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Don't Take the Lead, Share the Lead

Cross-functional teams are becoming the ubiquitous basis for knowledge creation and knowledge exploitation in our organizations. These teams are comprised of highly diverse individuals who collectively possess the necessary skills for a task.

That said, with the increased use of teams, we need to question our traditional models of leadership.

Generally, we consider leadership to be a role where one person is “in charge” while everyone else is a follower. As featured in a recent Wall Street Journal article, however, research indicates that leadership is more akin to a process and is something that can be shared. That is, one person with key knowledge, skills, and abilities for a task that is a part of a project directs the group until that task is completed, then another individual takes the lead to direct completion of another task, and so on until the project is done.

Research indicates that this shared leadership does a better job of ensuring success of a project or an organization than does the work of any designated, hierarchical leader or poor-performing teams dominated by a single leader.

This perspective on leadership flies in the face of traditional views of team leaders. Historically, team leadership has been conceived around a single individual—the leader—and how that person commands, cajoles, and controls followers. This slanted view has been reinforced by popular media coverage of prominent leaders. In recent years, however, some have challenged this conception, arguing that leadership involves roles and activities that can be shared among members of a team or organization. This line of thinking is gaining increasing traction.

Why has the interest in shared leadership suddenly increased? Competition, be it domestic or global, is driving firms toward new forms and new modes of organizing—and teams are central to this perspective. For example, we recently completed a study of Inc. 500 companies. While we found the leadership of the CEO to be important, we found that the truly high-performing companies were the ones who organized in teams and practiced shared leadership.

Tom Davin, CEO of Panda Restaurant Group—owner of the Panda Express chain—explains it this way: “If we are going to address the opportunities we face now and will face in the future, it is by leveraging our individual talent through disciplined teamwork and shared leadership.” Says Davin, “We are very focused on the leading indicators of success—things like associate development—and are confident the lagging indicators—the financials—will follow. Our strategy of focusing on people has worked brilliantly so far.”

What distinguishes many cross-functional teams from traditional organizational forms is the relative absence of formal hierarchical authority. While a cross-functional team may have a formally appointed leader, this individual is more commonly treated as a peer. For example, outside of the team, he often does not possess hierarchical authority over the individual members. Moreover, the formal leader is usually at a knowledge disadvantage. After all, the purpose of the cross-functional team is to bring a diverse set of backgrounds together. The formal leader’s expertise normally represents only one of the numerous specialties at the table. Thus, the leader is highly dependent upon the expertise of all team members.

So, leadership in these cross-functional team settings is not determined by positions of authority but rather by an individual’s capacity to influence peers and by the needs of the team in any given moment. In addition, each member of the team brings unique perspectives, knowledge, and capabilities to the team. At various junctures in the team’s life, there are moments when these differing backgrounds provide a platform for leadership to be shared among the members of the team.

Will the implementation of shared leadership be painful? For many organizations, the unfortunate answer is yes. However, the alternative—suboptimal teams and overburdened leaders—is ultimately even more painful.

Are we approaching the dusk of hierarchical leadership? The answer is unambiguously no. It is not a matter of choosing between hierarchical leadership and shared leadership. On the contrary, the issues are: (1) when is leadership most appropriately shared; (2) how does one develop shared leadership; and (3) how does one shift between hierarchical and shared leadership. By addressing these issues, we will move organizations toward the more appropriate practice of leadership in the age of knowledge work.