Shared Leadership: Sailors to the Steering Wheel

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Leadership is a ubiquitous topic, until recently advocating the belief: Take control! This principle was applied not only to the control of companies, but also to supervising projects and employees. Why then should the captain now hand over the steering wheel to his sailors?

What are the benefits of Shared Leadership?

The globalization and virtualization of the business world has led to increased expectations:

  • More complex projects are to be implemented more efficiently;
  • Tasks are to be implemented in a more targeted manner;
  • Employees must cooperate with heterogeneous teams and business partners with optimum efficiency.

What is Shared Leadership?

The past years have revealed that old leadership styles are not always suitable anymore for the new frameworks or conditions. Shared Leadership is a model of how to approach the increasing complexity of today’s work environment. Shared Leadership means the transfer of leadership competences from leaders to their teams or other project-related organizational structures. Originally, Shared Leadership referred to a leadership model in which a superior transfers individual leadership competences – or temporarily even the entire leadership – for a project or a task to the members of his team.

Shared Leadership comes in three variants:

1) The team members are fully responsible and make their decisions independently. This way, the team works autonomously and without a leader, as it is known from the amoeba structure implemented by the company Gore. Undoubtedly, this ‘pure’ form of Shared Leadership is rather uncommon.

2) Another more common form of Shared Leadership is one, where team members are clearly instructed in order to then continue to work on their own. However, the team leaders reserve the right to intervene or even make final decisions in important situations, which is not the case in the ‘pure’ form of Shared Leadership. This approach could be called Primus inter pares (first among equals). The team leader appears only in certain situations (e.g. reporting to third parties, mediation, decision in case of no clear majority) and is otherwise a regular team member.

3) In larger organizations in particular, there are often clearly defined and consistently established roles and responsibilities that make a strong leadership obsolete. This is the light version of Shared Leadership: much like in a computer processor, the work packages are picked up and processed independently by the team members.

Shared Leadership: The foundation for innovation

Regardless of the variants, the core of Shared Leadership lies in the idea of employees learning to govern themselves and to carry out their tasks autonomously. Such interaction promotes creativity and increases the potential for innovation by utilizing more resources than in classical team structures. The more the team members depend on each other, the more they are willing to support each other in finding solutions. In addition, an innovative culture can only prosper where team members are motivated by their own conviction to live it.

Shared Leadership: An answer to generation Y

Consultations with medium-size companies show, that they often have a strong urge to control. This approach can work well, but in view of generation Y, it might also lead to leadership problems in the long run. Participation and more job variation are the main demands of generation Y. However, Shared Leadership has only very few followers in medium-sized enterprises. They still mostly adhere to the hierarchical principles and power culture. This seems somewhat ironic, since Shared Leadership is especially well suited for medium-size companies: The smaller a company or organizational unit, and the more innovative its environment, the easier it is to implement and practice this leadership style. Ultimately, Shared Leadership requires a 360° communication and feedback culture. And not surprisingly, this works significantly better in smaller units than in large ones.

A leadership concept for the future

The concept of Shared Leadership actually is not that dissimilar to the organizational structures of medium-size companies with their division managers and department heads, but it goes one step further: It requires the company director to place some of his decision making powers into the hands of his employees.

The results from 42 studies suggest that Shared Leadership is closely linked to a positive development of employees’ motivation. Medium-size businesses, however, still need to discover that. In view of the new generation of employees and their needs as well as the fast changes in working environments, I believe that medium-size businesses will be ultimately forced to integrate employee participation into the companies’ decision processes. The concept of Shared Leadership can also be transferred to large corporations; however, in these organizations it is more suitable for defined organizational structures or project teams.

Prof. Dr. Arnd Albrecht
About Prof. Dr. Arnd Albrecht 29 Articles
Since 2010, Prof. Dr. Arndt Albrecht has been a professor for Human Resource Management and International Management at MBS. In addition, he is the Academic Program Director of the Bachelor International Business program. Prof. Dr. Albrecht is involved in research and consulting activities at MBS as well as in his consulting company where he supports industry projects in terms of HRM, leadership and change management. After completing his doctorate, he worked as an international senior manager in the pharmaceutical industry and as a strategic consultant for SMEs and corporations. Prof. Dr. Albrecht is a certified business coach and holds an MBA from Henley Management College.