The new silver bullets of leadership: The importance of self- and shared leadership in knowledge work

Pearce, C. L., & Manz, C. C. (2005). The New Silver Bullets of Leadership: The Importance of Self- and Shared Leadership in Knowledge Work. Organizational Dynamics , 130-140.

The need is especially important in the case of team-based knowledge work.

The top-heavy and heroic leadership myths: Historical foundations

We must forget the myth of the top-heavy model.

It has deep historical roots, but from a scientific point of view, it was during the Industrial Revolution that organizational leadership started to be studied.

It was shaped by the needs of the emerging railroad industry.

Daniel C. McCallum developed 6 principles of management, one of them dealing specifically with the concept of leadership, that it was to flow from the top to the bottom and that the unity of command was paramount.

By the dawn of the 20th century, it had crystalized into “scientific management.” All work could be scientifically studied and optimal routines and regulations developed for maximum productivity. The separation of managerial and worker responsibilities was key; between identifying precise work protocols and following the dictates of management.

Even in the visionary, charismatic and transformation types of leadership, the primary focus, and the source of thinking, ideas and decision making is designated as the role of leader. That is heroic leadership.

In knowledge-based, dynamic and complex team environments, something else is needed. We need the cognitive and behavioral capabilities of the workforce to achieve optimal effectiveness and competitiveness.

Leadership challenges of the 21st century

Knowledge work depends on individual contributors and teams.

The leader has an increasingly difficult time mastering all aspects of the work.

Top-down pressures

  • Less restricted and more competitive global environment.
  • A focus on reducing costs and improving efficiency.
  • Increased need for a more dynamic, flexible workforce, a reduction in organizational response time, and full employment of organizational knowledge.

Bottom-up pressures

  • Changing composition of the workforce
  • Changing desires for employees
  • A more highly educated workforce has greater depth and breadth of knowledge to offer
  • They desire more than just a paycheck
  • They want to make meaningful contributions

The silver bullet: Self- and Shared Leadership

Self Leadership

All organizational members are capable of leading themselves to some degree.

Self Leadership
Involves managing one’s behavior to meet existing standards and objectives; evaluating the standards, and setting or modifying them.

It addresses  what should be done, and why it should be done, in addition to how to do it.


  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Self-influence skill development
  • Strategic oriented cognitions

Specific skill areas and practical strategies:

  • Self-observation
  • Self-goal-setting
  • Self-reward
  • Rehearsal
  • Self-job redesign
  • Self-management of internal dialogues and mental imagery

Shared Leadership

Shared Leadership
When all members of a team are fully engaged in the leadership of the team: it entails a simultaneous, ongoing, mutual influence process within a team, that involves the serial emergence of official as well as unofficial leaders.

Could be considered as a case of fully developed empowerment in teams.

Studies indicate that it is an even better predictor of team success than just leadership from above.

The end of leadership as we know it?

With the increased empowerment of knowledge workers, we must question our traditional model of leadership.

Self- and Shared Leadership are not panaceas for knowledge work.

It is potential that must be embraced to be actualized.

The authoritarian control of knowledge worker may ultimately impede the very innovation and creativity expected of them.

The over-reliance on any individual can lead to an unhealthy dependency.

They seem unlikely to prove effective if knowledge workers lack the knowledge, skills and abilities for their task.

The enactment of leadership is as much an art as it is a science.

When should self- and shared leadership be encouraged?


Developing employees’ capacity for self- and shared leadership may take more time than is available.

But they are major investments in the future effectiveness of the organization.

There are few truly urgent situations in most organizations, save for start-up, entrepreneurial firms. In these resource strapped organizations, centralized leadership is prudent.

Employee Commitment

If compliance is all that is needed, self- and shared leadership are less important.

If commitment is needed and desired, they can be very important.

It can lead to lower turnover.

It has the ability to strengthen employees’ sense of ownership of, pride in, and commitment to their work.


They are essential is continuous innovation is needed to offer the best products and services to their customers and they must perform in the most up-to-date and effective ways.

Shared leadership, flow, and creativity are inextricably linked (Csikszentmihalyi and Hooker’s in-depth study of R&D labs).


The higher the interdependence, the more important shared leadership becomes.

If there is no close connection between work, individual self-leaders can be effective.


The more complex the work that is being performed, the less likely it is that any one person can possess all of the needed expertise for high performance.

Shared leadership becomes a key driver of performance.

How can self- and shared leadership be effectively developed?

Formally designated leaders

Their challenge is to foster the self-leadership of individual members as well as the sharing of leadership influence throughout the system.

By their own practice of self- and shared leadership, they can act as models.

My most important role is for building the team – getting them to interact without being directed.

You have to play cheerleader sometimes and you have to be careful not to be a dictator.

I have told them their goal is to replace me.

Modeling is one of the most important thing leaders can do.

Reinforcing appropriate self- and shared leadership behavior when it occurs is important.

The organization

Organizational rewards

People tend to do what they are rewarded for doing and avoid what is punished.

The formal reward system needs to provide emphasis on self-leading initiative and teamwork.

Individual-based merit pay may not only be insufficient, but it may actively discourage the cooperation required for shared leadership.


Workers need training to be skilled at exhibiting self- and shared leadership.

  • Self-leadership strategies that can enable them to exercise more initiative in taking on responsibility
  • Conflict management
  • Communication
  • Conducting meetings
  • How to effectively work with others
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