Collective and Shared Leadership: Antidote for a society dependent on bosses and patrons


                               Collective and Shared Leadership

Antidote for a society dependent on bosses and patrons

René Mendoza V.[1],


Leadership is a choice, not a position. Stephen R. Covey, 2012: xiv

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. A. Eistein


The patron-client relationship (owner-fieldhand, manager-subordinates) has persisted behind the great works, be they the construction of a cathedral, gold mine, the organization of the Army, the structure of the Roman Catholic Church or the large estates. With the boom of organizations there is more talk of managers-subordinates, directors-technicians and presidents-members, which could be called a leader-follower relationship. This approach (the historical patron-client and the leader-follower) was created in a time that depended on human physical force and where the skill of the leader (boss or manager) was believed to be necessary. In this article we argue that the principal obstacle to rural development is the persistance of the “marriage” of both relationships, that of patron-client and that of leader-follower, in a context where we increasingly depend more on cognitive work (knowledge) than human physical work. Correspondingly, and along the lines of the phrase of Einstein quoted above, we propose an approach of  collective and shared leadership where the people – from organizations, communities and value chains – free up their energies and become visionary leaders in each area of life, thus helping any form of social organization to be more effective and full of life.




“Let what the owner says be done,” “the gurus will save us,” “I am not in charge,” “I am waiting for the orders to come down,”… are phrases that express the patron-client relationship of tacit forms of organization that built cathedrals, estates, cooperatives, businesses, universities, hospitals, armies, insurrections against dictatorships, and families. In some cases this social relationship has been radicalized, particularly in organizations of state security and criminal organizations or the mafia; the sense of loyalty even to commit crimes or carry out executions have only required the order of one voice behind the telephone that they recognize as the voice of the “boss”- see TV programs and movies like “The Name of the Rose”, “The Godfather” or “The House of the Spirits”. Known in the military arena, for example, is the influence of the Leninist structure on parties, and the intelligence apparatus of the guerrillas that then became governments, and it is also known that secret organizations seek inspiration in the ancient structure of the Catholic Church that has been capable of surviving for now nearly 2000 years. In the case of Nicaragua in the war in the 80s, the Nicaraguan Resistance military gave rank to the farmers who joined them with their entire social network. All this shows the influence of social structures on organizations throughout time.


With the boom of organizations after the Second World War, this patron-client relationship was precluded, with the appearance of the relationship of the “leader-follower”, a perspective that divided up the world between a small group of leaders and the large mass of followers (Marquet, 2012). It is an approach, including that of the patron-client, created in a time that depended on human physical force and where the skill of the leaders (“knowing how to give orders”) – the warrior king, the patron, the inquisitor, the colonizer, the commandant, the pioneer, the lead weeder, the man as head of the family – was necessary to mobilize (oblige, order, send, convince) the masses to provide their physical labor. This context has included the etching of this social relationship into the human mind, its naturalization and divinization, and consequently the erasing of the tangential human awareness: “leaders are born”, “we always need the patron”, “the fieldhand does not speak in front of the owner”, “the patron is sent by God.” That vertical structure is sustained by the entire society, even by those brandishing participatory methods and horizontal relationships who oppose it: “the boss did not tell me to, that is why I am not doing it.” They reject the verticality, but the structure lives on in them: “the leader does not consult about his decisions,” they criticize, while they yearn for a favor or order from the leader. The paradox is that being leaders they feel like “followers”, the patron-client structure speaks through this criticism, yearning and corpse-like obedience.


The current context, nevertheless, depends more on cognitive work than physical work. In Nicaragua the end of the agricultural frontier and of the “extensive path” (increasing production by incorporating more area), that required more of the physical labor, of planting, weeding and harvesting, is around the corner, now that the agricultural frontier has reached the ocean, which is why this route has ceased to be economically profitable[2]. Then the economy of extraction (exploitation of natural resources – forests, minerals and hydrocarbons – without much industrialization) also is facing problems, the wood is being used up, there are more and more objections in the world over the type of mining that is damaging to the environment, and they are the expressions of models of economic enclaves that are even economically, socially and environmentally counterproductive for the country. Then there are the challenges that climate change and the market instability have on agricultural products. All of this, the urgency for an agriculture that makes intensive use of land, the need for increased value added to the products and the natural resources, the climatic variability with its effects on agricultural diseases, the price variation that pressures us to search for market niches, tells us that we are living in a more complex world where each actors needs more knowledge. And even more so when note that the supply of technical assistance in Nicaragua has dropped because of the reduction of resources from international aid, and the supply of rural-agricultural credit is much less due to the crisis of the No Payers Movement (Bastiaensen et al 2013).


In this article we argue that the principal obstacle to rural development is the persistance of the “marriage” of the “leader-follower” model and the patron-client relationship within a context where knowledge is urgently needed about the challenges just mentioned, and about forms of technological and social innovation that would allow society to use the markets as means instead of being subjugated to them. We also argue that these patron-client and leader-follower relationships regardless of their effects on rural development, as such are degrading, undesirable relationships of subordination, that need to be transformed. We recognize that these institutionalized social structures have become hardened on the human mind itself, that they have made it possible that in spite of the change of context centralized structures persist that are limiting human capacity and potential.  We take note of innovative experiences that are ahead of their time, for example the case of the Apache populations in New Mexico in the US, based on a decentralized style of their leaders, resisted for five centuries the Spanish Army of Cortez, the Mexican and US armies (Nevins, 2004); the case of  AA (alcoholics anonymous) founded by Bill Wilson in 1935 where there are no bosses; that of the peasantry that persevered through the industrial revolution, that of the socialism of the USSR, Cuba and Sandinista Nicaragua of the 80s[3], and the capitalisms of the present time. In the last two decades the decentralized structure of Al Qaeda stands out (Brafman and Beckstrom, 2007) and the case of Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia, quickly accessible by the public, that received written contributions and editions in a decentalized form (Jiles, 2005).


We propose a new approach, coherent with the current context of change, of collective and shared leadership that emerges from a change in social relations in the organizations and in the rural-urban communities, where there is no place for followers that work “at half gas” and that are “freed from thinking.” Given the hardness of the old social structure, we point out basic elements for the new approach, of a leadership that is made, that covers all areas of life, and that makes any organization more effective, and gives meaning to the only life that each person has.


