Collectivizing Leadership Structures

Estelle Ellison
3 min readMay 28, 2021


(Originally written July 2019)

Dominant culture values leadership and hierarchy, espousing the belief that these qualities are necessary for “decision making” and “getting the job done.” The image of a leader in our head is some individual with relevant skills, resources, knowledge, and experience that prove hierarchy is inescapable and can be just. The reality is: Any individual with these attributes and resources can just as easily communalize their talents among their co-conspirators as they can require compliance to a leadership structure. Any group has the option of democratizing its leadership structure.

When a group develops enough momentum to gain resources, experience, and newly honed skills; others begin to gravitate towards them, hoping to grow their own individual capacity to make change. This does not mean that the primary goal of a group is the only way to impact and inspire others.

The more agency leaders have over the work, the less their members see themselves as capable individual agents of change. We see this when burned out members second-guess their need to step back from work, when organizers find themselves unable to give sufficient time to their interpersonal networks/communities, and when members begin to believe that their organization’s goals are of monolithic importance.

This tendency helps to make the aftercare of political work largely invisible and eclipses the creativity of a group’s members in a hierarchical leadership structure. These dynamics that creep up in the less visible fringes of organizational work all represent the suffocation of radical creativity.

Leaders, who have grown attached to a style of change-making that does not require transparency with their fellow organizers, may resist the idea of relinquishing this role in favor of more horizontal collective participation. This does not mean that the work would be impossible without a leadership structure.

Just as most workers have better and more creative ways of improving the efficacy and ethics of their workplace than their bosses, organizers ( who are doing the work they’re given) have insights, questions, and ideas of spreading change that have not occurred to the individual leaders.

So how do we show up for everyone who shows up? It starts with actually valuing horizontal organizing dynamics. This cannot be done within a leadership structure because leadership is fundamentally hierarchical. It means valuing mutual aid as a necessary practice if we want to end burnout culture.

When we talk about building our affinity with each other, we are talking about strengthening our trust in each other as well as our loving appreciation of each other’s talents. Collective capacity is a call to create something new and exciting. It accepting that we do not know what is ahead, while passionately working to discover what is possible and actualize new futures together.

It is possible to honor a person’s expertise and unique insights as they relate to whatever work we choose for ourselves, without requiring that this one person rise to the top. When we talk about building our collective capacity, we are no longer looking to exceptionalize the individuals who can show up more than others. We are, instead, actively tending to our collective needs.

Collective care and capacity can only thrive when they are autonomous and valuing interconnectivity. When we are centering compassionate knowledge of each other’s needs and dreams, we are taking up space that leaders would otherwise occupy with their individual conceptions of
“the work.”

When we come to the same table to discuss the possible, we are making ourselves available to our collective creative imagination. We are practicing trust in ourselves and each other when we are open to the realization that we are very capable of changing the future.



Estelle Ellison

Time dissuades us from getting free... Black Trans Disabled Writer (She/They)