideas of leadership and adopt new strategies for getting done what needs doing.

Co-creative leaders find ways that enable people to not merely collaborate but to work side-by-side, think together and allow for the incredible power of co-creation to kick in.


2/. Permeable societal membranes of relevance

We need to develop the systemic infrastructure to foster co-creation. Currently our institutions and legal entities requires all kinds of formalities and then, once it’s put up, it gets locked in. The way we have legally organized ourselves means things are not permeable or agile. Our ability to act gets inhibited by institutions and these perceived ‘ways of doing things properly’ lands up acting like barriers. This makes it hard for people to get together, do stuff co-creatively and then disband. We need more agile structures that give boundaries/membranes for as long as they are useful.

“Societal membranes of relevance” sounds like a mouthful, but really it just means (for instance) that the people in a suburb have structures for finding each other around shared purpose/activity.

Like cells and organs in the body, which has membranes or boundaries, which can be crossed. One can come in, do the work and leave, participate at several places simultaneously and move around with great agility.  If we can get better at signaling one another what we need, what we’ve got to contribute and find new ways to name various functions and exchanging this information, plus have ways where this work can take place (physical infrastructure to support this) and processes in place to help people get to a co-creative state, we could find astounding levels of ‘productivity’ and creativity. In addition, this could be fun!

Co-creative leaders are those who hold the membranes and structures in place.


My next bit of writing about co-creation, will focus on some of the methods and processes we’ve come across so far, that gets people to be less opinionated and more open to each other, to questions, to becoming comfortable with ambiguity and “living in the leap”.

Cross-posted from

Esther Akello is the vice chairman of New Life in Africa in Kireka-Kampala, who appears in the video on the community’s current crowdfunding campaign for a Family Transition Center that will help them to move back home to Northern Uganda – see

She speaks Luo instead of English in the video, which makes it hard for most viewers to hear the deep passion behind Esther’s words. As someone who has known Esther and witnessed her impact in her community over the past 8 years, it’s passionately important to me to share what an incredible role model Esther has been for me.  She is one of the wisest, most energetic and genuinely caring women I’ve ever known, and is one of the people on this planet who’s taught me the most about co-creative leadership and the value of  co-creative approaches to community development.

akello esther 14Leading from courage and bravery

In one of several interviews with Esther during research I’ve been doing for a book, she told me she married late by her culture’s standards, to a man she is still crazy about. When she was 30 and had just had her first child, she was working on a dream to become a tailor. She was living at her new husband’s family compound, the vegetables she grew on her fields were fetching a good price, and she’d enrolled in a tailoring course with some of her savings. The obvious glitch was that Kitgum was becoming a dangerous place to live.  The news of Lord’s Resistance Army attacks on villages all over the district was alarming, and the number of children kidnapped to be soldiers was increasing.  Rumor had it they were on a ruthless killing spree because Joseph Kony was angry with his own people (for some still unknown reason), so was punishing them. Esther’s husband left to the capital – following one of his brothers who was already there – to arrange a safer place for the family to stay.

While he was away, Esther went for a short visit to her own family, which was when the worst happened. She watched one of her sisters, three brothers and most of her nieces and nephews get slaughtered before she managed to gather herself and her baby and run. The soldiers stabbed her badly in the leg when they caught up with her, but decided not to kill her right away. Instead, they forced her to eat some poisonous caterpillars, scorpions and spiders to swear her oath of loyalty to the Lord’s Resistance Army.  When she found an opening to run again, they didn’t chase her. Miraculously, with her injured leg and a stomach full of poisonous insects, Esther made it on foot with her baby all the way to safety in Kitgum town, 20+ km away.

Joining her husband in the capital was the obvious plan, but how would she get the bus money?  Even with her leg not yet healed, she identified an opportunity and began fetching water for people to earn money. This meant walking very far every day, with the baby on her back and 20 liters of water in a container on her head. After hundreds of journeys delivering water at 50 shillings per trip (about 2 US cents in those days), she finally earned the $12 bus fare to join her husband in Kampala, 400 kilometers away.

The Acholi Quarter todayShe says settling in at the Acholi Quarter was really hard at first. Unlike at home where they were surrounded by fresh air and rich farmland, here on Kireka hill were hundreds of uprooted, traumatized families living almost on top of each other. Money was suddenly required for everything. Esther continued carrying water to begin with, this time up and down the hill, which made the work even harder. Her husband also found work as a porter at the nearby stone quarry, which enabled them to rent the small house where they’ve lived for the past 20 years (except when it collapsed those two times and they had to stay somewhere else for a while). It’s in this humble home and complex community context that she’s become a loved and respected mentor and role model to many.