1. Conceptual framework


1.1 The importance of cognitive work


Box 1. Myths dressed up as truths in the rural population


ü The wise have everything they need

ü Innovation is for those who are educated

ü The illiterate do not think

ü Peasants do not have diplomas and that is why they do not create ideas

ü Peasants use the machete, never the head

ü He who was born for the mallet does not get beyond the corridor

ü Women do not inherit land because they do not work

ü Work is on the farm

ü The head of the family is the man, the Lord said this

ü I am a small producer, that is why I do not have a voice

ü There is a set number of wealthy people, and the number of poor are increasing

ü The worst thing of the poor is to not have someone to exploit them

ü God made the poor and the rich, and he made me poor

ü God will provide; and if he does not provide, it is his will

Source: workshops with youth and coop members, 2011-13


Source: workshops with youth and cooperatives, 2011-13

Covey (2012) states that “we are in the midst of the most profound changes in the history of humanity, where the primary work is moving from the Industrial era of “control”· to the Knowledge Worker era of “release”.[4] This statement can appear inappropriate for the so-called “developing countries” whose industrialization is not very advanced; in the case of Nicaragua, we would say it is moving from the era of extensive agriculture toward the work of  knowledge. Here we describe that reality of extensive agriculture “married” to a form of organization of rural families, value chains, and organizations supplying services, pulled by the force of the market, that are preventing them from taking advantage of the changes in the context, and then we will sketch out the framework that we think can help us to take advantage of this context of change.


In the decade of the 1940s the agricultural frontier extended to the northern interior part of the country, and since 1990 it has extended to the two regions of the Caribbean Coast (the North Atlantic Autonomous Region and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region) to such an extent that 40% of the current livestock, and the extraction of most of the wood and mining, are in those regions. This expansion and extraction has happened based on an expansion of area, under conditions of poor infrastructure (roads, highways); and to the extent that the extraction of natural resources grows hand in hand with large and emerging enterprises, and within a “mining economy” logic, which is taking maximum advantage before the government changes, new laws are passed or environmental pressure grows. In this way the extensive and expansive path, instead of being the path of greater productivity and industrial value-added, have been profitable in the country due to the low costs of labor, fertile soil that has not required much fertilizer or chemical inputs, and due to the abundance of natural resources.


This situation is similar to countries like Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, with Venezuela appearing to have a risky future because of what in economics is called the “Dutch Disease”. This is when a country exploits natural resources that in the short term bring in large amounts of income, but it affects the rest of the sectors of the economy; in other words the large amounts of income from oil makes the local currency rise in value, making the national industry less competitive. In the case of Nicaragua, we draw up the following hypothesis: the combination of the “extensive path” and the “extractive path”, due to the fact that they have been profitable based on the abundance of labor and natural resources, has made the productivity of the  country be low and that there has not been much investment in knowledge in the different sectors of the economy of the country.


Figure 1. Stagnation framework

This extensive and extractive model is a result of the patron-client social relations, a framework that has coincided with the “leader-follower” model of businesses, organizations and institutions. The patron-client relationship has authoritarianism as the distinctive factor (or patriachal relationships) that concentrates resources and has control over the social structure which sustains the extensive path of the agricultural enterprises.[5] This same relationship happens in the extractive model, which in addition is located in agricultural frontier areas with “enclave economies” (in the case of mining) and mafia-like organization (when illegal extraction of wood predominates). Different institutions are found linked to this type of organization, including the state and multinational enterprises, based generally on relationships that have nothing to do with transparency.

Extensive agriculture and the promotion of the extractive path


Patrón-cliente approach (rural communities and value chains)


Leader-follower approach (organizaciones)





Box 1[6] contains phrases that underly both models: the wise and the wealthy are a set number, the poor are poor by fate and are worse off if they do not have an exploiter; the illiterate do not think and are disqualified from innovating; women do not have value, hands that are worth something on the farm. This mentality and social structure generally prevail in families and their organizations (cooperatives, associations), and in the institutions that provide them rural development and training services: NGOs, donors, Churches, Universities, technical institutes, research institutes, businesses.


This “marriage” of the patron-client and leader-follower models, and the combination of both of them with the extensive and extractive reality, has been profitable, supported by international aid, and demanded by the markets[7] (see Figure 1). In other words, the force of the market is behind this route, which is socially constructed and regulated by elites in alliance with local gatekeepers creating inequities (Mendoza, 2012a). Given this force, it has also been capable of sweeping along with it agendas like “sustainable development”, “gender equity”, “poverty reduction”, “food security” and “governance”, as well as institutions of the “rule of law” and support from people, all expressed in policies, projects and programs. Their effects, expressed in data on deforestation, land concentration, inequality and poverty, reveal the problem behind this model.


Because of the effects of this “marriage” and its basis on subordination, this model was made for times when the importance of physical work prevailed. The current context is different. First,  change is evident in the structural conditions of the country; since around 2010 the end of the agricultural frontier has begun to be felt, accompanied by an increase in conflicts with the indigenous populations, reduction of remaining forests, increase in the value of the land along with  decreasing soil fertility and increasing diseases for farm crops (Mendoza, 2013a). This means that there is no other path other than productivity and better competitiveness in the different value chains, which implies investment in knowledge, generating technological, social, political and economic changes.


Secondly, under the Ortega government, there has been an improvement in the infrastructure of the country, expressed in rural road repair and construction, as well as the establishment of agroindustry like slaughterhouses, milk collection centers and corn processors, located more and more in the interior of the country; investments that increase the value of the land, energize trade and increase the flow of information, which constitute opportunities for intensifying agricultural and non agricultural activities.


Third, human and social capital is growing; the number of children of producers with higher studies is growing, to such an extent that today there is almost no rural community that does not have technicians in the family who can contribute to the improvement of their family farms. The country also has thousands of cooperatives, when in the 70s their number was no more than two digits, and they are not only growing in number but the cooperatives are scaling up into forms of second and third tier organizations, including their decisive influence on products (and chains) like coffee through fair trade, milk products and cacao (Mendoza 2012b).



