How would your life change if your leadership responsibilities were spread out among your team members? Would you have more time to spend with your friends and family? Do you see your stress levels lowering? Could you get more work done that propels the business forward? For those who answered “yes,” shared leadership is a way of guiding an organization that can provide these benefits.
In this article, learn what the shared leadership model is, examples of it in action, the benefits of practicing it, why it may not work for your business, and ways to incorporate it if you feel the pros outweigh the cons.
What is Shared Leadership?
Shared leadership, also referred to as distributive leadership, is a leadership model that distributes executive-level responsibilities across a team. Rather than using a traditional top-down organizational hierarchy, the group shares power. This often looks like giving each person on a leadership team an equal voice during meetings designed for decision making or problem solving.
The concept of shared leadership fills in potential leadership gaps. As the job demands for executive leaders increase due to technological advancements, rapidly changing industry expectations, and marketing and sales trends, this way of leading is a solution for an ever-evolving problem. Additionally, it can produce better organizational performance by playing each person to the best of their abilities, rather than depending on one person to carry the team to success. On top of this, it maximizes how teams operate because it encourages each person to be more collaborative and participative.
Examples of Shared Leadership in the Workplace
Most people commonly recognize shared leadership in countries with democratic governments. For example, in the United States, this might look like the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress, or the Senate. In each of these groups, members share leadership. However, one specific person like a chief justice, majority leader, or Speaker of the House guides the group to reach a consensus.
One great example of shared leadership theory working in a business is DPR Construction. In an interview with the San Francisco Business Times, co-founder Doug Woods says, “I think collaboration is the big philosophy here. Things are done in a team manner. Seldom does any one person, including myself, get to make the decisions in the company. We do things as a team . . . We’ve always felt working as a team is much stronger than working as individuals.” In 2019, the company brought in $6 billion, proving the power of shared leadership when implemented correctly.
Another company that operates without a traditional hierarchy is Solodev, a software as a service (SaaS) business, co-founded by Shawn Moore. Initially, Moore felt pressured to hire a CEO because everyone told him he needed one. However, once he made this hire, he realized this position didn’t function well in his organization. Now, the business has an executive committee that consists of people from various departments. While an executive director leads the group, Moore says if they can’t come to a consensus on company decisions, he will step in. However, he prefers the shared leadership approach. In an interview with CIO, he explains, “Your goal as an executive is to build a company that can run without you, right? . . . That’s why it’s important to empower your teams to make these decisions instead of relying solely on you.”
Weighing the Pros and Cons of Sharing Leadership Model
It’s important to note shared leadership theory doesn’t work for all companies. Businesses, especially young ones, need to define their structure and systems before flattening hierarchies. Chaotic organizations that haven’t done this will find that shared leadership might only make matters worse. Additionally, older companies with employees who are used to doing things the same way for the last 20 years could respond poorly to an upheaval of changes. Nevertheless, some companies thrive by using shared leadership (or at least elements of it) in their daily business practices. Explore the pros and cons below to see if this type of leadership might work well for your team.
Benefits of Shared Leadership
- There are higher levels of individual participation and collaboration.
- Individual team members feel more invested in company decisions.
- Employees learn to be more collaborative and share information so everyone can make better-informed decisions.
- The team learns to brainstorm ideas and build off of one another to produce innovative ideas.
- Leaders naturally emerge rather than being appointed. This makes having a leader feel more authentic since the group isn’t “forced” into following this person.
- The team shares accountability for the choices they make, meaning if things go wrong, there’s no one person responsible for the failure.
- Individuals learn to lean on one another when they need support, rather than facing problems alone.
- With the potential elimination of positions like CEO and upper-level executives that usually come with a lofty price tag, the business saves money and can pour these resources back into the company.
- Employees feel more empowered to serve the business to the best of their abilities.
- There’s less “red tape” in flat organizations that don’t use traditional hierarchies. This means less waiting time when it comes to approving projects or making decisions.
- People don’t have to wait to receive direction from their superiors—instead they have more control to take the initiative and do what’s necessary.
- A team of people is more effective at reaching organizational goals than individuals working alone are. This leads to fulfilling more objectives and the likelihood of achieving the company’s mission and vision.
Challenges of Shared Leadership
- Without suitable systems and processes, shared leadership is ineffective.
- A decision by committee can be a long and grueling process if all team members aren’t aligned.
- Productivity and profitability are lower when teams struggle to find solutions to problems they can all agree on.
- Differing personalities, when left unmanaged, can produce high levels of conflict.
- Competing egos often prevent everyone from getting their fair share of power.
- There’s too much room for interpretation when it comes to people making individual decisions. For instance, this might look like an employee making a choice that ultimately hurts the company because they feel their boss gave them the power to do so.
- Many companies such as watchmaker Richemont have tried shared leadership but reverted to hiring a CEO due to a lack of coherent direction.
- People feel inspired and supported by a distinct leader. When there isn’t one, employees might struggle to stay engaged and motivated at work.
- Team members must rely on one another to ensure work burnout doesn’t occur, rather than someone managing everyone’s workload.
