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Shared leadership tips: how to do it right

8 tips for doing shared leadership the right way

Shared leadership

If you’ve worked in more than one organisation, you’ll know how much impact different leaders can have. Efficiency, productivity, morale and retention are all affected by how leaders operate, often more significantly than other factors such as salaries. Personality has an impact, but it’s leadership style that makes the difference: how they work to drive the business, inspire the best from their staff and envision the future. So imagine how things might work if your business had not one leader, but a group – and you were one of them. The leadership stereotype of popular culture is the hero leader – dashing in and turning round failing schools, businesses and hospitals. Collaborating and making the most of different talents in shared leadership is less well known, even though the idea of shared leadership has been around since the Romans made use of it in their government system.

Mary Parker Follett was one of the first 20th-century thinkers to revive the idea of shared leadership back in 1924 when she wrote:

“Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led. The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders.”

Research shows shared leadership works well. A study published by Wang, Waldman, & Zhang in 2014 in the Journal of Applied Psychology concluded that it had more impact on team effectiveness than traditional styles, with stronger effects on more complex tasks.

These days, shared leadership – and therefore shared leadership training – is thriving in many organisations, particularly those with complicated problems and projects, or those in the public sector.

What is shared leadership?

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So what is shared leadership (sometimes referred to as distributed leadership, collaborative leadership or networked leadership)? What does shared leadership theory say? Here are three definitions from experts in the field:

In 2010 Michael D. Kocolowski, then vice president of Christian Financial Resources, Lake Mary, Florida, who was working for his PhD in Organisational Leadership at Regent University’s School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship, completed a literature review of shared leadership research. He concluded that it was

a relational, collaborative leadership process or phenomenon involving teams or groups that mutually influence one another and collectively share duties and responsibilities otherwise relegated to a single, central leader.”

Marshall Goldsmith, who teaches executive education at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, has coached CEOs from around 150 companies and pioneered the use of 360-degree feedback. For Goldsmith, shared leadership

involves maximizing all of the human resources in an organization by empowering individuals and giving them an opportunity to take leadership positions in their areas of expertise. With more complex markets increasing the demands on leadership, the job in many cases is simply too large for one individual.”

A different take comes from Daniel Goleman, author of best-selling books on emotional intelligence, who says it’s a stereotype that leaders are solitary and the reality more often involves collaboration:

Examples of these shared leadership projects include a task force composed of members from different divisions of an organization, a collaborative project between two or more organizations, and a public-private partnership to meet a community goal. Whatever the specifics, leaders work collaboratively and share power with other leaders who bring their own perspectives and skill sets.”

Implementing shared leadership: eight tips to make it work

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For most organisations, it will take some thought, leadership development programmes and focused work to reap the full rewards of shared leadership.

Members of the shared leadership team have to understand their group mission, how they and their colleagues work, how to make collective decisions and much more. And that can involve leadership training courses as well as time and energy.

But it can be worthwhile.

A project in the US introduced shared leadership to 27 non-profit organisations. After two years, an evaluation discovered that 78% of the participants had increased their awareness, knowledge and ability to develop staff as leaders at all levels. It also revealed significant increases in staff involvement in decision-making and clear, effective accountability structures.

“Many of the organisations discovered that they were able to do more effective work with less or the same amount of funds, and reported that shared leadership eased the stresses on executive directors,” reported the Nonprofit Quarterly.

1. Get the relationships in your leadership team right

Setting up a shared leadership team means putting together a group of people who are all used to running their own teams or being experts in their own areas. They’re good at what they do, but not necessarily good at doing it with colleagues.

You may be bringing together some of your most creative thinkers, specialists and experienced managers. Until now they’ve all had different objectives and are used to their success being measured as individuals, rather than groups.

It’s vital that the organisation supports them to work together as a team – and that means building trust and helping them to communicate properly and openly. The leadership team also needs to learn how to hold each other accountable.

It’s a good idea to bring the team together to discuss objectives, working methods, possible problems and communication.

At Roffey Park we believe that good leadership is fundamentally ‘an inside job’; it rests on self-awareness and self-management, identifying clear goals, engaging others, being a role model, initiating change and demonstrating resilience in an increasingly turbulent organisational world.

2. Coach the team to develop their shared leadership

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It’s a good idea, particularly when setting up shared leadership teams for the first time, to coach them to work effectively together. Researchers have identified two types of team coaching that are useful in this situation:

  • Supportive coaching to reinforce shared leadership
  • Interventions to identify particular problems

Many organisations already have coaches on staff who can support leadership teams to work better and encourage independence and competence among individuals as well as collective commitment to the team and its objectives.

It can also be useful for members of the team to coach, according to Ruth Wageman and J Richard Hackman’s research published in What Makes Teams of Leaders Leadable?

“Leadership teams do not get much coaching from their own leaders…of four possible functions that could command team leaders’ attention (external activities, structuring the team, coaching individuals, and coaching the team), team coaching came last. But… teams that scored highest overall on our three criteria of team effectiveness had leaders whose focus was evenly balanced between external matters and attention to the team itself.”

They found that hands-on coaching accounted for significant variance in the effectiveness of top management teams, and a large proportion of their sample thought they would benefit from more of it. Particularly useful for teams of leaders was direct intervention into team processes, which could help them “deal constructively with differences in their individual interests”.

3. Measure the team’s performance

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You measure individual leaders’ performances with clear targets and measurable objectives, and it’s important to do something similar with your shared leadership group. How you do this is up to your particular organisation and its needs, but possible methods include client ratings, team member reports, or a previously agreed scale to rate how a task was completed.

meta-analysis of previous research in 2014 found that shared leadership appears to improve performance, possibly through increasing team confidence. It also found that it worked best when the work of team members was more complex.

