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Shared leadership: A myth or the birth of a movement?

by Cara Bower
Decision-making by committee doesn’t lie at the heart of shared leadership, but listening to multiple voices and divergent opinions does.

Traditional "great man" leadership fills scores of library shelves, from Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, the complex legacy of Harry Oppenheimer or the Oprah Winfrey empire. Times, however, are changing.

As younger generations step up, as complex organisations become increasingly unwieldy, and as individuals demand a say in how companies and countries are run, collaboration and teamwork are advancing the case for shared leadership. The question is: does democratic leadership work? And can leadership by committee ever be truly effective?

These concerns are still up for debate, but certainly, a growing number of examples are emerging, including the legacy of coalition governments in the likes of Germany and Denmark. However, in South Africa, where some provincial and city governance coalitions have been fraught with challenges, shared leadership models have less allure.

At a corporate level, there are interesting case studies, including US multinational Cisco, which is guiding the company away from top-down leadership towards a collaborative model of boards, super-teams and councils. Or US tomato processor Morning Star, which has decision-making teams in place of a formal leadership hierarchy, and where everyone holds the same title: colleague.

Notably, each of these models reflects an internal tussle with the traditional approach and asks if the leader-as-boss has had its day?

Time for something new?

“Of course, it needs to change,” is the unequivocal view of Netherlands-based Janneke Roelofs, client success adviser at the Top Employers Institute. “Especially with the world we are in today, and with all the disruptions out there – what happened with the coronavirus, now the economic crisis and the environmental issues. There is just so much happening.”

The multi-generational nature of today’s working places is another consideration that complicates things, adds Roelofs. “You need to have different leadership styles to accommodate all those different generations and different people – as well as cultures. In my own company, we have 29 nationalities working with us, so that means you also need different ways of working with people from different countries, different backgrounds and different cultures. This requires a different way of looking at leadership.”

Added to this mix, notes Karen Muller, a South Africa-based client success adviser at the Top Employers Institute, is a workplace where older employees are working for longer while younger people are entering the market. This raises questions about how these cohorts merge in an increasingly virtual workplace where traditional role model and mentorship channels are shifting.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where the United Nations estimates a youth population of 70% under age 30, this multi-generational shift is particularly noteworthy. Leading South African employers such as OUTsurance, MTN, Capitec, IG Markets South Africa and Anglo American, which are among the more than 2 000 global companies certified by Top Employers, are certainly taking these complexities into consideration, says Muller. “You can see there’s a difference in the leadership styles.”

However, this does not mean there is a "one-size-fits-all" model out there, notes Roelofs. “Just addressing the leadership elements from one angle doesn’t work anymore, and European ways of working maybe don’t work in a region like Africa. So, the larger companies – and we are seeing this with our African participants as well as others around the globe – are really taking a holistic view on things by looking at the individual, and adjusting leadership styles accordingly.”

This human-centric approach becomes increasingly complex, says Muller, if you consider the depth and size of today’s mega-companies. “If you've got one CEO who manages 145 000 employees worldwide – from Latin America, North America, and Europe, to Asia-Pacific and Africa – it’s vast. That’s making decisions for 145 000 people sitting across 126 countries. It requires a totally different leadership style,” she says.

Managing complex organisations like this comes down to “listening to the heartbeat”, says Roelofs. Which is why shared leadership is increasingly finding favour. 

What does shared leadership look like?

The concept of shared leadership has been described as “a team-level phenomenon, where leadership is carried out by the team as a whole, rather than exclusively by those at the top”. It has also been explained by Jacqueline Bergman and her fellow researchers as a process whereby “two or more members engage in the leadership of the team in an effort to influence and direct fellow members to maximise team effectiveness”.

Studies appear to bear out assertions of the approach’s effectiveness, with Bergman et al noting that “teams with shared leadership experienced less conflict, greater consensus, and higher intragroup trust and cohesion than teams without shared leadership”.

In practice, shared leadership can take the form of a non-CEO or a joint-CEO model, a rule-by-committee system, and even a microenterprise approach where employees have a say in their unit, and each unit has a say in the group. Chinese manufacturer Haier is closely associated with the latter, which it terms RenDanHeYi.

Just recently, Harvard Business Review research into the effectiveness of joint CEOs determined that “those firms tended to produce more value for shareholders than their peers”. Compared to the average of 6.9% annual shareholder return, companies run by joint CEOs yielded 9.5%. Similarly, Time magazine has written about the advantages of shared leadership for big organisations and more agile entrepreneurs and start-ups, all of which require many complementary skills to provide effective direction.