- The project completion process gets messy when there isn’t someone dividing up work and ensuring projects get completed on time.
Top Ways to Create the Conditions for Shared Leadership
Even if you feel the cons potentially outweigh the pros, you can still incorporate practices from shared leadership, even if it isn’t the only way you choose to lead your team. The most effective leaders use many strategies, leadership styles, and decision making techniques to guide their organizations. For example, a person can dominantly practice democratic leadership while also implementing transformational leadership traits and deploying a behavioral decision making style. Whether you choose to strictly guide your company with shared leadership or not, learn several ways of introducing it into your organizational culture below.
1. Develop Systems and Establish Guidelines for Shared Leadership
One of the top reasons shared leadership fails is that leaders don’t give their team members enough direction. A founder or executive leader will first need to determine what shared leadership looks like in practice for it to work. Additionally, they’ll need to set a few rules the team must follow. This helps establish expectations, prevent miscommunication and misdirection, and let team members know how to collaborate successfully.
When building an operational plan for shared leadership:
- Use visualization to illuminate how shared leadership would work in your company. For instance, take an upcoming decision that would typically be your responsibility to make, and imagine handing this over to a leadership team. Who’s on the team? How will these people reach a consensus? What could go wrong during the meeting? When would you need to step in? What role do you play as they make a choice? Use several visualization sessions to imagine different scenarios. After each practice, write down the big takeaways you need to communicate.
- Research how others have successfully practiced shared leadership. Listening to business podcasts, reading leadership books, and attending seminars on flattening your organization are ways to find out how to do this effectively.
- Define how much autonomy employees have. Is decision making free reign, or is there still a process people need to follow? Establishing boundaries and expectations for shared leadership prevents people from unknowingly crossing them.
- Outline your plans and meet with your team to overview how shared leadership will work. Provide a hard copy of these guidelines so that employees can review them on their own terms.
- Ask for feedback on how to better improve shared leadership and incorporate suggestions.
- Monitor what’s working and what’s not, and make adjustments as needed.
2. Provide the Resources Needed to Make Shared Leadership Work
While a company might practice shared leadership, executives need to ensure they still provide their team with the information, resources, and support they need. In terms of information, this might look like giving a brief for a new client or project. When it comes to resources, anticipate and also be willing to fulfill communicated needs. For instance, if the team decides they need a new project management app to streamline work, make sure someone is in charge of meeting these requests.
Additionally, for a team to reach its full potential, there needs to be a degree of individual support. With shared leadership, it’s critical the company’s leader doesn’t fall off the map—they still need to be available to be a resource to others. This might look like maintaining one-on-one meetings with team members, providing mentorship opportunities, showing employee recognition and appreciation, and helping employees work through their personal development plan.
3. Construct a Trusting Team Culture
Shared leadership won’t work unless there’s a pre-established work environment built on safety and mutual trust. It’s up to leaders to create a work culture where people feel like they can openly voice their feelings, thoughts, ideas, opinions, and emotions without fear of judgment or shame. Trust is dependent on leaders’ actions, reactions, and interactions. Leadership development is a must when learning to handle difficult situations with grace, humility, and emotional intelligence.
People can’t demand trust—it’s something that naturally occurs over time by treating others with kindness, respect, appreciation, and empathy. As leadership expert Simon Sinek writes in The Infinite Game, “In strong cultures, people find safety in relationships. Strong relationships are the foundation of high-performing teams. And all high-performing teams start with trust.” For trust to grow, leaders have to actively develop relationships with their employees each day. Additionally, trust increases when people see leaders acting with integrity, living the company’s values, and going above and beyond to support their team. In doing so, the conditions for shared leadership arise.
To build more trust in your organization:
- Guide employees on how to perform newly delegated duties. This might look like providing training, outlining expectations, and acting as a support system as they adjust to their expanded responsibilities.
- Stop micromanaging, and allow employees to do the jobs you’ve hired them to do.
- Monitor the alignment of your values versus your actions. When these begin slipping, trust decreases because a person’s words and actions start parting ways.
- Learn team member’s strengths and weaknesses. Further develop their areas of greatness while teaching them how to improve in the places they’re less gifted in.
- Engage with employees on a personal and professional level. For example, learn their kids’ names and celebrate their birthday while also helping them achieve their goals for the next five years.
- Halt discrimination and harassment in its tracks by immediately penalizing those who commit these offenses. Setting the right tone for team culture also means protecting it from being influenced by toxic workplace conditions.
The Key to Shared Leadership
Above all, the concept of shared leadership will not work if each person given power isn’t a leader in their own right. This is because leaders don’t gain long-term respect, admiration, and followers just because they’re given a position of authority. For shared leadership to work, those chosen to lead must positively influence everyone else in the group. In addition to this, teams that work cohesively together consist of people who aspire to improve themselves. Without this innate hunger within each person, shared leadership takes on the shape of a utopian dream. However, with the right team full of the right individuals, it is a possibility.
Interested in making this happen? Find out how to hire and develop a great team by checking out the articles below: