How do I gain leadership within my organization? It seems to be a simple question, yet at the same time it's like opening Pandora's box. Leadership is one of the most researched topics in management literature, which illustrates the importance as well as the illusiveness of it. The dominant theories are leader-centered, focused on a single moment in time, and unaffected by context.
In this blogpost, we advocate for a more integrated and strategic view on leadership. To do so, we focus on the concept of shared leadership as the strategy of the future. This recent theory of leadership is strongly on the rise, has empiric evidence and regards process and function as well as behavior.
Do you wish to know more about shared leadership, how to establish it within your organization, and how to handle any problems that might arise? The Future Leadership Initiative, a part of Antwerp Management School, published an eBook with the answers to all of your questions. This eBook, De Kunst van Leiderschap Delen, is available at the bottom of this blogpost.
New context, new style
In the 1920’s, leadership was a character trait, a personality. A true leader, who leads because they are a leader, because their followers see them as a leader. A leader was an entrepreneur, someone who pushed business forward. Personal dominance was what characterized the leader from the 1920’s to the 1970’s.
This supposition continued up until the 1970’s when interpersonal influence became more important than the personality of the leader themself. People like Bill Gates, JFK, and Ghandi exemplified the theory of positive leadership and brought it to the foreground. This change did not mean that the “old”, traditional style of leadership was not sufficient but that the context within the business world was changing. A new business context demands a new style of leadership, something we can also see at the start of the new millennium.
In the early 2000’s the theory of shared leadership came to be. The context in which this theory emerged, can be described as VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, more ambiguous. The context is variable and so we cannot completely rely on traditional principles. Shared leadership is based on a relational dialogue. This means that there is not a single person who is in control all the time but that the position of leadership is adjusted according to the situation.
Why shared leadership?
Due to the variability (VUCA) of the context, it is more profitable to have a leadership model in which the entire organization has a more equal structure. In which employees from every tier of the company are trained to work independently and responsibly. Leadership is no longer restricted to the CEO’s office but is part of every tier of the organization, of every team.
When a problem arises, the one who has the right capabilities and the drive to solve the problem is appointed leader. This lasts as long as is needed, until the context changes and a new set of capabilities or a different way of handling things is required.
By encouraging employees to experiment with leadership, a smaller power distance is created. There is less hierarchical behavior, more willingness to accept failure and to acknowledge that it is indeed an experiment. On the one hand, this relieves some of the pressure on managers and higher executives, but on the other hand, it also has its problems.
Managers demand three things: direction, order and security. However, conducting an experiment like shared leadership is not very beneficial towards these goals. The more people have a hand in things, the less order and security there is. The direction can also be jeopardized as more people mean more opinions. This is why it is often easier for a non-supervisor to participate in experiments like shared leadership.
A collective goal
To make shared leadership work, there needs to be corporate purpose. This purpose can come about in multiple ways but they all produce an intrinsic motivating goal that acts as a common thread within the organization. This common thread gives all employees in a shared leadership some sort of guideline for all discussions and decisions. A decision makes sense when it contributes to the corporate purpose of the organization.