Fourth, the “cascade effect” of land concentration and accumulation along with large estate type farms is on the rise in the country, be they around wood and energy trees, African palm, bamboo, peanuts, sugar cane, cacao, rural tourism, coffee or ranching[8]. This system is dispossessing peasant families of their land, is not absorbing this uneducated, “freed up” labor, but rather is expelling them from the country (migration[9]), and coopts and subordinates the peasant organizations to an economic logic that works for the elite. This means that the elite from the old model, now transnationalized, are appropriating the natural resources and the opportunities from public investments and the growing world demand for agricultural and forestry products[10], while at the same time blocking the possibility of the old model being transformed and the path of intensification of production being made viable.


Finally, there is a growing number of value chains for different crops which are getting to different markets, but most of the producer families, even while adding value to their products, are not able to take advantage of the benefits that participating in these chains imply, in good measure due to the fact that those chains require greater knowledge, expressed in better quality products and compliance with agreed upon quantities and delivery times.


Why should change be generated in the disastrous marriage of Figure 1? For the five reasons that we summarize here again: 1) end of the agricultural frontier, opening the door to productivity and competitiveness that requires knowledge (cognitive work); 2) improvement of investments in infrastructure; 3) emergence of more human capital and peasant organizations that can take on this challenge of knowledge; 4) force of the elites preventing the country from taking advantage of this human capital and peasant organization; and 5) because of the existence of the value chains that under the old marriage of Figure 1 are not providing benefits to the families of the small producers.


This new context, the urgent need for an environmentally and socially sustainable intensive agriculture, requires then another form of social organization. The signs that we are observing are that the old model is adapting to the times without moving one inch on the model of the marriage with these social relationships. For example, the plantations (of cacao, african palm and forests) that are emerging are “estate type” with the difference being the use of intensive and mechanized technology, like the case of “open pit mining”. Peasant families with daughters and sons who have studied, who are pressuring instead of cooperating – the son who arrives like the “wiseman” to change the farm, and the father who responds that he is in charge of the farm until he dies – because the “pig sheds his lard only after he dies”, versus “the illiterate who does not think.” The cooperatives respond to the fair trade organizations with formalities- filling out official minutes to show that their administrative council is meeting every month, like the NGOs reporting what the donors want to hear, without their staff reading nor writing in their search to understand the new context. These social relations have instead become transnationalized, many times the “patron” is outside the country – be they aid agencies, markets, academic institutions, transnational states. The new material conditions described, in contrast to the old Marxist theory, do not seem to determine new forms of organization and new attitudes. What model of leadership does this new context require and how can it be generated?


1.2 Approaches


The first approach, and the most dominant, is the neoliberal one. Under the notion of “global governance” this approach thinks that through the de-regulation of the State, privatization and decentralized forms of organization (businesses and NGOs) the traditional forms of domination are transformed and individual freedom is achieved. Through the different organizations the goal of neoliberalism is to reduce the state to a minimum; control no longer comes from the state, but from businesses, and organization is reduced to the private sector. With this vision, neoliberalism is thought to be incompatible with democracy, because that is the door that the masses use to take advantage of the common good (Boudon, 1981). They see that these masses are distorting the system, which is why the elites react with what Marx called “original accumulation”. In other words, if the masses have control from below, it is assumed that they will make a poor use of the common good (e.g. the market), which is why a minority needs to control the masses or privatize, subordinating the masses to the markets.


The most inspiring source of neoliberalism is F.A. Hayek, who proposed the free price system for sharing and synchronizing personal and local knowledge, which – according to him – would allow the members of society to pursue different and complicated purposes through the principle of “spontaneous self organization” (Hayek, 1944). Hayek (1988) argued that everthing had to be left to the market, that the function of the state was to protect the market, that the free market price system was, like the words used, the result of human action but not designed by human beings. The contradiction in Hayek is that society cannot be planned by human beings, but that the market guides and does everything. “Self organization” appears equivalent to “spontaneous order”, and this is different from organizations, it is free networks, they are not created, controlled nor controlable by anyone, while organizations are hierarchical networks, created and controlled by human beings. It is not the concern of Hayek whether the state be democratic or not, because he prefered “liberal dictatorships to democratic governments lacking liberalism” (Farrant, McPahil and Berger, 2012:513), in refering to the dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile.


The second approach is that of the hierarchical, patron-client and leader-follower organization that we have already refered to in previous pages. This perspective makes us divide the world up between leaders and followers, it has to do with controlling people; it is the structure that came to mind when we read in school the Illiad, Beowulf and the Odessey, and permeates movies like Master and Commander, where the leaders are individual heroes. Under this structure pyramids, empires and factories of the industrial revolution were built, wealth has been created, and that is why it is difficult that for it to give way. It was created in a time that depended on physical force  to optimize the extraction of human physical work; while currently the most important work is cognitive, which is why this structure is no longer optimal. The problem with this approach is that the people treated as followers act as such, and have the expectations of followers, with limited decisions and unmotivated to provide their energy, passion and intelligence. The success of an enterprise is linked to the skill of the leader.


The third approach, and what we propose as a perspective that can revolutionize the lives of people and their organizations, is that of the “leader-leader”. Marquet (2012) experienced it in a nuclear submarine, and brought it up because a nuclear submarine is very closed system and under strict military rules, so that if this can be changed even in this type of organization, then is it not possible to create changes in less closed and less strict organizations than a nuclear submarine? This “leader-leader” approach is where all can be leaders and use their leadership skills in each aspect of life; leadership is not a mystical quality of some, leaders are not born, they are made. Marquet talks about 3 elements to this approach: having control (making decisions and interaction for solving problems in each area of the organization, bypassing vertical procedures), walking on two feet, competencies (specific knowledge, deliberate thought before actions, and learning instead of being trained); and clarity (knowing the purpose of the organization and the criteria for decision making).


