When "I" Turned into "We": Changing Aspirations

Nichole Martini bio picThis post was authored by Nichole Martini, who is the Co-Chair of EPIP-NY's Steering Committee. Nichole  currently serves as the Director of Development and External Affairs at Equality Charter School, a middle school serving underserved students in the Bronx, and is Co-Chair of the Grants Committee of the NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund. She is passionate about the social sector, policy, and philanthropy and is very engaged in arts philanthropy and cultural policy in New York City and the U.S. She holds a M.S. in fundraising and philanthropy from NYU and a B.A. in music from Furman University. 

When "I" Turned into "We": Changing Aspirations


In the early fall of 2012, EPIP-NY went through its usual onboarding process of new Steering Committee members. I was elected co-chair of the chapter to help guide and direct our activities and work with EPIP National. This was my first time serving in a co-leadership model and I wasn’t sure how it would work. Who does what? Who makes the final decision? Who drives things forward when there is opposition? Collaborative leadership was a strong concept for me mentally, but I was not sure what it looked like in real life.

This past September, the EPIP-NY Steering Committee had its annual planning retreat. Up until this point, the co-leadership model had looked something like this: “Here is our list of things to do. Ok Gabby, I’ll take these and you take those. Good?” An efficient format, but not one that I would say had truly delved into the possibilities of collective leadership. Then planning for the retreat came. It was the first time where we carved out a significant amount of time to blend together our leadership styles and collective knowledge.

The results? Gabby and I had the chance to shape an agenda that was truly a blend of the rich experience and perspective we both held. Having consulted two of our other steering committee members as sounding boards for feedback, we had a retreat that created consensus for everyone at the table. From the comments we received, it also felt like a very productive balance of both work and team bonding. Looking back, it was truly the result of collective leadership.

Growing up, the image of the domineering CEO was one that inspired me. It felt powerful and more importantly it represented a person that could make change in one decision. I aspired to be this person, to create this image for myself. Through all my education and very early career I wanted to be the person responsible for the success of the organization or group of people I was leading. Little did I know what was required to create the most effective, long-lasting, and truly change-making leadership.

EPIP has had a strong place in my life for the last three years. I have been a member since attending graduate school and have served in varying capacities of leadership with the organization as a member volunteer. Part of the message that has consistently been represented at EPIP is the mantra of collective leadership. We have had sessions about it at conferences, hosted programs to discuss its meaning and application, and talked about it at our steering committee meetings. However, it wasn’t until I became the co-chair of the EPIP-NY Steering Committee and entered a position of leadership professionally until I truly realized the power of “we” over “I.”

Upon starting my position at Equality Charter School as the Director of Development and External Affairs, I became quickly aware of one of the guiding forces for my boss, the head of school and founder. Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great”, supported her through very tough decisions in the school’s early years. Having purchased the book in graduate school, and only having read a portion of it then, I had a very vague understanding of the “Level 5 Leader.” I decided to revisit it to understand the perspective of my boss and learn what truly made sustainable leadership. Interestingly enough Jim Collins had discussed, studied, analyzed, and promoted the notion of collective leadership before it was a buzz word in philanthropy and the non-profit sector.

The summary of a level 5 leader is essentially the title of this blog post: “When ‘I’ Turned into ‘We.’” It refers to the person who continually puts the mission of the organization over the personal credit of success that is often sought after by people in leadership. Also the level 5 leader brings “the right people on the bus” or a team of people that truly share the same passion for the same mission.

As I started to practice some of the advice that Jim Collins shared, I realized its power in creating a solid foundation for a team. And when there is a truly functioning team, the aspirations of an organization become a reality. The mission outlasts the leader. In the work of the social sector, this is the aspiration all of us should have for our organizations and our work.

What is the role of the leader? To guide, listen and assimilate, and support growth. During my tenure as the EPIP-NY Steering Committee co-chair, I have realized that the success of our organization has truly come from the collective talent and vision of our entire team. It has been a very clarifying role for me as I pursue continued opportunities of more responsibility.


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