Is shared leadership a sign of the times?

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Shared leadership is where influence and accountability is shared between team members.  They are collectively responsibility for setting their own processes and output operating within a flat structure. In effect when shared leadership occurs, team’s members have autonomy over the ‘how’ and ‘when’ in completing tasks and in some cases are responsible for agreeing the ‘what’.

There have been many other definitions of shared leadership, but I like the work of Walker et al (2008) who completed a 3 year study based on 68 branch managers and concluded for team leadership to occur the following needs to be present:

  • The team resolves differences to reach an agreement
  • Tasks are distributed properly to take advantage of the skills within the team
  • Information about the company and its strategy is shared openly with the team
  • Teamwork is promoted within the team itself
  • They work together to find ways to be more productive and efficient.

This is in contrast to vertical leadership where one person is positioned as the senior individual and resides above the team members in terms of hierarchy. They have formal authority over the team and will have a strong say in the processes/systems the team employ to achieve their outcomes.

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The case for shared leadership

  • It can promote diversity in decision making – “two heads are better than one”
  • Increased commitment and shared accountability
  • Increased engagement due to having autonomy and a say in the direction and output of the tasks
  • A less stressful experience as the decision making is not a burden to one individual
  • Blending of skills can produce better results. For example a balance between task orientation and behaviour orientation
  • Can be extremely beneficial for start up or high growth organisations where there is a need to ‘rally round’ to achieve results.

 It’s not for every organisation…

  • Can slow down the pace of action
  • Dealing with team dynamics can be challenging, particularly if there are strong personalities in the team
  • Fundamentally changes the way decisions are made at every level
  • Difficult to switch to autocratic leadership when needed
  • More difficult in traditional/established organisations
  • Not everyone does there best work in a team. Some individuals like the solitude of and focus that working alone can provide.
  • Some people may feel more comfortable with a recognised individual in authority

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If you are going to give it a go, here’s what you should bear in mind

Appoint a sponsor – This should be someone outside of the team who can be called in to mediate and sense check on progress.  It doesn’t have to be a senior individual, but having a sponsor could ease any potential conflicts within the team.

Agree the ways of working – Before the team rush off to begin, there needs to be agreement on how they will all work together.  Anyone not bought into this process should have the option to leave the team (with no judgement passed).

Appoint your ‘spokesman’ – If working within a large team and there is a need to give updates on progress, logistically it might not work to have all the team members present.

Agreeing who will act as the ‘spokesman’ for the team (and I would suggest more than one person) can make the team more productive.

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There’s still more to explore…

Whilst it is a leadership style that can be traced back to Republican Roman times, shared leadership is an approach that still needs more research.  Like many management approaches, it has its limitations and it’s not for every organisation or individual.   I would be interested in studies that look at performance outcomes of shared leadership vs traditional teams to help understand the conditions that gave rise to that increased performance.

In the meantime, shared leadership is not going anywhere and it might be an interesting concept to try in your team or organisation.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

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