In turning toward the reality of the country, this “leader-leader” approach needs to be adapted through four elements. First, while Marquet was able to explain what underlies the “leader-follower” approach incrusted in the military organization and enclosed in a submarine, in our case the beliefs and myths derived from the patron-client social relationship (e.g. myths of Figure 1) and leader-follower are reproduced both inside and outside the organizations. Second, the control mechanisms, competencies and clarity could be worked on precisely because they were closed up in a submarine for prolonged periods of time, while in a cooperative their members and leaders see one another sporadically, in an NGO or state institution the officials spend more time outside of their organizations, which is why their beliefs and systems of reasoning that are nourished by society are instilled in their organizations. Third, all the staff of the submarine had high levels of schooling and training, while here we are working with families with low academic levels and with knowledge that comes from their experiences transmitted through their families, and more than knowledge, the families are mediated by institutions like “patriarchy”.[11] Fourth, inside the submarine the political aspect, understood as “the awareness of human contingency”, for example, that they can run the submarine, had been dormant due to a type of vertical leadership absorbed by the internal military procedures (regulations); that dormancy is found in the expression “I do what they have told me to do”, but in a matter of days all the personnel began to change and to participate in the real leadership of the submarine; while the dormancy (alienation) in our societies is the accumulation of centuries, as can be appreciated in Figure 1, where the naturalized idea prevails that the source of social change is God, not human beings.[12]


Even though these four points express the specificity of the context of developing countries, like the case of Nicaragua, we also note that this change in “organizational culture” has not just happened within a submarine, but also in different types of businesses, hospitals and schools who have creatively applied the fundamentals of “open book management.” This approach, “The Great Game of Business”, that started in businesses, has the potential of changing any organization and the lives of the people themselves. This perspective (Stack, 1992) is composed of three elements: 1) knowing and teaching the rules of an organization to all its members or personnel, because to play the game of the organization everyone needs to know the rules, and because only together can they win; 2) Keeping good score of the results of an organization, be that in terms of the amount of production, product quality, total income, earnings, contributions, or in the good impact that the actions of an organization are causing, and getting every member of the organization to  follow up on the activities that allow those results to be achieved; 3) having voice and agency in the organization, which is achieved with the commitment of each member of the organization so that the things that achieve success in the organization get done. It is a sense of ownership and a sense that in achieving success the benefits will accrue to everyone.


Intensive agriculture and promotion of the industrial path and value  chains


Leader-leader approach (rural communities and  value chains)


Leader-leader approach (organizations)




Figure 2. Collective and Shared Leadership Framework

The “leader-leader” approach, with its control mechanisms, competencies and clarity, including the four societal elements in its application (un-learning, interaction, sources of learning, contingency), expands into an approach of “collective and shared leadership”, of human interaction and connection between families, communities and value chains that go toward transforming their patron-client social relationship, and organizations that also are transforming their leader-follower social relationships, and both to the extent that they respond to the momentum of the new context of change in the country, from the extensive path to other forms of societal organization interacting with different markets (see Figure 2). From here our hypothesis is that this new context of change that the country is experiencing with the same patron-client and leader-follower structure of relationships will continue producing more poverty, dispossession and social exclusion; while the new approach of collective and shared leadership responding to the current situation of a context of change, could contribute decisively to the transformation of the country. With this approach, the following two sections work on the three elements proposed by Marquet, control, competencies and clarity, preceded by the identification of myths as underlying ideologies in interaction with society and its organizations connected to the new context.


2. In the cooperative organizations


In 2010 there were 8,282 cooperatives in Central America, of which 3,410 or 41% were in Nicaragua (data from INFOCOOP for 2010). Out of these 3,410 cooperatives, 821 are agricultural cooperatives, a number that could be larger if we take into consideration that many “agroindustrial”, “savings and loan”, “multifunctional”, “multisectoral” and “multiservice” cooperatives are also agricultural. In addition to the first tier cooperatives, the second and third tier cooperatives are also growing. Correspondingly, the cooperatives have been incorporating production, processing and export, as well as credit and technical assistance services. The paradox is that to the extent that the cooperative movement has scaled up organizationally, from first to second and third tier, each new tier has absorbed the functions of the previous tier, has concentrated the resources and has centralized the services, turning themselves into “big headed dwarfs”: high investments in the head (second tier cooperatives) and with feet of clay (first tier cooperatives)(Mendoza et al, 2012); and the more the cooperatives have scaled up the value chain, taking on, for example, the processing and commercialization of products, the more they tend to impoverish their members (CIPRES, 2008). On the other hand, the peasant-producer families, in the face of these mechanism to control them and take away their autonomy, slip away, diversify their markets and strengthen their family strategies, but are losing the means (instrument) which has been their organization to scale up economically and improve their standard of living as a family (see footnote No. 3).


Figure 2. Myths in the Cooperatives

ü Leader can only be the someone who has studied

ü Since I have a title I can jump over the rules

ü Being boss means knowing how to give orders

ü The president has to do everything

ü The board is above the members

ü We always need a patron

ü I am a private, let the boss speak

ü The manager will save us; what he does is good

ü That what he says be done (even if he is dead or lives outside the country)

ü (Manager): If I leave, I give this cooperative two months before it goes broke

ü Waiting for the projects, the roofing, the bonus… being leader is waiting for the order.

ü The stronger the parents are (second tier cooperatives) the strong will be the children (first tier cooperatives)

ü Our leader is now a Cabinet Minister, we are in power.


Source: Workshops with cooperative leaders, 2011-13

How is this paradox of “getting worse while improving” possible?[13] The force of the market is absorbing the cooperative movement. In scaling up to agroindustry and commercialization services (exporting) the apparatus is privatized, replaces the organization and becomes a company, the cooperatives are turned into private cooperatives; in doing so the wealth gets concentrated, the manager replaces the society and the members get impoverished (conversation with O. Núñez, September 26, 2013). This market is rooted in the social power structures; so centuries of patron-client relationships have been interiorized by the peasant families and the intermediation structures, including the leaders and professionals; the myths in Figure 2 are assumed as truths that guide and govern human actions. How can a member – and leaders – change their belief that they are “privates” (soldier), that the leaders are “heroes”, “fathers”, “educated” gods, “irreplaceable”, and with the right to bypass the “rules” of their organization? How can a member move above their “fieldhand” soul and become a leader? How can a woman leader discover herself as such instead of seeing herself as a “follower” and “waiting”?


The challenge is not just learning certain techniques, but learning in such a way as to change, which is possible if that learning is combined with “awakening”: certain truths are like “demons” that keep us in a trance, but in becoming aware of the spell – in religious language, “in being exorcized” – these truths appear as myths, and in that moment we discover our capacities and the potential of our abilities. On rare occasions this step is enough to “never stop walking”[14]; in most cases it is not enough. How can the cooperatives contribute to this “awakening” and sustain the transformation of their members, instead of reinforcing the spell and impoverishing them?


