the shared leadership imperative

the shared leadership imperative

Brian Cook, the Geelong Football Club CEO – who has steered three premierships at Geelong and two at West Coast – was interviewed recently on Fox Sports. He was asked what the pre-requisites are for a good coach. His response was compelling – “the two most important elements are leadership and cultural development – the ability to achieve the desired culture in the club and to lead the eight assistant coaches in a way where they operate as an effective team. The technical and tactical elements come second”.  I reflected that the most successful leaders in my experience have also focused on creating team culture and team decision making processes as their primary objective. The vision and strategies in these organisations were generally defined by, agreed to, and lived by the team.

The concept of shared rather than authoritarian leadership has been an espoused “preferred state” in most modern organisations, but has often been derailed by leaders who have problems giving up control. If only they could see the irony that the former CEO of Levi Strauss, Robert Haas articulated – “the more you share leadership and responsibility, the more you multiply your own effectiveness through the effectiveness of others…..you have to accept the fact that decisions and recommendations may be different from what you would do alone…..different but possibly better. You have to be willing to take your own ego out of it”.

Why change? Traditional leadership styles are a carry-over from the evolution of the industrial era which created centralised systems and hierarchies to support those times. Ingrained for centuries, they remained accepted as the norm. Today, they are increasingly coming under pressure to change to modes that will support the new imperatives in business and society.

Getting a sniff of the need to change, there’ve been many well intentioned attempts to introduce shared leadership, only to see them despatched to the “too hard basket”. We’ve seen as many failures as successes, because it takes commitment and then relentless determination to establish the mindsets, processes and rules to make it work.

 I was lucky enough to work with an organisation in the late 90’s where three years of hard work created a powerful team environment. Staff and managers stepped up to wear the hat of their assigned role, as well as that of leader, often “taking one for the team” and seeing the organisation as a whole. It was underpinned by agreed goals, mutual respect and strong adherence to the team norms (like not tolerating territoriality, passivity or mediocrity). People who couldn’t comply were rejected by the team – or volunteered to leave. There was less “wheel spinning” and everyone felt valued and recognised. It reminds me very much of the team culture at the Sydney Swans over recent years.

If today’s leaders (be they in community organisations, family businesses, sporting clubs or large corporations), can’t see this irony, there are some powerful forces at work that will apply the brakes to centralist, heroic and authoritarian leadership styles. The digital world demands that we share. A former boss said once, “information gives power”. Today, sharing information gives power. So does sharing leadership and responsibility.

 Social media is also helping to redefine leadership. As Michael Fauscette writes, “people have new levels of empowerment because of their on line voice, and expect experiences from organisations that mimic those in their personal life….power and communication are networked, not hierarchical and one way”. Organisation cultures must therefore change to meet these new requirements – or people will move to places where cultures have already been transformed.

In a shared leadership team, each person fulfils a clear role and all members strive for a common, agreed goal. A true team provides the right environment for the pursuit of quality, customer service, productivity or whatever is agreed, in a changing environment. Intact teams also provide strong social and emotional rewards, including self-esteem and a sense of being valued. There’s great satisfaction in being part of a high performing team where critique, learning and personal development flourish.

When a true team culture is established with its norms and behavioural expectations (often around respect, listening and personal obligations to the team), it’s hard for leaders (or anyone else) to violate the culture. It’s also a hard place to want to stay if you’re unaligned. As we move from the old industrialised world business cultures to those of the knowledge economy, some of the different imperatives can be summarised as follows:

 OLD – Hierarchical model   NEW – Social business model
  • Managing
  • Hoarding information
  • Leaders are served
  • Conformity is rewarded
  • One way communication
  • Openness discouraged
  • Top down strategy
  •  Coaching
  • Sharing information
  • Leaders serve
  • Everyone has voice and influence
  • Networked communication
  • Transparency flourishes
  • Particpatory strategy/viison work

I’d like to hear your personal experiences and thoughts. Does change depend on having a leader who believes in shared leadership, or can organisational culture be changed by the people? Do staff really want shared leadership or do some have fear of the commitment and step up needed?

Image by Omar Eduardo


Leave a Reply