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Skills for Effective co-Leading

Helen Hazlett
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 27 No. 3, May-June 1991, pp. 35-7

Monica is angry! Her co-Leader Jean had said she would put a notice in the local newspaper to publicize their next Series Meeting. When Monica looked for it in the paper, there was no notice. Monica calls Jean to ask her about it, and Jean says that she just didn't have time this month because of so many commitments at her children's school. Monica is getting tired of hearing the phrase "Family first"! She's beginning to think that it's time to retire from La Leche League. Jean feels hassled by Monica's uptight attitude and wishes she would retire. Can this "marriage" be saved?

La Leche League Leaders shine when it comes to giving support and encouragement to others. Many Leaders remain active because they are watered like a thirsty plant by the warm words of their fellow Leaders. What happens when the feelings and thoughts that need to be expressed don't carry that warm, accepting tone? What if a Leader feels downright angry about something? Have you ever wondered how to get your message across to a co-Leader without wilting her with your strong feelings?

All Leaders share a common goal--to help mothers breastfeed their babies. Effective communication helps Leaders achieve that goal. When Leaders acknowledge one another's strengths, everyone feels appreciated and valued. When Leaders express their concerns, desires, and disappointments, they achieve a deeper understanding of one another. When Leaders communicate their irritations, upsets, and even anger in an assertive, rather than aggressive, manner, their relationship remains clear so that the work of leading a Group can continue. Feelings of disappointment, irritation, and anger are a normal part of human relationships. Leaders who risk communicating these feelings assertively can empower each other to achieve their shared goal.

Many people hesitate to express themselves when they feel angry because they fear that they will hurt the other person. They may hold back their feelings, but the relationship doesn't grow because they haven't shared who they really are or how they feel. When unpleasant feelings are held in check too long, the accepting, caring feelings may not come out either. Feelings of dissatisfaction can grow out of proportion to the events that triggered them if they're not addressed. The danger also exists that some day the dam will burst and all those hostile feelings will come pouring out in an unchecked torrent. Worse yet, the bearer of those unhappy feelings can burn out, like a garden choked with weeds, and withdraw from the relationship.

Know Yourself and Share Yourself

When a Leader makes her expectations clear to herself and to her co-Leader, she increases her chances of getting what she wants. Does she feel she's getting all the help she needs from her co-Leader? Perhaps she wants to limit her League work to the basics of leading meetings, phone helping, Group management, keeping up with breastfeeding information, and working with Leader Applicants. Maybe she's inspired to learn a new skill, increase La Leche League's visibility in the community, or work at another level, such as the Chapter or Area. By discussing dreams and goals with her co-Leader the Leader can clarify her thoughts and make her desires known to her partner. The same principles of communication that keep a good marriage strong also apply to co-Leaders working together.

Personal style can also affect the relationship between Leaders. One may be a "take-charge," efficient organizer. Another may be an empathetic listener, skillful at drawing out a person's thoughts and feelings. One Leader manages the Group with schedules, lists, and a well-planned outline, while her co-Leader requires no more than a brief pre-meeting discussion to sail through a meeting. Monica has all her Group responsibilities penciled in on her large "month-at-a-glance" calendar and her outline prepared several days before the scheduled Series Meeting. Jean, on the other hand, looks at THE NEW LEADER'S HANDBOOK one hour before the meeting starts and jots down the two or three questions she will use for that night's discussion. Each Leader can recognize and respect the style of her co-Leader. This respect will serve as the foundation for healthy communication between Leaders.

Make the Time to Talk and Plan Together

Maintaining good communication takes time, whether in a marriage or between co-Leaders. Leaders find their work goes more smoothly if they make time to communicate regularly about their Group responsibilities, at least once a series. This can be done by mail, phone, or in person by holding regular Group planning sessions. All Leaders need to discuss the division of labor within the Group. This is also the time to discuss feelings or difficulties.

Some Leaders divide their responsibilities according to their personal preferences, each Leader taking the jobs she likes and does best. Other Leaders rotate their job with each series or with each meeting, deciding who will lead the Series Meetings, who will lead the Evaluation Meetings, who will write and send the monthly report form to the District Advisor, and who will order supplies from La Leche League International. If the Group has workers who are handling the jobs of Secretary, Treasurer, Librarian, Publicity, and Refreshment Coordinator, which Leader(s) will make sure that those jobs are being done? Decide who is responsible for finding a meeting location, setting up the Library and books for sale, and greeting new mothers at the meeting.

It is especially important to discuss Group jobs when a Leader Applicant has completed her Preview. The Leaders, along with the Leader Applicant, need to plan together how the newest Leader will become involved in the Group. They can plan for her to begin leading meetings as soon as she has signed her Letter of Commitment. To encourage mothers to call her, her phone number can be placed first on meeting notices, in newcomer packets, and in community publicity such as newspaper ads. The Leaders can discuss basic Group responsibilities and reassign some to the new Leader. All Leaders share the responsibilities of their Group as equals.

