Blogpost 02

Shared Leadership for Practitioners I: What is Shared Leadership?


While we talked about Shared Leadership and the difference to teamwork briefly in the last article, I believe it is now time to talk about what Shared Leadership is and why it is important to practitioners. However, when I was mapping out everything I needed to talk about to answer this question, I realized that this was becoming quite a wall of text and therefore I decided to split it into three parts.



Today I present to you part one.

  • I: “What is Shared Leadership?”


In the next two weeks I will follow up on this with:


  • II: “What are the benefits of Shared Leadership?”


And finally:


  • III: “How do we get Shared Leadership in Teams?”


I will try to keep these posts brief and to the point, as they are supposed to be a source of information aimed directly at practitioners (which, by the way, does not mean that academic texts should not be brief and to the point, but I digress already). However, I will also try to include somewhat realistic examples as they greatly enhance understanding of the material. So bear with me.



I: What is Shared Leadership?


It is my experience that it is easier for most people to understand what Shared Leadership is, if it is compared to more traditional leadership styles.



In the last blogpost on Shared Leadership and Teamwork, we defined leadership as a process in groups, which involves influencing others in order to achieve a common goal (Yukl, 2003). To put this into normal words, this usually describes one leader in a formal position (i.e. a team leader, project manager etc.), who influences the behavior of his/her team members in order to achieve the team goal. This still sounds very theoretical, especially regarding what kind of behavior counts as leadership. So let us talk about leadership behaviors.



There are many systems of describing and categorizing different leadership behaviors and I will not bore you with them but instead concentrate on one system, which divides leadership behavior into four different categories. This leadership system is also used to measure Shared Leadership (Grille & Kauffeld, 2015) and is therefore quite appropriate in our context.


  • First, there is task related leadership. This refers to leadership behaviors aimed strictly at achieving the tasks the team is trying to do. It includes behaviors such as setting deadlines, assigning tasks to certain team members, as well as the monitoring of work progress.  


“Hey Jim, we need this by Friday so we can plan our next steps” would be a low-key example.


  • Second, there is relationship focused leadership. This refers to leadership behaviors aimed at improving team member motivation and satisfaction by showing encouragement for jobs well done, supporting team members in conflict situations and taking the time to talk about personal issues.


“That was a great presentation, keep it up.”


  • Third, there is leadership aimed at change management. This refers to behaviors directed at making the best out of changes, for example by inspiring team members to adopt new ideas and to help them make sense of recent changes in the company.


“Ok, here are five reasons why the new accounting software is better than the old.”



  •  Fourth, there is leadership aimed at networking. This is new to the literature and describes how leaders can help their team members establish connections to important persons (for example experts in other teams who can help with problems).


  “Have you met Ann? She’s an expert in statistical analysis and she might be able to help you with your problem”.  



None of these behaviors is “superior” to the others in the sense that a leader should focus on one of them more than the others. However, the importance of these behaviors is dependent on the context of the team. For relatively simple production tasks, networking behaviors might be less important than task related behaviors. Nonetheless, a good leader enacts all of these behaviors towards his/her team. If you think this is a lot, you are right.



Let us come back to shared leadership. As mentioned in last week’s post, shared leadership expands on traditional leadership less in terms of content (so what kind of leadership behaviors are enacted, these stay usually the same), but it expands on the idea of how many people are engaged in enacting these behaviors (Pearce & Conger, 2003).



Below you can see a graphic demonstration of the difference between the two. On the left, we have a very traditional team in which A is the team leader and he/she is the only person leading the other team members using all four categories of leadership behaviors. On the right side, we see an example of perfect Shared Leadership in which everyone is leading everyone else. Obviously, these are extreme examples of either extreme centralization or extreme decentralization of leadership, but they should make the point quite clear.



One advantage that stands out immediately is that the demands towards the team leader should be lower in teams with Shared Leadership since enacting all four categories of leadership towards all team members can be both difficult and exhausting.



Look at an example in the relational leadership area. Let us assume that a team leader has five people in his/her team (as shown in the picture). On a typical Monday, the team leader might make his round from one person to the next and engage in a typical relational leadership behavior: Asking how the team member’s weekend was. This behavior shows both a personal interest in the team member’s well-being as well as consideration of their personal issues and can be seen as low-key relational leadership since this improves team member well-being and likely impacts performance positively.



Now imagine a larger team with 15 people and it should become obvious that even a 5-minute conversation about the weekend would be a strain on the time resources of the team leader, if he/she were to talk to each and every team member. In Shared Leadership, other team members might also engage in such relational leadership by asking others how their weekend was and thus it might be sufficient for the team leader to talk to team members intermittently, meaning not every but every other week.



At this point, you might stop and think:


“All my team members do that over coffee, so how is that different from what teams usually do?”



This is a good question and I refer back to last week's post on that. Established teams with good teamwork show a wide range of leadership behaviors so that it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between leadership and teamwork (Salas et al., 2000). However, you can also imagine teams in which team members do not talk to each other on Mondays at all and how frosty the team climate there would be. Thus, remember:



Good teamwork needs leadership, bad teamwork does not. Even behavior that seems completely ordinary in well-working teams is not something you should take for granted because it is not.



Let us take another example that is less likely to occur “on its own” in well-functioning teams.



Imagine a project team working on a complex estimate for production costs for a costumer. This project has an official deadline in the middle of next month, given by the customer. It has also a deadline at the end of this month. The second deadline was set by the team leader as part of his task-related leadership in order to have time for review and correcting errors two weeks before the final report goes out.



In order for the project to finish at that point, several tasks have to be fulfilled by certain team members such as assembling data, calculating projections in coordination with other departments, writing and finalizing the draft and so on. While the team leader has set a deadline for all work to be finished, team members might set internal deadlines for each other to make sure all parts of the project are progressing somewhat in synch. Therefore, Bob asks Jim if he can submit the data for the estimated costs by lunchtime so that he can include it in his calculations; this is a form of shared leadership in the area of the task related leadership. Likewise, team members might check each other’s work before building upon it, thus engaging in monitoring behavior. Last but not least, team members might also offer help to a team member who is behind schedule by assuming some of his/her tasks in order to get the project back on track.



Again, you might argue that all of these behaviors are nothing but good teamwork and I heartily agree. However, good teamwork demands good leadership and we can easily imagine that none of the above-mentioned behaviors occur in this team if teamwork was bad and no leadership existed. No help, no monitoring, no deadlines just a shifting of blame “It was his/her job to do X” or “No, I didn’t control these numbers, that was Jim’s job”.



The point of Shared Leadership is to get as many team members as possible to engage in these leadership behaviors in order to get excellent teamwork, achieved through team members leading each.



The obvious advantage of Shared Leadership here is that extensive leadership behaviors can be a drain on the time and resources of a single leader and thus more leadership can be brought to bear if it is shared, rather than centralized.



Next week, we will continue on this path and talk about the effects of Shared Leadership and when these effects are strongest. Have a great week!





Grille, A., & Kauffeld, S. (2015). Development and preliminary validation of the shared professional leadership inventory for teams (SPLIT). Psychology, 06(01), 75–92. doi:10.4236/psych.2015.61008  


Pearce, C. L., & Conger, J. A. (2003). All those years ago. In C. L. Pearce & J. A. Conger (Eds.), Shared leadership. Reframing the hows and whys of leadership . Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.


Salas, E., Burke, S. C., & Cannon-Bowers, J. A. (2000). Teamwork: Emerging principles. International Journal of Management Reviews, 2(4), 339–356.


Yukl, G. A. (2013). Leadership in organizations (8. ed., global ed). Boston, Munich u.a: Pearson.