The Basics of Sharing Leadership

In Leadership by Karen Buck

by Karen Buck and Cindy Willard

We often think of leadership as a solitary exercise. Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Martin Luther King. Yet there are also great leadership teams – think Lewis & Clark or FDR & Eleanor Roosevelt. In today’s reality, most nonprofit organizations are led by more than one individual. Sometimes an Executive Director (staff) and Board President (volunteer) come together as leadership partners; in other instances an organization may be led by a larger formal (or informal) leadership team.

The Benefits and Hazards of Shared Leadership

Sharing the functions of leadership with others carries many benefits. Leadership partners may possess skills and abilities the other lacks, difficult tasks can be shared, and varying perspectives can illuminate challenging issues and stimulate more creative, effective solutions. But, there is such a thing as too different. If the members of your leadership team have completely divergent views, styles, or approaches, it may be difficult or impossible to agree upon a course of action or set a consistent tone or culture for the organization.

In their April 2007, Harvard Business Review article, “The Leadership Team: Complementary Strengths or Conflicting Agendas,” Stephen Miles and Michael Watkins define the “four pillars of alignment” that help leadership partners/ teams take advantage of the benefits of shared leadership while avoiding its pitfalls:

  • Commitment to a shared vision and strategies
  • Shared approach to measuring and rewarding progress
  • Outstanding communication between leadership partners
  • High level of trust between partners

Sharing Leadership Successfully

There are some basic structures and systems you can put in place to ensure that your leadership partnership/ team work together effectively. One of the most important pieces is ongoing, consistent communication. Scheduling a regular meeting might feel like adding just one more thing to the schedule, but meeting when there is not a crisis or scheduled agenda can bring up key topics and help build in learning that wouldn’t take place otherwise.

Getting to know your partner outside of the work context will help you understand his or her motivations for being involved. This is what you share in common and can help you build out the vision and strategies you will work on together. Consider meeting for breakfast or attending an event together that is outside your scope of work. Give yourself some space to really listen to what your partner thinks about the world.

Perhaps most important is having a clear understanding of the roles each of you will play. A good partnership implies division of duties, not overlapping or repetitive ones. The role of the staff leader is to coordinate programs, personnel, and process. The role of the board leader is to garner resources, keep a broad perspective, and advocate for the organization. Clear roles support accountability and execution. You understand what you need to accomplish and what your partner is working on, so you don’t get involved where the work is already being done.

The benefits from a leadership team are many – lower rates of burnout, more minds tackling tough issues, and mutual support for the hard and good work we do. Adding alignment and structure to these relationships makes them more successful.

What are your experiences sharing leadership? What have you found to be critical to maintaining an effective leadership partnership?