The Executive Leadership Team at the W. Haywood Burns Institute: Providing a Blueprint for Innovative Leadership

Twenty-one years ago, noted civil rights attorney and international justice reform advocate James Bell set out to revolutionize the way law was administered in the United States when he founded the W. Haywood Burns Institute in honor of his dear friend, human rights activist and famed attorney of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign.

Bell’s successors at the Burns Institute are continuing that legacy of working to bring racial justice to communities across the country, but they’re also trailblazing a leadership model that turns traditional org charts on its head.

Tshaka Barrows, Samantha Mellerson, and Michael Finley were named co-executive directors of the Burns Institute in 2020 when Bell decided to take a step back from day-to-day duties of the organization. This new executive leadership team shares budget authority, strategic planning, fundraising, operational and programmatic functions and Board engagement equally.

Both Barrows and Finley have been with the Burns Institute since its inception. With Barrows bringing decades of experience leading grassroots youth organizing, including the national Community Justice Network for Youth; and Finley having helped design and expand BI’s local place-based strategy to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in youth justice, eventually expanding across human services.

While Mellerson officially joined the team in 2017, she too has a long history of partnership with the Burns Institute, through her work in philanthropy, government and non-profit sectors working to create equitable opportunities and improve quality of life outcomes for children, families and communities.  

“[W]e receive so many inquiries about our shared leadership model – particularly because there are three of us. People are so curious about power dynamics and decision-making processes,” Mellerson said. “The truth is, sharing power is pretty effortless for us. It was something that James did very naturally, and we all benefited from, and held on to.”  

The Burns Institute’s evolution in leadership structure coincides with an evolution in its approach to transforming systems. Instead of helping jurisdictions solely reduce disparities within its structures, the Burns Institute helps communities and government leaders work in partnership to reimagine human services in a manner that centers the humanity of its citizens.   

This evolution is not theoretical. Internally, the Burns Institute changed its organizational structure to maximize collaboration, communication and efficiency with increased autonomy, and leadership opportunities.

In addition to providing the space to implement innovative ideas, the shared leadership arrangement also offers other advantages.

“Often, one sole leader is left to make all decisions in isolation. That can quickly lead to fatigue and burn out,” Finley said. “A collaborative leadership structure broadens the identity and culture of the organization instead of reflecting one person’s personality.”

Benefits to a shared-leadership approach

  • Maximizes collaboration
  • Shared accountability
  • Increases executive capacity to support all organizational functions
  • Incorporates diverse perspectives and allows for sharper analysis which increases innovation
  • Shared power – demonstrated and modeled (value)

Tips for exploring a collaborative leadership model at your organization

  • Shared leadership is a bit of a dance – some art, some science. It should be based on mutual respect and humility. 
  • As you introduce your new shared leadership structure, make it as easy as possible for staff and external partners. For example, let them know they can reach out to all of you or one of you – you will be in constant communication and ensure everyone is up to date with shared information. Ease their fears of not knowing who to go to for different issues. Once they start engaging you as a team, they will adjust.
  • Just do it. Be brave and take the plunge.


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