“The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders.” – Carsten Tams

One of the fundamental transformations in business today is the constant change away from hierarchical models of management.

Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends suggests that shifting toward a team-based organisational model improves performance, often significantly.

Companies are reinventing themselves to operate as networks of teams. While these organisations might have many senior leaders and functional departments, teams are fluid, and people move around rapidly. The organisation drafts the teams around mission, product, market, or integrated customer needs rather than a business function.

New units coagulate as new objectives come to the fore. Teams split apart when their project concludes; people slot into new roles to accommodate a new set of goals. Units are interconnected and share resources, intellectual capital, information and responsibilities.

Redefining leadership

The Past – Vertical Leadership

As leadership encourages its workforce to deliver across teams, it’s sensible to evaluate corporate leadership throughout the entire company.

Traditionally, leadership has been envisaged around the idea of one person (the archetype manager) firmly in charge while the rest are simply followers (an approach termed vertical leadership).

However, the manager cannot be solely responsible for the team’s success, says Mary Shapiro, author of the HBR Review Guide to Leading Teams. Not only is it impractical, but it’s also one-sided. If the leader is the only one praising or critiquing, group dynamics suffer. Every member should be held accountable for mobilising the team and should be allowed to claim the team’s victories.

The Evolution – Inclusive Leadership

Inclusive Leadership seems to be the logical shift in attitude. Harvard Business Review defines it as “leadership that assures that all team members feel they are treated respectfully and fairly, are valued and sense that they belong, and are confident and inspired.”

Research by Deloitte confirms that teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report that they are high performing. About 20% are more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29% are more likely to report behaving collaboratively.

However, the Inclusive Leadership model has an Achilles heel: the idea of Heroic Leaders.

The narrative of Heroic Leadership states that the drivers of change are an elite guiding coalition. The coalition consists of committed leaders with enough institutional power to force change through the organisation. They inspire followers by the power of their vision (transformational leadership), and they reinforce conformity by rewarding those who adopt desired behaviours (transactional leadership).

There is a better way. The Journal of The Academy of Management Executive encourages Shared Leadership as one of the distinguishing factors that differentiate a well-functioning team from a high-performing – or Elite – team.

The Revolution – Shared Leadership

Research published in the Journal of Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, states that the leadership role in Elite Teams is shared by team leaders and team members alike. Allocation of the leadership role rotates to the person with apt knowledge, unique skillset and suitable abilities to solve the problem at hand.

In fact, research specifies that under-performing teams tend to be dominated by the team leader, while Elite Teams naturally display dispersed leadership (or Shared Leadership) patterns.

An evaluation of the literature defines Shared Leadership as a collaborative leadership practice involving members of the same team (and members of cross-functional teams) that mutually influence one another. They collectively share duties and responsibilities otherwise relegated to a single, central leader.

Shared Leadership occurs when all members of the teams are fully engaged in the leadership function of the unit. Colleagues are not hesitant to influence and guide their peers to maximise the potential of the team as a system.

The essence of Shared Leadership is that the group benefits from all members’ different leadership capabilities. The team understands leading as a dynamic and multi-directional group process rather than a function operated by an elite few at the top. As such, the shared leadership model is ideal for enabling continuous and inclusive organisational change.

Shared Leadership entails a simultaneous, continuous and mutual influence process that is characterised by serial emergence of official – as well as unofficial – leaders. In this sense, shared leadership is a manifestation of fully developed empowerment in teams.

Locking the door on Key Person Dependency

In high-performing teams, the leadership role is not associated with a job title or individual; leadership is an influencing process. Moreover, Shared Leadership mitigates the risk of Key Person Dependency.

Key Person Dependency risk is a threat to the success and survival of the team as one person (or a handful of key people) is the primary driver of the team’s triumphs. In Elite Teams, peers grow accustomed to holding – and handing over – the torch of leadership. Peers seamlessly pass the baton of authority in a fluid matrix and adapt as the environment changes.

How the safety net of the Shared Leadership system safeguards its members

New Zealand’s renowned All Blacks Rugby Team offers an outstanding example of the triumphs brought forth by Shared Leadership.

Eight years ago, Stephen Donald was out on a fishing boat in Waikato, taking a load off, when he received a phone call. It would become a conversation written in the annals of rugby. Donald was called up after injuries to Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden.

Not originally part of the squad, Donald thought that his career with the All Blacks was over. During a “very social six weeks,” he had even gained 5 kilogrammes! Unexpectedly, Donald was drafted as the fly-half and kicked the winning points in the 2011 World Cup final.

As Donald was familiar with the team’s systems, he could slot in seamlessly to fill a gap in the team’s matrix and catapult them to victory.


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