Esther never makes a big deal of the courage and bravery she was forced to find within herself to survive what she went through 20 years ago, but she leads from an inner place of knowing what it is. She loves the people around her very actively and genuinely by helping them to find and remember the courage they all know they have inside them to face up to life’s struggles, and the hard work they all know they are capable of.

Building community around enterprising energy

Esther moved on from carrying water to several years of hot and back-breaking work in the stone quarry. Always enterprising, she and her children also sold pancakes, she made local brew, and sometimes she even made bricks. Her husband Odong already had three children when she married him. Now they have five more, plus three beautiful grandchildren. Then there’s the orphan they adopted, and the others they opened their home to when some of their relatives fell on hard times. All together there are 12 people living at Esther’s house these days. They are generally happy, and Esther tells me she always does what she can to make their family life as fun as possible. Her home is a place where friends and neighbors often drop in for Esther’s warm, no-nonsense advice on their marriage problems, small business ideas or family decisions.

akello esther 15In addition to the community of friends she’s developed, one of the things Esther has loved the most about living in Kampala is the opportunity for her children to be educated, as she thinks it will make their lives much easier than hers has been. The thing she is most proud of in her life so far is that she’s been able to see her oldest child finish university. Her second born  started last year, she told me with a big smile last time I visited. There is nothing that brings her more joy than their happiness and success.

She also remembers, however, that when her children had all reached school age, paying the school fees for all of them became an agonizing and ongoing challenge for many difficult years. There was a devastating period when she became very ill for a while. The school fees burden became completely impossible alongside medical bills, and some of the kids had to sit out a few terms at home. A  turning point came eight years ago when she joined Life in Africa.

The money Esther earned at LiA for the first 2 years, selling beads and working on a group contract to make bracelets, enabled her to start a range of small income generating projects at home that she says still make it possible to keep all the kids in school.  In those days there were about 150 member families at Life in Africa, and Esther’s natural leadership skills soon began to emerge.  She became the quality control team leader for the community’s paper bead Esther teaching LiA members how to cut the paper for their beads (2006)production.  When I left Uganda and Life in Africa Foundation transformed into a Community Based Organization run by and for it’s members, Esther was elected Vice-Chairperson of the new LiA, responsible for engaging the community in planning and implementing their joint development ideas.

Esther’s enterprising energy is magnetic, and she doesn’t limit sharing it with only the LiA group. Over the years she’s liaised with and mobilized local engagement with several international NGOs working in the Acholi Quarter, and looks forward to a life in service to her community when she moves back home to the north. In fact, she’s already started talking to recently resettled women back home in her husband’s village about how to save, and small projects they might imagine starting together. They call her regularly to know when she’s planning to return.

Lessons in co-creative community leadership 

Wise and sassy EstherEsther shares the leadership responsibilities at New LiA, but when I returned for the first time to visit after 3 years away, it was she who got up to share the story with me of everything they’d done together since I left.  What this funny and sassy, yet humble and caring grandmother shared on behalf of the 30+ women with her that day has forever altered my perception of what community leadership should mean, and what the right kind of  leadership can mean for impoverished communities in planning for change.  As I’ve gone on to study and practice co-creative leadership (at Ci2i Global and in other contexts),  I am regularly reminded of the important lessons that amazing Esther and the New LiA ladies have taught me.

Lesson 1: A group’s glue lies in shared purpose

When the New LiA first formed there were over 100 members – many had  joined under the previous structure solely because of the income earning opportunities available. As a community based organization, the New LiA would have to build new opportunities, which required more commitment from its members.  Uncertainty led to some attrition, there were disappointments and disagreements over changed expectations, the group threatened to completely fall apart. The elected officers discussed the challenges at length and realized that what they and their closest friends in the group really wanted was not just to earn money, but something bigger – to start preparing themselves for moving back home to the north. They envisioned a group working together with that intention, and in doing so found a powerful glue for reforming the LiA community. To keep things manageable, Esther told me, they invited only the hardest working women members to be a part of forming this new bond, and have remained a strong and remarkably stable community ever since.  They still earn extra income together on various smaller group projects, but once a week they all gather to save for the future and to discuss their evolving plans for preparing themselves to go home.