Members can feel more empowered through their perceived responsibility, leading to more engagement and better teamwork.

4. Help your team to learn how to make collective decisions

When setting up your shared leadership team, it’s important to spend time discussing how they’ll find consensus on the many tricky decisions they’ll have to make. This can include talking though team attitudes, priorities and different approaches.

It’s important for teams to learn how to disagree. In a study of shared principalship in New Zealand primary schools, there were power struggles and “contrived congeniality” – the manipulation teachers felt when forced to participate in decision-making without any guarantee their ideas would be heard, reported Michael Kocolowski in his paper Emerging Leadership Journeys.

He cited research by Adrianna Kezar, published in a 1998 paper Trying Transformations; Implementing team-oriented forms of leadership, which found: “when members of leadership teams did not fully embrace the principles of fostering differences and encouraging multiple opinions, most teams slipped into groupthink.”

Decisions can also take longer to make in shared leadership. Researchers Miles and Watkins, cited in Kocolowski’s Emerging Leadership Journeys, found shared leadership could slow decisions down.

Roffey Park’s Clear Leadership programme is specially designed to help leaders work through these types of issues.

Michael Covert, who sent executives on the course, says it had a significant impact on the conversations his team had with each other, enabling them to get to the heart of issues, do a lot more problem-solving, have more cogent discussions “and I think we’re more honest with each other.”

5. Ensure the rest of the organisation understands the new structure and how to engage with it


If your new shared leadership team members are finding it tricky to work together, how easy do you think it is for the rest of the organisation to work with them? It’s important that the new structure isn’t just dropped into place: there needs to be discussion about lines of responsibility and reporting with everyone involved.

In the Harvard Business Review, Declan Fitzsimons, adjunct Professor of Organizational Behaviour at INSEAD, writes: “On the road to shared leadership, you may find that the top team begins relating differently across its boundaries, especially with managers one or two levels below. By implication this could affect teams at all levels as the impact cascades downwards. For starters, you may notice attempts to export conflicts. Difficult conversations that the team is avoiding may get acted out in the level below. The classic sign is that while your team celebrates its harmony, those who report to them develop increasingly acrimonious relationships among each other. Your job is to ensure that good feelings in the senior team do not come at the expense of confusion and frustration in the level below.”

Katrina Hourd, head of business development at Dimensions, who took part in the Roffey Park Clear Leadership programme, discovered it helped working relationships. “This element of the wider programme involved four intense days of learning and whilst at times it was challenging, it gave me a new way of thinking about the challenges we face at work. It’s fair to say it has encouraged a better quality of understanding and conversations within the business, which as a result has helped to change the way we work for the better.”

Cindy Cox, Programme Manager  at Roffey Park, said: “This programme helps leaders understand how to develop the skills needed to nurture partnership and collaboration.”

6. Emotional intelligence

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It can be tough for individuals to work together in this way, especially if each of them is used to performing in a more conventional leadership role.

Daniel Goleman Describes six emotional awareness competencies useful for shared leadership teams and says that leaders strong in a number of these will be more effective when leading collaboratively.

The competencies are:

  • Emotional self-awareness – helping you to understand the effect of your colleagues’ actions on you
  • Emotional self-control– allowing you to pause before responding
  • Adaptability
  • Empathy
  • Organisational awareness
  • Conflict management

All Roffey Park leadership development programmes encourage self-reflection and for individuals to improve their understanding of themselves and colleagues.

“After attending the Clear Leadership Programme, yesterday I attempted my first learning conversation with a colleague. They hadn’t been on the programme but I shared the approach in advance, explained the idea and, of course, it was a trusted relationship. I was really pleased with the outcome of the conversation. We did not try to solve the issue, just gain clarity and both of us agreed that we each walked away with one lightbulb moment that has significantly helped to reduce the mush!” said Chris Rawlings of Perrigo Company PLC.

7. Ensure there’s a clear group mission

What are you trying to achieve? Is it shared leadership of a particular project, a new way of doing things to effect change, or to tap into individual expertise?

Whatever your shared leadership team intends to do, it’s important that everyone is on board and understands both the short- and long-term goals. Leadership skills development training in strategic leadership would be particularly helpful here.

8. Understand the different leadership styles needed to make shared leadership work

Where there’s different leaders, there’s different leadership styles. Researcher JZ Bergman discovered in 2012 that shared leadership teams enabled their members to express their different abilities and so different leadership behaviours – and that each leader effectively used only one type. “Teams with shared leadership experienced less conflict, greater consensus, and higher intragroup trust and cohesion than teams without shared leadership,” says the paper.

While putting the team together, it’s important to spend some time exploring how each individual works, what their preferred leadership style is, and how they can best work with each other.

Creating your shared leadership team: next steps

'What's next?'

It can be simultaneously exciting and daunting to put together a shared leadership team in your organisation, whether it’s for a one-off project or a process of longer term change.

It can also be a worthwhile move, unlocking much more of the potential of your leadership team and bringing on more employees whose specialist knowledge could be used more widely.

However, to reap the full benefits, it’s important to get it right – and that means careful thought about how to set up the team, its objective and team members’ training needs.

At Roffey Park we’re always keen to help and believe our unique approach can support organisations to bring out the best in all their people.

Whether you choose a programme for emerging leaders, a postgraduate certificate in leadership, one of the more specialist options mentioned above, or something tailor-made for your organisation, we can help develop you and your colleagues to make the most of shared leadership and other challenges.

Why not contact us today on 01293 854059 or email us to find out more? Our programmes cover a wide selection of management and leadership skills, and if you require something more our consultants can customise an existing programme, or create a totally new one to meet your needs.

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