Why Share Leadership?

Why Share Leadership?

Share(d) Leadership: Two Stories

    Wait a minute, Mac. I don't see any course objectives in your materials?!?
     When I was on the receiving end of training, I was always put off by objectives. Objectives depend on the teacher, after all, who doesn't know what we may need, how we learn, or what questions may arise. So objectives struck me as a leftover from the industrial-era mindset that elevates uniformity and predictabilty over possibilities. My best teachers, each a game-changer for me, always shared leadership with us, balancing leading us and following us. So I decided on an experiment.

    In 1999, I sneaked my materials past my client's Training Office with no objectives. I wanted to try something in the class. After twenty minutes, time to get to know each other a bit, I gave the participants sticky notes and asked them to write their objectives and post them on one side of a flip chart, under the heading, "Want It." Then I challenged them to see if, by the end of the day, they could move their notes to the other side: "Got It." It was the beginning of a different kind of learning, where everyone had a share of the leadership.

   The energy level in that class shot up like someone had turned on all the lawn sprinklers. It turns out that the more people exercise their power, the more they're involved in the process. A further bonus is that they're also more invested in the outcomes

    In 2006, I was challenging a group to consider alternatives to the traditional, top-down approach to leadership and management. The class split along generational lines, the younger people pushing against the tide of tradition, the Baby Boomer cohort lining up in defense of established leadership. The exception to this generational divide was one man, 68, about to retire. His hobby is military history.

    "Let me tell you all something," he says to the class. "One of the main reasons American troops succeeded during the Normandy landings was embedded hierarchy. The German command structure was exceptionally efficient. It was also exceptionally rigid. When communication broke down, the German troops hesitated, waiting for guidance. Not so the Americans. If we lost a leader, someone else stepped up. Some units lost all their officers but still kept advancing, developing their tactics on the fly. I guess I'm an outlier (looking around at his peers), but I'd rather be more like the Americans and less like our opponents. That means we need to be less set in our ways about witholding power."

Semler, Bosso and Pink  (Not the name of a law firm, btw)

   Ricardo Semler runs a company in Brazil, Semco, with no vision or mission statement, strategic plan, or organization chart. People who work there self-organize and decide what they'll do with their time and energy. The company's doing very well indeed, and it's based on the insight that traditional management stifles people's energy. Like too many of our schools, too many business and governmental organizations mistake control for power. The old mindset sees power as a quantifiable, limited resource. That mindset generates a tight-fisted, narrow vision that makes work seem like incarceration.

   Bob Bosso wrote This Job Should be Fun. He notes that of employees who voted their company a great place to work, 81 percent - much higher than any down the list - said they had a fun place to work.*

We know, from research as well as from experience, that fun withers under the gaze of authority. Watch kids sitting in rows in a lecture-style class and watch what happens when they hear "RECESS!"

Is it possible to make people work? Sure. Watch a prison road gang. But we all have experienced that sense of excitement, discovery, and purpose when we enjoy what we're doing, and we work harder when we have fun, including supervisors.

Daniel Pink's Drive grew from extensive research about motivation. He locates (and cites lots of evidence to support) three intrinsic drives that provide a much higher and longer-lasting level of commitment and energy than external rewards or punishments. He writes that we humans have an innate need to -

                        Direct Our Own Lives
                        Learn and Create New Things, and
                        Do Better by Ourselves and Our World

These motors for productivity are more readily tapped outside of the traditional, industrial command-and-control environment.


Sharing leadership needs a couple of permissions and understandings to operate:

First, we can give ourselves permission to feel some friction, even resistance, as we start to break down the old boss/employee assumptions. All change involves growing pains.

Second, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Sharing power involves letting go of certain decision-making responsibilites, AND the taking up of those responsibilites by those who may not have had them before. There must be not just willingness, but agreement, among the whole population to adjust. That means a process of establishing purpose and clarity, and accepting course corrections as part of the package. It's a new neighborhood and we need to explore and tweak as we get used to our new digs.

Third, different accountabilities and roles involve different modes of leadership. Some functions will always need a single executive. For instance, I always share the responsibility for objectives with my participants. I also let them know that there are times when I will make the call about structure, sequence, and timing. In any organization (as well as situation), we can clarify what (and how much) is shared.

We can practice sharing leadership in our homes, our communities, and in our work places. As the process evolves, we'll see a new level of commitment, communication, and focus.

What if the more power we share, the more power there is?

    If you'd like to hear a fast-paced podcast that adds some enlightening details to the topic, simply go to


*Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, (from The Great Place to Work Institute).

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