However, as the example of luxury conglomerate Compagnie Financiere Richemont clearly illustrates, sometimes a company needs a single leader to determine a clear path.

In 2017, Richemont shook things up by removing its CEO position in favour of a senior executive committee. At the time, group chairman Johann Rupert said: “One individual cannot be held responsible, it’s unfair. We will never have a similar CEO again. Now it’s time for us to start looking at another generation.” In September 2018, Rupert appointed Jerome Lambert to the reintroduced CEO role.

A case for a hybrid future

Richemont’s failed experiment underlines the concerns of many that the world of business is not quite ready for this collaborative model; in part because it gets in the way of efficiencies.

Roelofs agrees that the concept “still needs a lot of evolution” and that “sometimes you also need people who can make decisions”. However, she questions whether shared leadership even necessitates that everyone is in a decision-making seat. Instead, the notion of shared leadership should be about listening and hearing, taking guidance and giving everyone a voice. This is an easier feat for a new start-up, many of which are born under a shared or even no-leadership model, but a lot harder when dealing with the legacy challenges associated with an older, entrenched organisation.

This opens the door to a bridging model, the hybrid alternative, which is becoming more prominent among the top employers with which Roelofs and Muller interact. “I think the edge lies in a hybrid model,” says Roelofs.

The middle ground

Muller agrees. “If there’s one decision that needs to be made, then a decision needs to be made as quickly as possible, because I haven’t got the patience to wait for 10 weeks until we've all had our kumbaya moment.”

As long as all employees – particularly the young cohorts – feel they have a contribution to make and that leadership is transparent and fair, then the hybrid approach offers support for the top and increased ownership and influence throughout the organisation. This, according to Muller and Roelofs, is where the balance lies.

“We see this with most of our top employees at the moment as well,” says Muller. “There are clearly people who make the decisions when it’s necessary, but there is also a lot more of interaction with leaders actually going out there asking for feedback and including employees in decision-making or in the design of initiatives. So, already there is a hybrid approach emerging in most of the companies.”

Many of these changes have happened at pace since the 2020 pandemic, notes Muller, and will continue to evolve as organisations make friends with new ideas like active employee listening and the importance of employee wellbeing. What will be interesting to watch is whether shared leadership continues to find traction, or if the scales tip towards the middle-ground, hybrid version. 

Listen, and learn

Whether leaders opt for a top-down approach, a team-based focus or a method that relies on constant employee input, what is emerging as a strong global theme is the importance of real employee engagement. With employees eager to have their voices heard, it’s up to modern-day leaders to listen.

In the 2023 World of Work Trends Report from the Top Employers Institute, Roche China’s “listening strategy” was highlighted. Through the use of data collection and an extensive survey architecture, the pharmaceutical developer practises active listening and invites feedback.

“Many companies still don’t really have a hang of this,” says Janneke Roelofs, who believes “this is one of the elements where HR leaders struggle the most” and “is really a development area for a lot of employers”. However, if a company like Roche really listens to the input coming from different layers in the organisation and has a strategy for addressing this information, “then that’s very strong”.

Karen Muller’s advice is to ensure that insights aren’t buried in a data-harvesting exercise or that the emergence of natural leaders, champions and internal influencers isn’t squashed within the HR machine. “These individuals play a very important role because they are not only providing the leaders with information, but they’re feeding back into the employees again,” she says, noting that this is particularly true of the younger generations – the likes of the Millennials (1981 to 1996) and Generation Z (1997-2012) – who crave influence and being heard.

Giving these cohorts the opportunity to share their ideas and knowledge with leaders is also key, which is why Muller lauds companies where is it the norm for “CEOs to have coffee sessions, specifically with the young Gen Zs, so they can stay on top of what’s happening”. This requires leaders who are prepared to jump into a team and be part of it; an attitude that is likely to continue driving the leadership narrative.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The world is complex and changeable, which requires adaptive and agile leadership.
  • Expecting a leader to be all things to all people, especially across vast and global organisations, is increasingly unrealistic.
  • Whether or not leaders share authority or simply welcome team and employee engagement, the notion of shared leadership is gaining traction as a philosophy.
  • While shared leadership has been shown to be effective, legacy issues might make it unwieldy for large, established companies.
  • Does a hybrid model hold the answer?

Useful resources:
Gordon Institute of Business Science
Making an impact to significantly improve the competitive performance of individuals and organisation through business education to build our national competitiveness. GIBS is a leading business school in the heart of Sandton’s business hub, offering a wide range of executive and academic programmes.
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