But what if their plans hit a snag? Rachel and Sue were ecstatic to learn that Lisa was about to sign her Letter of Commitment to become a Leader, until she called to say that a family crisis would limit her involvement in La Leche League for a while. Lisa said she wouldn't have the time to attend meetings regularly or to help much with the Group responsibilities. Rachel and Sue felt disappointed and worried that Lisa would never get involved in the Group as a Leader. One way to handle this situation would be for the three Leaders to meet and review their Group responsibilities to discuss what Lisa can handle and their feelings about their workload so that no one becomes resentful.

When It's Time to Make Changes

Connie's husband Jim comes home from work looking depressed and announces that he's been laid off at work. With their third baby due in another month, both of them are panicked. They need time to work out the details of their lives during this period of transition.

Life contains many periods of transition. New babies arrive, families move, loved ones become ill or die. All require time and energy as family members learn to adjust and cope with the changes involved. We as mothers often have primary responsibility for managing these transitions and for seeing that all family members get their needs met. These periods contain an opportunity for growth if managed with a watchful eye and an open mind, and being a member of La Leche League can be a source of support for a mother when she is experiencing a major life change.

A Leader going through a major transition will need to evaluate her time and energy. She needs to talk with her co-Leader about what and how much work she can handle. This may be a good time for them to discuss the division of labor and how to streamline reassign, or eliminate certain jobs. It may be necessary to shift basic Group responsibilities to lighten their load and to drop some optional activities for a time. She should plan to talk with her co-Leader often, both for moral support and to evaluate her workload. Group workers can be valuable sources of help in times like these, and a Group can be greatly strengthened by a Leader's willingness to "share the load." Delegating responsibilities when an unusual situation occurs is also a way of demonstrating La Leche League's ideals.

As children grow, new opportunities for involvement outside of La Leche League come along. A Leader can find her attention divided between Group work and school or other activities. A Leader will sometimes begin to behave as though she were retired without actually changing her status or discussing a shift in Group responsibilities. A Leader writes, "In our Chapter one Leader has a two-month-old and a four-year-old and somehow she always ends up with primary responsibility for her Group, even right after giving birth. Her three co-Leaders are usually 'too busy' with their older children's activities to be much help. They feel they must be at every soccer game even if it means they miss all the Series Meetings during the season. The Leader with younger children feels lots of resentment and her requests for help usually fall on unresponsive ears."

Even when there are no major transitions in the Leaders' lives, they may still want to examine their division of labor. Be sensitive to the signs that indicate the need for change, such as tension, anger, resentment, or indifference. When she notices these feelings, the Leader can think carefully about her Group involvement and try to pinpoint what changes are needed.

Clear the Air with Assertive Communication

What can be done with irritated, aggravated, or annoyed feelings before they escalate to resentful, hostile, or enraged ones? Speak up assertively.

A vast difference exists between assertive and aggressive communication. Assertive communication focuses on the speaker's feelings; aggressive communication focuses on the listener's characteristics. The assertive speaker says, "I feel ignored when my calls aren't returned." The aggressive speaker says, "You never return my calls. You don't care about my opinions." When a statement starts with "you," it can sound aggressive and accusatory and make the listener defensive. (The exception is the "You feel . . ." statement to show empathy.) The assertive speaker clears the air by inviting more communication: "How do you feel about what I just said?" This differs from an aggressive demand for an explanation of the listener's behavior. "What made you do that? "

An assertive message leaves the listener's self-worth intact, while an aggressive one tears down self-esteem. Compare "I appreciate your willingness to hear my feelings," to "You'll never understand me." To speak assertively, make "I" statements, give the listener a chance to express her feelings by asking for a response to your message, and follow up with statements that express the value of your relationship with the listener.

Sometimes it's hard to know how to start when feelings have been left unsaid for a long time. Perhaps you've tried to talk about it but aren't satisfied with the outcome. If so, call or write the District Advisor. She can act as a resource person to help Leaders sort out their concerns, suggest strategies for improving communication with a co-Leader, or if the need arises, to arrange a discussion between Leaders to help them find a mutually agreeable solution.

Treat Co-Leaders with Consideration

Improving communication with a co-Leader requires a positive attitude and a willingness to respect individual differences. As one Leader observed, "As Leaders, we share a common experience and general philosophy but remain unique individuals with different personalities, family situations, and leadership abilities." Just listening with respect to each other's feelings may be all that's necessary to improve the relationship between Leaders.

Another Leader comments, "My feelings about my LLL work and my co-Leader don't depend on how evenly the responsibilities are divided. During the years my co-Leader and I have worked together, I have usually taken on a larger share of the Group work. But that has never bothered me because she treats me with consideration by always following through on her promises. She has never let me down because she respects the fact that I have a family to put first, too."

Group work can inspire excitement and creativity When a Leader discusses commitments regularly with her co-Leaders and feels support, it will be easier for her to find the level of League work that is optimal for her. She's created a working partnership and a support network that can help her through difficult times. Taking the time and having the courage to communicate assertively as needed will strengthen the partnership. La Leche League work can yield a harvest of beautiful friendships to last a lifetime.

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