The cooperatives are forms of organization invented by human beings, and therefore changeable and able to be improved. Consistent with this contingent awareness, in order to ensure that the cooperatives might be a means in the service of the member families, it is fundamental that their members participate in the decisions about the functioning and direction of their organization. How can they be part of the decision making? See Figure 3. First, the Bible says that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” Each member should have contributions in their organization so that they have equity, from which it can provide credit to its own members with low interest rates. A member with contributions in their organization will be more demanding with their board members, because their resources (“treasure”) are in play[15]; a grassroots cooperative with their own equity will have more autonomy, more friendships (connections), and will keep their second tier organization from becoming a concentrating and centralizing entity. In that sense, their rule, in contrast to what is indicated in Figure 2, will be: “the stronger the children are, the stronger the parents will be;” and because of the active role of each member (and the pressure of their own family), due to the fact that each one will also have interest in taking care of their own “treasure” (their contributions), each member will be exercising the role of leadership even without having any title.


Secondly, the cooperative law and the statutes of each cooperative indicate a path that, if followed, would make any cooperative successful and therefby would make each member into a leader– be they women or men. The biggest problem of the cooperatives of the country is that this path is obstructed because of the force of the “rules of the game”, where the correlation of forces is strongly influenced by the rules of the family, the Party and the market, and consequently the cooperatives are constantly falling into crises, incurring administrative problems, cooperatives privatized by their managers, or controlled by businesses, with complaining and impotent members that can only protest. The biggest challenge is generating changes in the correlation of forces, that include formal and informal rules that could provide the members of the cooperatives with greater voice.


Some good leaders of grassroots cooperatives are pressured and discredited, and grotesquely so when those leaders are women, by second-tier cooperative managers and board members; these good leaders need the administrative council to function and the number of general assemblies be multiplied in order to discuss and reach agreements-decisions, and thus be supported and keep themselves from being controlled or forced to resign. The presidents – and board members – that receive stipends work to be re-elected indefinitely, and for that purpose – using informal rules of patriarchy – get some leaders into debt who oppose them, or try to benefit them with projects, which affects the development of leadership in the cooperative, but that could be remedied if the oversight board, for example, assumed their functions that include applying the statutes and the cooperative law that indicate that the board members can only be re-elected once. The managers tend to take the place of the board members, have general power of attorney, and in the assemblies have more influence than any board member, when the statutes indicate that only the members and not the employees should participate, and that the strategic decisions are the responsibility of the board members, while the operational part, that of executing those decisions, is the job of the management and the rest of the technical administrative staff. A good part of the cooperatives have a credit committee that generally is left out, the president or the manager end up making the decisions about who, how much and when a loan is made, and that is why the board members and their clientele end up generally indebted with the highest amounts – they think that being a board member or manager (informal rule) allows them to “pass over” the (formal) rules of the cooperative. In many cooperatives the minutes are written by the managers themselves, and not by the secretary. In some cooperatives they even write up minutes without having a meeting of the administrative council, minutes that later the technicians take to the house of each board member for their signature. They are minutes with manipulated content, when the statutes indicate that it is the person named by the assembly who has to write the notes and duly keep them, given that the notes are the historic memory of the accumulated knowledge of an organization. The statutes themselves lay out the path for turning a cooperative into a school of leadership, and contain the norms appropriate for an organization to be successful, which requires changes in the correlation of forces that would allow the rules and principles of cooperativism to be used in a better way.


If each member has contributed their quota (“treasure”) they will be looking to ensure that their organization follows the path indicated by their statutes, and to the extent that the cooperative follows that path (contribution+compliance with the rules), it encourages each member to redouble their efforts to contribute more capital, and to have greater participation in the different organs of their organization[16] –or instead of beginning with contributions, have rules for intensifying the agriculture and organizing themselves effectively to carry it out[17]. This effective interest could be nourished through exchanges with other organizations; each cooperative in a deliberative fashion organizes visits to other organizations; in a deliberate way means that they identify their concerns and difficulties in order to learn how other organizations have responded to these concerns and resolved those difficulties; and at the same time contribute to their self esteem, sharing their successes that could be useful for other organizations. Looking at oneself in the “mirror of the other” makes you rediscover your own “birthmarks” and how valuable your own “footprints” are.


Thirdly, each member needs to be clear that the cooperative is a means, whose purpose is to provide them services and to be a school for the formation of leaders for making the peasant-farmer route viable in the case of the rural cooperatives. Having these two previously mentioned points, the cooperative needs to be transparent with the owners of the organization; transparency means that the information of each service gets to the members, that they are on flipchart paper stuck on the walls of the offices of the cooperative and/or are printed to be given to each member permanently. What information? Principle: whoever produces information should know that information. For example, a coffee cooperative that provides credit services should publish the following information: coffee area of each member, qq of coffee turned in, yield of that coffee in the dry mill, price that it was sold at, business that bought the coffee, total value, export costs and administrative costs, total value paid; amount of credit given to each member, interest rate, debt, debt paid; amount of credit received by the cooperative from external sources, interest rates, distribution by member. The very fact that each member has open access to that information, without any restriction, allows them to question, learn, connect to one another and govern their organization.


An organization where its members comply with the agreed upon rules (be they for contributions or for the management of the coffee farms), participate in the decisions of their organization following the path indicated in their own statutes, deliberately seek to share their lessons and learn from other organizations, and are transparent and informed about what their organization is seeking and where it is going, constitutes a successful organization. This cooperative will not fall into despotism, it will avoid the future of the “bigheaded dwarf”, will resist being absorbed by the market and will not be co-opted by elites. This type of organization is a means that will contribute to expanding the ancient human capacity of being peasant-indigenous. But, will they be able to do it alone? Here is the importance of strategic alliances among organizations with a leadership approach that we are proposing. The following section elaborates on this point.


