Erica Buswell is the VP of Programs at Maine Farmland Trust and she is one of our most recent graduates of the Cooperative Leadership Certification Program. Maine Farmland Trust is a member-powered statewide organization that protects farmland, supports farmers, and advances the future of farming. Erica does food systems work because she knows that good things happen when people come together around food.

In her completion of the program, she shared some of her top learnings with her team to support Maine Farmland Trust’s collaboration efforts. She wanted to share what it means to be a collaborative leader and how to express those values. This list started a conversation around what collaborative leadership means to her team at Maine Farmland Trust and how they will manifest their values in the team.



10 Keys to Collaborative Leadership

10 Learnings from the Cooperative Leadership Certification Program for healthy and generative leadership written by graduate, Erica Buswell.


1. Power dynamics exist within organizations and teams; it’s just a fact.

Power can be shared in healthy, intentional, and clearly defined ways amongst all members, and be harnessed in a way that provides all members with opportunities to express their power. Decentralizing power and decision-making structures and providing all team members with a voice in decisions that affect them, in and of themselves, do not magically result in a dynamic of shared power. You have to actively and continually support shared-power dynamics with processes and systems that reflect your shared agreements as well as your shared accountabilities (and you end up talking about process, quite often).


2. When power is shared, understanding who makes decisions, and communicating those agreements around decision-making, really matters.

When you or other members of your team lack clarity around whether you hold a role as a decision-maker for a proposal or implementing a task, it’s a recipe for frustration, and maybe a team-dynamic disaster.


3. Our job as collaborators is not necessarily to fully solve someone’s problem, …

but rather to help them move incrementally forward towards a solution. Collaborators make space for and empower the person holding a tension to find and/or propose their own way towards a solution, even if it’s going to take some time to work a solution out.


4. Being a collaborative leader takes practice.

You are going to make mistakes as you work to grow in this direction and that is ok. Acknowledge your mistakes with your team, and then move on. Don’t be afraid to embrace your humanity.


5. We have to care for ourselves to be able to bring our best self forward.

This is the key to both our individual and our team success. You deserve to feel fully supported in your work, so don’t feel guilty about asking for and seeking out that support. Otherwise, you’re denying the rest of the world the best of what you have to offer.


6. Check your collective assumptions about…

who is doing what, and who is accountable for what. This is a good place to start when you are feeling frustrated or unclear about what’s expected of you, and/or you’re experiencing a conflict.


7. If your work is impacted by a decision,…

you should have the opportunity to participate in the decision-making. If you are part of a decision that will impact someone else’s work, make sure that they have a seat at the decision-making table.


8. Collective and collaborative decisions can be changed…

or revised at any time; with this in mind, a benchmark for implementing a decision can be “good enough” or “safe enough” to try.


9. You can set ground rules for what constitutes legitimate…

and not-legitimate objections when considering proposals for new ideas or activities to try. “I don’t like it” doesn’t need to be a legitimate objection, nor do concerns that are based on predictions, but not data.


10. When you don’t know what to do next…

to keep a project or a discussion moving forward, try to think of one, concrete next action that the team can consent to, no matter how small. Then hold yourself (or the team) accountable for taking that next action and report back in when you have completed your action.



Think of accountability not just as being held responsible for enacting an agreement, but also as your being granted the opportunity to exercise creativity and autonomy within your work.



What is the Cooperative Leadership Certification Program?

The Cooperative Leadership Certification Program is an intensive, online, democratic leadership training with practical solutions in many areas that cooperative leadership requires, such as:

  • Healthy power dynamics
  • Facilitating more productive meetings
  • Nurturing a culture of accountability
  • Integrating clear roles and responsibilities
  • Facilitating inclusive decision-making practices
  • Making strides on your personal development (and more)


Put your values of collaborative, humanizing, and inclusive leadership into practice with the right tools and skills. After completing the training, Erica also shared:


“This course helped to humanize my ideas about the roles and expectations of a leader within an organization: I’ve let go of the idea that a leader can’t show vulnerability, or might not know how to solve a problem.” 


Erica also shared some wise words: “A leader can and must build their skills incrementally over time …” Leadership is practiced skill.