Meeting with Esther (standing) and the LiA ladies again after 3 years awayLesson 2: Nurture a caring community culture

The hardest part of living in Kampala for Esther and many others in the group has been that their children are not being raised in their real Acholi culture.  It’s not just the urban location, but the daily need for money in the city which adds tension to community life and often causes division.  The old Acholi way is to love and support one another; to work together and help each other so that everyone gets ahead. The New LiA ladies have looked to their roots to re-establish that special way of being together as they plan for their future back home. With the women all nodding in unison around her, Esther shared that at the New LiA each and every member’s progress and success is supported, they respect and love each other’s strengths, and they all pitch in to help “with an undivided heart” where they are needed or when one of them has a problem. Living these community values together has resulted in the kind of unity that they remember from home, and led to some wonderful results for the whole group.

mushroomsLesson 3: Dare to let thrivability trump sustainability

One of the most moving stories Esther shared that day was how the mushrooms they’d started growing turned into a tailoring course for young mothers. I had known about the mushroom growing project, which they’d raised funds for online and got started, according to subsequent photos I’d seen. Esther apologized for how they’d stopped communicating about that, for fear that people who’d contributed might view what later happened as a failure on their part, in terms of all the typical expectations around “sustainability.” What I saw instead, as she explained what happened, was that their caring community culture had enabled them to see and pursue a path toward greater thrivability in their community.

A core group of 10-15 members indeed did grow mushrooms successfully together for more than a year, and really loved what they learned from the project. There came a point, however, when it had served their shared purpose – they now knew how to grow mushrooms, and could very easily imagine themselves growing them back at home. They would have continued to make money had they continued the project, but they didn’t feel they had much more to learn from it. Meanwhile LiA had received a donation from Think Humanity of 12 sewing machines that nobody knew how to use. Together the mushroom growers decided that after the next harvest they would pull out the capital and use it to hire a sewing teacher, so that some of the youngest mothers in the LiA group could learn that work-at-home trade. They then raised funds for a small daycare facility so that the mamas could focus on their learning, and six months later they had 12 trained tailors.

LIA TAILORING PROGRAMEach of those women had already earned enough with their new skill to buy their own sewing machine – which of course, they will be taking home with them to the north.

As a group they now produce bags that are sold all over the world, and last year had an order for 600 sets of pajamas. Turning their mushrooms into sewing machines proved to be an excellent decision, which was only possible because they dared to look beyond financial sustainability to stay aligned with their greater shared community purpose. (Btw – in spite of an apologetic start, Esther, who had wanted to become a tailor when she herself was young, was beaming with love and pride by the end of sharing that story.)

Lesson 4: Inspire people to believe in themselves

When I asked the ladies that day what part of their Life in Africa experience from the old days stood out for them most – when I was still there and trying out all sorts of development ideas – I was surprised when Esther replied that it was mostly that I just believed in them. She remembered and laughed about the time I sat her down in front of a computer for the first time and told her to type the numbers from her quality control count into something called a spreadsheet that was open on the screen.  The most impressive part of that story for Esther is that she actually did it!  She recalled feeling so sophisticated and proud of herself, for who could have ever imagined that she would ever work on a computer!  The moral she imparted is that when you believe that someone believes in you, you can do anything.   One of the many valuable qualities Esther brings to her leadership style is that she believes in people, and in doing so inspires those around her to believe that they, too, can do anything.

Building a new Life in Africa – again!

At the end of that first time back in Uganda – 2 years ago now – I left the New LiA ladies with a request to think about what they would do if the organization ever received some money specifically for helping them to move back home. That’s when they started talking about the Family Transition Center. One of the things I love most about their plan is that they’ve co-created it together, not based on what any foreigner thinks they should do but based on what they know they can and want to do – not only to help themselves and each other, but to contribute positively to the new post-war communities they’ll become part of in the North.

Even more than when I was still there to believe in them, the New LiA community embodies everything good about co-creative community impact and innovation in action. My dear sister/friend Esther is one of several wise leaders in the group who has helped to make that happen.

Now that you know more about her,  watch that video again – and please help out with $10 or more if you can. The world needs more groups like LiA, and they really deserve a world of support. See


Christina Jordan founded Life in Africa Foundation in Uganda in 1999. In 2001 she was awarded the first Ashoka Fellowship in East Africa for her work using the internet to impact local community development. In 2009 she left Uganda and has gone on to found Evolutionize It, a non-profit that nurtures community collaboration for change. She is also a partner at Ci2i Global.