3. In the organizations that provide services


Even though in this section we focus on NGOs, with the proper adaptations, what is said here is applicable to the situation of financial institutions, fair trade organizations, schools (universities, technical institutes), research centers and state institutions. Rocha (2011), quoting the Directory of NGOs in Nicaragua for 1999-2000, stated that in the year 2000 there were 322 NGOs, 6% of them emerged prior to 1980, 22% in the decade of the 80s, and 72% in the 90s. Bodan (2000), based on MINGOB (Ministry of the Interior), stated that in 2000 there were 1,861 NGOs. Rocha also refers to the fact that MINGOB stated that there were 4,360 non profit associations in Nicaragua. Certainly there has been a boom of organizations in the last 30 years, specifically NGOs, in Nicaragua as well as in Latin America. Rocha (2011) does an assessment of the NGOs in Nicaragua as well as Latin America:


“During the decades that followed the armed conflicts the NGOs have developed many praiseworthy works. Alongside that, their short termed view, their tendency toward depoliticization, their submissive dependency on funds from the North should be questioned. And principally their contribution to the decline in wage labor and job security. Something very serious in this reign of unemployment which today is Central America”


What has happened with the NGOs and organizations in general? Petras and Veltmeyer (2005) state that the NGOs served as agents of international organizations to calm people down and prevent possible rebellions in reaction to the neoliberal policies. Hale (2002) notes that the cultural policies of neoliberalism are even more serious that the assimiliation policies of the previous era, and that the indigenous movements were bureaucratized or turned into NGOs in this period through policies and resources that created a dicotomy between the “obedient indian”, who they promoted, and the “rebelllious indian” who they excluded and discredited. So, in contrast to the case of the cooperatives, here we find ourselves facing an adverse situation, it is not the informal rules that pass over the formal rules and affect the autonomy of the organizations, but rather the submission to formal rules that respond to the market which has contributed to the extensive agricultural model of development.


Figure 4. Myths within NGOs

ü There is no development without money

ü The market is a sea of pirates

ü The people in the countryside are poor to be pitied

ü We believe in the poor

ü The communities do not change: like the roads and  the rivers

ü A community changes with the arrival of a project

ü We technicians arrive to change the producer´s farm

ü The formal is what has value, the informal does not work

ü We know, that is why we are giving technical assistance

ü Justice is applying the law of the Republic

ü Alliances are a waste of time

ü The producers do not know anything

ü The bosses are right and are those who decide

ü The guru saves the organization and is a great visionary

ü Civil society are the NGOs

ü The leader empowers

ü The NGOs are participatory from below


Fuente: Talleres con personal de ONGs, 2013

Figure 4 shows the “myth of the superiority” of the NGOs (national and international); on the one hand, they know the needs of the people, they are right, they decide, provide light, change the lives of the people and their farms, make it so the communities have a history; and on the other hand they think that the producers “do not know anything”, “do not change”  and that they are “poor to be pitied”, which fits with the mentality of the people expressed in Figures 1 and 2. For the NGOs the communities are sources of knowledge, which is why they turn their gaze toward the real source – donors, market and academia, leaders, gurus, directors, technicians – in order to from there “serve”, “assist”, “finance”, “empower”, “sensitize” and “raise their awareness”. The NGOs are champions in promoting “bottom up” processes through participatory methods, while in practice they have defined their rules (policies) to implement their resources[18]. The naturalization of these practices is so profound that the organizations wield the myth of empowerment: the leader empowers his follower, a process which  assumes that whoever has power empowers, and the one is empowered lacks power.


This empowerment which dis-empowers is complemented by the myth of the great “guru”, the savior leader and great visionary. It is believed that only a leader makes an organization.[19] Its impact in an organization makes the followers feel like leaders before their communities, and that is why they “assist”… and facing the structure of their organization they feel like followers, the NGO is seen as a follower before the donors…and feels like a leader before the communities to “assist” them…The idea of leader comes from having followers. It is an asymmetrical relationship where both are left as “tethered hens”: the leader, biased by the leader-follower relationship, sees his second in command (the next highest official) generally as his competitor, or the president of a university sees the directors of the different schools and institutes in this way; in this way an old social rule of survival in power structures gets reinforced. Those second in command are there to support, never to stand out or they will be denigrated or fired, or those next in line precisely because of their mentality that underlies the leader-follower relationship  will behave as “followers”, be it to be submissive or to rebel, making themselves the “follower” of another higher level boss. This is what it means to be “tethered”; without much movement to jump, something that many times is justified as “not much but good”, but that damages both and the effectiveness of the organization as a whole.


The trap is in the leader-follower social relations of the NGO, married to the patron-client social relations of the population. This marriage cemented over centuries fits comfortably in the context of the “extensive culture” that has produced dispossession, inequality and poverty, which explains why projects in favor of environmental sustainability, gender equity, credit and technical assistance in favor of productivity…have not worked. It is easy for being in relatively isolated areas, convenient for a type of extractive trade based on the crop lien system of capitalism that combines market with lending along the lines of patronage relationships. As we said before, this marriage is not only convenient, but keeps the context of change in which the agricultural world finds itself from being taken advantage of.


Figure 5. Mechanisms of transformation

ü Control: Shared decisions based on emancipation processes

ü Competency: insertion, immersion, writing and dialogue

ü Clarity: Making alliances, co-producing knowledge

How can the intellectuals of organizations overcome their “inner-follower” and become leaders, and with that contribute to the transformation of the patron-client relationship in the communities? Like with the cooperatives, waking up through un-learning is the starting point; in fact, the fact that organizations are able to recognize themselves in Figure 4 is a starting point, that awakening implies that they should turn their gaze back on the communities with whom they manage knowledge-understood as discerning and produce it. This step, nevertheless, is not enough; many organizations are pleased to be self critical, but stay within the leader-follower structure; they are like popular demonstrations that shout slogans against some policy, but that lack alternative thinking, or who become part of the government and nothing happens (see Figure 2: “our leader is now the Cabinet Minister, we are in power”) – they are like dogs in a rural community who come out barking loudly behind a car going by, and when they finally reach the car, do not do anything, return with their tail between their legs, and on encountering another dog, chew them out for keeping “their head down” (not joining in on the barking). Waking up – in other words perceiving the limitations of this relationship, realizing that this assymetry that leaves us “tethered” -is a good step, but without overcoming the leader-follower way of thinking, the love for the patron-client relationship will reappear.


What mechanisms would help to overcome this structure, and make that starting point of “awakening”, turning the gaze back on the communities, be sustainable? Figure 5 summarizes those mechanisms. First, instead of empowering, emancipating: freeing up the energy, initiatives, imagination and creativity of each person within a framework of group and collective reflection sessions. The actors of the organizations, communities and the value chains need to discern their realities and in this way recognize themselves as leaders looking beyond those realities.  Demonstrating the myths wakes them up, they un-learn, they are freed from their “demons” (myths, beliefs) and there are flashes of change. But these “demons” tend to return, how can you say goodby to them and fill the void with transformative knowledge?


