Dr Joaquin Angles joined the University of Roehampton, London Online in 2012 and specialises in leadership and management at the Business School. Outside academia, he works for the US Department of Defense as a logistics management specialist. With more than 33 years of government service, he also executes lifecycle-management initiatives for US naval aviation. Writing on the benefits of shared leadership, he explains how organisations can put theory into practice.

Today, it’s becoming more difficult for any single individual to possess all the skills and abilities required to competently lead an organisation. Old and outdated command-and-control ideologies (where the distinction between leaders and followers rested on the principle of “command”, and orders came from above and were followed by those below) are quickly fading into our past as new leadership models emerge. 

In an era where the speed of disruptive change and complexity (along with many unforeseen economic and geopolitical issues) continues to make business environments increasingly challenging for leaders, many organisations are opting for new leadership models. Many leaders are putting into place organisational practices, structures and working relationships that support more collaborative processes, where followers are also seen as influencing and creating leadership at different levels of the organisation. 

One such emerging leadership style consistently receiving more attention from industry leaders today as a desired practice is shared leadership. Empirical studies in this area have found shared leadership to be the type of paradigm that fosters the need for empowerment and collective work practice, advocating individuals while giving them the opportunity to take on leadership roles in their areas of expertise. I would argue that shared leadership helps to facilitate the problem-solving capacity of an organisation without having to give up the option of traditional top-down approaches.

Shared leadership is particularly beneficial in environments characterised by: 

  • Highly complex tasks that require knowledge and skills in different areas
  • Interdependent tasks, where the work of different employees affects and depends on other employees
  • Creative tasks that require producing alternative ideas
  • Highly committed employees, where team members are required and willing to “go the extra mile”
  • Non-urgent tasks that do not require immediate action, and provide enough time to learn and adapt

Shared leadership makes good business sense when complexity also increases, and can be very effective by: 

Creating a shared leadership culture
Moving away from a vertical leadership culture to a more flexible and adaptable environment; a culture that embraces shared governance, holistic thinking and shared collaborative work practices. 

Carefully selecting team members 
 Choosing those who have knowledge, skills and abilities that complement each other and fit team goals.

Training team members in leadership skills
This may be formal training, focusing on: 

  • the development of desired leadership behaviours (such as self-goal-setting and self-development) and how to engage in positive leadership, 
  • acceptance of influence from others and
  • teamwork skills

Informal training, too, can be done on a daily basis by modelling behaviours to influence team members as well as show acceptance of other members’ influence.

Providing supportive coaching
Supporting and reinforcing desired behaviours and achievements. 

I would also argue this leadership model has some limitations that should be considered. There will be some resistance to the model (as with any change initiative) and this can make implementation extremely difficult. The right culture and the support of the top leadership must also be in place to ensure success. Shared leadership also involves empowering and allowing decision-making, which can take longer because it’s sometimes difficult for a group of leaders to reach consensus. We may also find some conflict emerging between a single-leader structure and a team structure. Therefore, proper planning, commitment and adaptation to cultural change will be necessary to successfully implement a shared-leadership model. 

How do we put shared leadership into practice? 

From my experience, shared-leadership implementation entails taking baby steps. First, we must recognise and delegate people who are high performers and are close to the customer, and allow them to take on challenging responsibilities. We must also cultivate a culture of empowerment, decision-making and collaborative synergy, where all individuals are seen promoting a high level of cooperation and a collaborative atmosphere. Leaders must also create and embrace a trusting atmosphere, and trust employees’ ability to make informed decisions. Finally, shared leadership can also benefit from an external coach, who can provide guidance and advice to team members on their leadership skills through active encouragement and positive reinforcement.

By Dr Joaquin Angles

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