shared leadership

There is perhaps no better time to practise shared leadership than during the current Coronavirus pandemic. Many leaders themselves have contracted the virus, from the EU’s Michel Barnier to the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson. With so many people affected and others stepping into the breach to lead in their organisation or community; with so many people working from home, needing to demonstrate self-leadership or lead and motivate others remotely, distributed leadership is more necessary than ever before.

But what is shared or distributed leadership?

Definitions of shared leadership

Shared leadership occurs when leadership is distributed across two or more people, rather than being attached to one person.

According to Pearce & Conger (2003), shared leadership is: ‘A dynamic, interactive influence process among individuals in groups, for which the objective is to lead one another to the achievement of group or organizational goals or both.’

If that sounds like leadership by teamwork – another definition is: ‘An emergent team property that results from the distribution of leadership influence across multiple team members. A condition of mutual influence.’ (Caron, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007).

Shared leadership is a continuum – ranging from high shared leadership, in which most – or all – team members provide leadership influence on each other, and the source of leadership is distributed across many people, to low shared leadership – leadership from two people, whereby the source of leadership is focused on two specific individuals.

But overall, instead of one ‘traditional’ leader, shared leadership means that power and responsibility are distributed between two or more people, according to their skills, knowledge and specialisms.

Benefits of shared leadership

There are a number of opportunities and benefits to shared or distributed leadership. These include:

  • Greater team interaction – more communication, sharing of ideas and discussion: the basics of team-work in practice.
  • Greater collaboration and coordination – when people know the goal they are all working towards, and know their role in achieving that goal, the best (distributed) leaders will collaborate and work in a co-ordinated way to produce results.
  • Less conflict – there is more equality, and less of an ‘us and them’ mentality. Without hierarchical layers of superiority, or command-and-control leadership, there are fewer opportunities for disagreement, resentment or animosity.
  • More cohesion, trust and consensus – staff (and leaders) feel a sense of ownership. When people feel trusted and are given leadership or other responsibilities, they feel as if they are partners, and are more engaged.
  • Increased creativity and more innovative solutions.
  • Team effectiveness. Shared leadership is a predictor of collective efficiency and productiveness. When leadership is shared, you strengthen people’s capabilities. They rise to the challenge, stretch themselves, and are often more productive and effective, as a result.
  • Improved team performance. For all the reasons above, shared leadership leads to greater success for the individual, your team, and the organisation as a whole.

(Bergman et al 2012; Carson et al 2007; Seers, 2006)

How to achieve shared leadership

As a leader yourself, you may wish to introduce distributed leadership, in your professional capacity. Here are some ways you can share leadership:

  • Identify the best qualified individuals in your team and delegate power and authority to them.  They will rise to the challenge, and their capabilities will grow stronger.
  • Clearly delineate their powers in decision-making. Ensure that people know the limits of their authority – in which situations or contexts they can make and influence decisions (or not).
  • Cultivate a climate in which responsible risk-taking is encouraged. Enable people to feel free to initiate ideas and projects.
  • Encourage qualified or experienced people to use their discretion and autonomy in their own work, tasks and resources.
  • Think of yourself as a resource, instead of the leader.
  • Trust your leaders. When you have empowered people to make their own decisions, don’t question their motives or interfere. Accept their decision-making and trust their actions.

These considerations can also be employed in life outside work. In fact, the current climate calls on us all to collectively deal with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The need for shared leadership

Forms of distributed leadership have been largely neglected in business leadership theory and research, but they are becoming an increasingly important reality. With the existence of complex teams and matrix organisations and recent movements towards flatter, non-hierarchical organisational structures – more people are being called upon to demonstrate leadership. And during the current coronavirus crisis, this is even more relevant. New problems call for new ways of organising and working.

Times of crisis offer opportunities. Solving major problems does not depend on individual heroic leaders, but on smaller, collective acts and practices of leadership exercised by different people, at different levels, in different places. This is particularly key, now, during the pandemic. We are all called to lead. Everyone is leading and contributing skills and knowledge to the situation during this crisis, from wherever they are, in whichever way they can.

Some great examples…

As a result of government measures to address the pandemic, enforced self-isolation has, conversely, led to greater public interaction. Confinement has necessitated people organising themselves differently, which they did with impressive rapidity and effectiveness.

There has been a massive mobilisation of online communities – from friends socialising via Facetime, Skype, Zoom and Messenger to avoid isolation, to schools and universities organising online learning.

People are innovating fast. Businesses and sole traders who eschewed online trading are forced to do it, or find other new ways to work. Book clubs, dinner parties and concerts are happening live online. Isolation choirs are thriving through video conferencing apps and platforms.

There is increased collaboration and coordination: from new community leaders emerging to co-ordinate food deliveries to the most vulnerable in society, to those addressing the lack of supplies for health and social care workers – leaders are stepping up. Some individuals are organising the mass sewing of masks and scrubs to distribute to hospitals and GP surgeries; others are directing the 3-D printing of protective visors. From the keyboard warrior distributing news, guidance and updates (or even jokes) on social media, to the gym instructor leading fitness sessions via You-tube video – everyone has a part to play. Everyone can share in alleviating problems, and lead in providing solutions.

At times like these – anyone can be a leader. Everyone is a leader.

Stay safe!

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