Figure 3: Path for creating competency

Contrary to the tendency of the leader-follower social relationship to separate the four elements of  Figure 3, making immersion only for students from the north, insertion only for directors-presidents-managers, writing only for academics from the north, and dialogue only for technicians on terrain “guided” by the market (capitalism with mechanized and intensive technology), and following practices “guided “ by the myth of empowerment, here within the framework of collective and shared leadership we are proposing freeing ourselves of these ties. How?


Figure 3 shows us the path of interaction of the 4 elements around learning[20] that each intellectual should develop within a collective and shared framework – instead of responding only to a type of market controlled by multinationals, we want to turn “the inverted gaze”  back on the communities – societies and their markets. The first element is insertion, having a long term perspective (criticism of and alternative to the context, narrative and counter-narrative) with a sense of mission (political struggle), through building alliances with the families, their communities and organizations. The second is immersion, which is taking off our shoes and putting ourselves in the shoes of the impoverished and impoverishing families in order to understand the reality from their worlds, literally allowing ourselves to be “taken” by the reality of the “other”; this immersion gives content to the insertion and makes it concrete; if the insertion is theory, the immersion is method. The third element is writing, taking notes of each conversation, observation and readings that emanate from the insertion and immersion, and conceptualizing them as ideas and meanings.  And the last element is dialogue, which is the free flow of ideas in groups, that start from recognizing the existence of the other person, and that revolve around the spoken word. Insertion without immersion is empty, immersion without insertion is blind, the two without writing turn into “prisoner talk”, and the three without group dialogue lack collective social transformation. This is metanoia: learning that emancipates and transforms, and that builds visionary organizations.


Finally, each person who works in the organizations needs to produce and share knowledge through human interaction, interacting in groups to seek solutions to specific problems and to take advantage of concrete opportunities. Being open to audits and evaluation missions that are privileged opportunities for the personnel to talk about their problems and their doubts to benefit from advice and ideas about how other organizations have faced similar problems. Organizing reflection sessions with visiting and local researchers, as well as inviting people from other organizations, reflections where the ideas flow. Writing one or two page articles about multiple and different topics, and publishing them. The greatest challenge is reading, not the lack of bibliography; it is writing, not the lack of information, and it is daring to recognize your own skills. These are the mechanisms that are coherent with emancipation, that come from teams that decide, that make their talents work, that expand their human capacities.




The “patron-client” social relationship has been married to the “leader-follower” relationship, expressed in formal and informal forms of organization, which in turn have responded to a country context that in the rural area has been characterized by the “extensive and extractive culture”  which has been translated into the expansion of the agricultural frontier, the systematic expulsion of the poorest families, environmental degradation and dispossession. Nevertheless, this context is changing, the agricultural frontier has already reached the ocean, it is rare to find families in the central interior area of the country doing rotating between its farming areas and its areas at rest, climate change is being felt in more crop diseases, the soils need to be nourished, the multiplication of the population and their increasing levels of schooling  is a reality, and the differentiation of products (e.g. organic coffee, specialty coffee, milk derivatives, vegetables) through reorganized value chains is more and more important. The challenge of generating and clarifying knowledge is a challenge for all social sectors, from the peasant families to the technicians and researchers; a studious producer who observes and analyzes his farm, technicians who do research to support their technical advice, researchers who do immersion…this is the future of the country.


This context of change, of voracious capitalism combined with the crop lien system and the party blanket of “compañero”, shows us that the most valuable thing today is cognitive work and not human physical work, as has been the context of “extensive and extractive culture” with its consistent marriage betwen patron-client and leader-follower. Organizations (cooperatives, NGOs, research centers, microfinance organizations) have created their own walls responding to their “leader-follower” way of thinking, with their gaze directed in the opposite direction of the communities – they seek to be more standardized, professionalized and large. Even with the differences between cooperatives and communities and value chains, where the weight of informal rules shapes behaviors and results, and in the case of organizations (NGOs, microfinance organizations…) that instead are seen to be prisoners of formal rules, all are moved by the forces of the market. The new context of change, nevertheless, runs the risk not so much of not being taken advantage of due to the power of the marriage of the patron-client and leader-follower approach, and the neoliberal approach, but of being taken advantage of by a transnational elite capable of manipulating both approaches, generating even more inequality and dispossession in the country.


In this article we have proposed an approach of “collective and shared leadership” that disrupts the social relationship of the “marriage” and the neoliberal ideology. For that reason we have taken note of mechanisms that would allow the organizations (cooperatives, NGOs, microfinance organizations, research centers) “to redirect their gaze”, question their own origins, and turn their organizations into visionary schools of learning wedded to the actors in the communities and the value chains, expressing routes that go “beyond development.” This is possible if the organizations are studying the communities and are studying themselves in order to find what Brafman and Beckstrom (2007) call “the hardball stage”[21]: finding the appropriate point between centralization and decentralization, depending on their specific processes. In the long term, the organization is what counts; that organization that overcomes the “leader-follower” relationship, and does it in alliance with the communities that are overcoming the “patron-client” relationship, finding “ the hardball stage” will be the organizations that persist and that will really contribute to societal transformation.


Will your organization persist in the long term, contributing to societal transformation? The response is in the hands of each member of your organization. If you respond from a leader-follower framework, even being a leader you are a follower, which is why we will have already lost the race before starting. If you respond from a leader-leader framework, there is hope, because we now have won a leader – whether that person is a woman or a man.




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[1] This article comes from the experience of directing the Research and Development Institute Nitlapan-UCA between 2012 and 2013, and of working with coffee cooperatives and youth innovators since 2010. The issue in question has been, nevertheless, of personal interests since 1988 when I began to do immersions in the communities of El Arenal of Masatepe every weekend, while at the same time as part of the staff of Nitlapán I was studying Wiwilí –see Mendoza (1990). I am grateful to J. Bastiaensen, S. Shepard and M. Lester for their comments and continuous support.

[2] In the case of coffee, Mendoza (2013) shows that this extensive path facilitated the propagation of the coffee rust, and was the sign that that route was no longer viable in the northern part of the country.

