Shared Leadership

Shared Leadership

Initial publication


  • May 28th 2012

The demographic situation in the west foreshadows a decline in the active population in years to come  (Fabi et al., 2010; Légaré, 2004). This worker shortage will give more negotiating power to the remaining skilled workers who will become harder to retain (Fabi et al., 2010; Fabi, Lacoursière and Raymond, 2009). They’ll expect more than a paycheck from their job, they’ll want to find meaning in their work and use their wider and deeper skillset on projects that stimulate them (Pearce and Manz, 2005: 132).

At the same time, on the organizational scale, the heightening competition will necessitate that knowledge be more efficiently used with shorter reaction times, or the organization may find itself outclassed by its competitors (Pearce, 2004: 47).

To face these mutually enforcing challenges, from inside and outside the organization, knowledge economy organizations will need to rethink their hierarchical structures to ensure that knowledge flows freely and is not hindered by bureaucracy or hyper-specialization of the workforce (Cross, 2000). Having more flexibility in work teams, and across the organization, may help to make the best of this situation.

A “cult” is born around the idea of work teams (Coutu, 2009), which are often considered, by proponents, to be a solution, if not a panacea, to our increasingly complex and pressurized business setting (Pearce et Manz, 2005: 132), and to our need to engage our employees (Coutu, 2009). Even though a work team may “produce something extraordinary”, it should not automatically be expected (Coutu, 2009). Recent research underline significant failures of working in teams, from a possible breakdown in communication to the fundamental impossibility to select core team objectives (Coutu, 2009).

Coutu (2009) suggests that it is not a harmonious team that produces positive results, but rather that, through producing positive results, a team becomes harmonious. We should then stop to assemble and dissolve team as the needs see fit and try to instill some stability in the process to avoid the pitfalls of ephemeral collaboration. The inner workings of a work team is the key to the team’s survival, and even to the organization’s to which it belongs.

Efficiency in a team depends on many factor, one of them, shared leadership, is growing ever more necessary as formal leaders have ever more diverse team they no longer necessarily share expertise with (Parker, 2006; Pearce, 2004; Pearce and Manz, 2005). The leader must be able to trust in each of its team members that they can act as leaders in their specific fields of expertise.

Shared leadership is not intended to replace the vertical leadership model, but rather as a situational complement to rise to the needs of specific situations (Pearce, 2004), as organizations continue to evolve, the integration of both model will be ever more likely to a complete conception of the role, practices and building blocks of leadership.

What is it really?

Mary Parker Follett (1924) was already suggesting that we should consider alternatives the the hierarchical leadership system:

Rather than simply following the lead of the person with the formal authority in a situation, one should follow the lead of the person with the most knowledge regarding the situation at hand.

Pearce and Conger (2003: 1) suggested a definition of shared leadership as a multidirectional influence process:

The dynamic, interactive influence process among individuals in groups for which the objective is to lead one another to the achievement of group or organizational goals or both. This influence process often involves peer, or lateral, influence and at other times involves upward or downward hierarchical influence.

Shared leadership can be considered as fully developed empowerment in a team; the team members share responsibility for tasks and processes in reaching their goals (Pearce and Manz, 2005).

Looking further than bidirectional influence among team members, shared leadership must also consider the voluntary granting of leadership role, by the team, at a specific time and for an undetermined length. Team members must be as receptive to the leadership of others as they must be willing to assume the mantle of leaders when the situation calls for it.

We thus suggest a broader definition of shared leadership that incorporates these criteria and that should allow us to spend more time thinking about the real world impacts of shared leadership than debating as to what, exactly, shared leadership is and isn’t:

Shared leadership is a dynamic and fluid process of influence and leadership role distribution among members of a team as called for by the specific context facing the team (Leclerc, 2012).

The important thing is not to agree on the specifics of the different concepts in the definition, but to agree that the concept, as a whole, is important to the functioning of our organizations and that we must consider, study, and act upon our situations to make sure that work teams evolve as we want them to.

What’s coming next?

In the next weeks, we’ll be exploring the concept of shared leadership further. We’ll look into what affects its emergence and presence in teams and what other similar concepts are brought up in literature that can feed our shared understanding of the situation.

We all need to take it seriously, shared leadership, though only recently made a formal concept in literature, has been informally part of the dynamics of teams for as long as there have been teams. Rather than stifle natural tendencies, we should look into how we can share the interactions so that they are beneficial for all involved.


Coutu, D. (2009). « Why Teams Don’t Work », Harvard Business Review, p. 99-105.

Cross, R. (2000). « Looking before you leap: assessing the jump to teams in knowledge-based work », Business Hoirizons, vol. 43, no 5, p. 29-36.

Fabi, B., R. Lacoursière, M. Morin et L. Raymond (2010). « Pratiques de gestion des ressources humaines et engagement envers l’organisation », Gestion, vol. 34, no 4, p. 21-29.

Follett, M. P. (1924). Creative Experience, New York, Longmans Green.

Leclerc, G. (2012). « L’influence des pratiques organisationnelles et du supérieur immédiat sur le leadership partagé dans les équipes de travail », HEC Montréal, Mémoire en rédaction.

Légaré, J. (2004). « Les fondements démographiques de la main-d’oeuvre québécoise de demain », Gestion, vol. 29, no 3, p. 13-19.

Parker, Glenn M. (2006). « What Makes a Team Effective or Ineffective », dans Organization Development, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Reader, p. 656-680.

Pearce, Craig L. (2004). « The Future of Leadership: Combining Vertical and Shared Leadership to Transform Knowledge Work », Academy of Management Executive, vol. 18, no 1, p. 47-57.

Pearce, Craig L. et Jay A. Conger (2003). « All those years ago: The historical underpinnings of shared leadership », in Shared leadership: Reframing the hows and whys of leadership, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications, p. 1-18.

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

Leave a Reply