In Praise of Multi-Headed Leadership


Teams with shared leadership can outperform teams organized hierarchically. But watch out for power trip-ups

Abstraction: Green cube and other geometric shapes on a blue background

In 2010, the world was transfixed by the dramatic rescue of 33 miners trapped in a Chilean mine 700 metres below ground. Over 69 days we learned about the lives of the miners and their families, lax safety precautions and the technical challenges of getting to the men. 

But this was a team leadership story as well. Before the accident, the miners were part of a standard hierarchical team led by an authoritarian shift supervisor. Once they were sealed off and forced into an emotional pressure cooker, the team stuck together but operated in a much different form. 

For one, the supervisor abdicated his authority. And the miners opted to share leadership according to each other’s strengths. They made decisions on scarce resources democratically and shared authority over the management of tasks and conflicts. Years later, commentators pointed to this form of distributed leadership as a key factor in all the miners surviving the two-month ordeal.

In the Chilean mine disaster, shared leadership arose out of the need for survival. But it has certainly been practised by teams in all sorts of organizations and run-of-the-mill projects. Shared leadership simply refers to the informal process in which a variety of people play a role in the collective leadership of the team. Team members recognize each other’s leadership influence as they go about setting goals, deciding how resources are used, completing tasks and assessing performance. 

What the evidence shows 

Do teams perform well under shared leadership? If you believe a stack of studies, yes indeed. Teams with a dynamic approach to leadership—from innovation teams to project or health-care teams—report higher team-level performance benefits than those with a traditional hierarchical structure. There’s higher team-member satisfaction and trust and greater engagement, particularly for virtual teams.

Teams led by multiple leaders have been shown to turn out higher quality work with fewer errors, especially when members perceive that the work is complex.

We at Smith Business Insight recently wrote about research in a merchant ship environment showing that teams with higher levels of shared transformational leadership displayed higher levels of occupational safety behaviours.

Shared leadership has even been shown to create the conditions for the elusive flow experience, the psychological state that influences motivation, perseverance, creativity and performance.

Downsides of sharing power

This seems to be a good news story across the board, doesn’t it? Well maybe not. Experts who study power dynamics question the assumption that there are fewer interpersonal conflicts under multiple informal leaders. Isn’t it just as likely that shared leadership becomes an arena for turf wars? And what about the saying, “Too many cooks spoil the broth?”

Australian researchers recently looked at this very question. Their study of 70 project-based teams paints a much more nuanced view of interpersonal conflicts under shared leadership. They found that team success really depends on the leaders’ sources of power and how they informally influence their colleagues. 

There are many potential power sources in an organization; these researchers identified and tested nine. Things like expertise, inside information, likeability, position in the hierarchy, rewards and need for approval. 

The researchers found that shared leadership translates into great team performance when the people in leadership roles have diverse sources of power or influence. Interpersonal conflict is significantly lower when leaders can differentiate their special sauce as they share leadership with peers. If they are all known to have inside information or are all likeable, there’s less clarity and demarcation and a greater chance for one-upmanship and misunderstandings. 

Many more studies will certainly be published in the coming years, adding even more nuance to the shared leadership story. For all its proven benefits—and there are many, just ask the Chilean miners—shared leadership is not a slam dunk to build cohesive or harmonious teams. Sometimes formalized leadership structures may be more productive, especially when peer-level leaders show signs of being incompatible with one another. 

But we should welcome any efforts to re-imagine the nature of leadership and followership, be it shared leadership, servant leadership or any othership. The image of the lone hero leader at the top is great for spinning myths. But right now, the working world needs a lot more than myths.