[3] The peasant-indigenous population reproduces itself even in adversity. The peasant-indigenous are like starfish, who when one of their five arms are cut off, create a new one; if it is cut in half, it becomes two; they are not like the spider that dies when you crush their head (Brafman y Beckstrom, 2007:41). The peasant-indigenous is decentralized, and even when they are given a “head” (board dependent on the Party, centralist board, state socialism or capitalism), they slip away.

[4] “We are in the middle of one of the most profound shifts in human history, where the primary work of mankind is moving from the Industrial Age of ‘control’ to the Knowledge Worker Age of ‘release’” (Covey 2012: xiii).Covey is a recognized scholar of leadership, one of his books in particular: 7 Habits of Highly effective People.

[5] In contrast to this description, we could find other societies in the same country that are more egalitarian, communities with at least 60% of the families that have stayed with more intensive and sustainable production systems, and that generally have more inclusive and diverse forms of organization.

[6] Box 1 and 2 have been the result of workshops organized with cooperatives, workshops that we have facilitated jointly with E. Fernández.

[7] For example, the big demand for “fast food” from US consumers made the fast food industry demand cheap meat, which found a response in the Central American countries, particularly Nicaragua, at the cost of deforestation with the expansion of ranching. See Myers (1981).

[8] For an overview of the data on land ownership up to  2010, see Baumeister (2010)

[9] The migration flow has increased, with temporary migration during coffee harvest times to El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica standing out, because these countries pay the harvesters better (Baumeister and Fernández, 2007)

[10] The growth of world population (in year 0 we were 300 million people, in 1900 we were 1.7 billion, in 2000 we were 5.7 billion and in 2100 we will be 11.2 billion) and the increase in the income of the population of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South África) constitute a sustained and growing demand for food, which for Nicaragua means greater demand for meat and milk (ranching), coffee, basic grains… and demand for more and more differentiated products.

[11] E. Fernández (2013) has studied patriarchy from the Precolombine times to the present. He reveals how this institution has permeated political, religious and economic systems, and how today it molds the organization of the cooperatives.

[12] Pérez Baltodano (2003) argues that Nicaraguan society expresses a providential mentality, a resigned pragmatism with an indifferent elite.

[13] Studies on added value of cacao and beans, carried out as a Masters thesis, show that participating in better chains is not of interest to the producers, and practically all the additional value added is captured by other links of the chain.

[14] Kate Choping wrote a novel called The Awakening in 1899 in the United States. That novel was so harshly criticized at that time that the author never wrote again. A century later the novel was recognized and considered a classic. The novel deals with a woman named Edna Pontellier, who awoke from her role as spouse and mother, and from making sure that the domestic help did their work, and that her marriage out of convenience and not out of love appeared to function in the eyes of the society of that time. She wakes up when she learns to swim in the ocean, and in that act she realizes that she can achieve what she proposes for herself, which makes her feel strange as she discovers that the life she is leading is not the one she wanted. So Edna recovers her passion for painting, sells her paintings and generates her own income, leaves her house, takes a trip and falls in love, violating the norms of the society at that time that – obviously – condemned her. I am grateful to J. Estrada for introducing me to this novel and for this summary.

[15] A principle of cooperativism is “one member, one vote”. Without changing this formal principle, here we are proposing that a member with contributions (“treasure”) will have even more interest in having “voice” and “vote.”

[16] The José Alfredo Zeledón Cooperative (JAZ), located in San Juan del Río Coco, overcame the crop lien system through putting together a loan portfolio on the basis of the savings/contributions of their members from the very year of their founding in 1995. This rule of making contributions has already become a custom, and is no longer resisted, because the members see the benefits: they have credit, and in addition they have lowered the cost of that money. Consequently, that organization has diversified their friendships and has cultivated greater autonomy; nevertheless, it still is working on moving from a “leader-follower” model to an organization with collective and shared leadership, and of influencing their members to move from extensive agriculture to an intensive one. (Mendoza, 2012b)

[17] The Solidarity Cooperative of the community of Aranjuez was able to increase the productive yield of the coffee of its members, breaking the myth of the biannual nature of coffee, coordinating with their second tier organization CECOCAFEN so that it might provide them with coffee processing services, and negotiate directly with the buyers of quality coffee. It is the only cooperative that was able to stop the coffee rust. How did they do it? They agreed upon rules to intensify their coffee fields: using the fair trade premium to invest in coffee, doing it under agreed upon rules, with the direct supervision of the technician, and providing the premium not in cash but in inputs – rules that their members fully comply with. And like the JAZ cooperative they have diversified their friendships and built their autonomy; they are moving toward a collective and shared leadership. Their limitation is that they do not have a culture of savings-contributions. (Mendoza 2013a)

[18] In the case of the microfinance organizations we should note that many of them began as rotating and revolving funds, organizing solidarity groups – pretty decentralized, organizing savings and loan circles. In the beginning they also emphasized studying the communities and their families. Over time they were professionalized, their policies became standardized, they were more and more absorbed by formal legislation, focused on individuals instead of circles, quit studying the communities and their families, and responded more and more to the markets; they turned toward getting scale, earnings, and they went more to a commercial and (peri) urban portfolio. The communities quit being the source of knowledge for the microfinance organizations. The more institutionalization, the more distance from the communities, and therefore the gap was greater between the central management and the management of the branch office, and the credit promoters – who know the communities better, and more and more have to hide their knowledge to respond to the policies of their organization.

[19] Collins and Porras (1994:31-34) find that there is no correlation between great and charismatic visionary leaders and visionary companies.

[20] This figure with the 4 elements comes from (Mendoza 2013b). What is described here was promoted in the Nitlapán-UCA Institute. In this text I retrieve it as figure as the fundamental elements from the angle of “collective and shared leadership”. The experience in Nitlapan shows that the importance and appropriateness of this proposal is understood, but the institutionality mentioned, that of responding to markets (projects, financial profitability without environmental and social profitability) is very hard to change. One lesson that came out of this is that change needs to be worked on in a parallel and simultaneous fashion with institutions like Nitlapan, with the communities-territories where the work is being done, and also with allied international organizations. Another lesson that came out of this is that the change toward collective and shared leadership requires more rotation and renovation of leadership in any institution, no one is irreplaceable.

[21] Reference to candy making, hard ball stage is when sugar syrups are heated to the point that after dropping them in a pan of cool water they will maintain their shape.

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