Companies Shift Responsibilities Toward Shared Team Leadership

  J. Richard Hackman
  J. Richard Hackman

Company managers and leaders are beginning to take a new approach in how
they distribute responsibility.

According to J. Richard Hackman, PhD, Edgar Pierce professor of social
and organizational psychology at the Harvard Kennedy School, more and more
companies are moving away from the “heroic” single leader model of
leadership and gravitating toward a model of shared team responsibility.


Drawing on research on intelligence analysis, management and patient
care teams, Hackman concluded that shared team leadership can flourish under
the right conditions.

“The demands on leaders these days — especially in dynamic
environments such as health care — outstrip the capabilities of any one
person, no matter how talented,” Hackman explained. “We need more
hands on the wheel, more than just one person helping to get the key functions
of leadership fulfilled.”

Advantages of embracing the shared team in leadership functions include
clarifying objectives, establishing procedures for coordination, handling
relations with external entities and monitoring to make sure that nothing
important slips between the cracks, according to Hackman.

  Donna J. Dennis
  Donna J. Dennis

“Beyond more hands on the wheel, there is greater
flexibility,” Hackman said. “The team would not be wholly dependent
on any one member; if a key person became unavailable at a critical time,
others would be up to speed to pitch in and make sure that key activities were
completed well and on time. These are big advantages.”

Are we too competitive?

“It is difficult for teams when they do not have a leader because
hierarchy is so ingrained in us,” Donna J. Dennis, PhD, Leadership
Solutions Consulting said. “There are a lot of good reasons to do it, but
I don’t think it comes naturally, especially in our country where we are
so hierarchy oriented.”

Dennis spent time training employees in self-directed work teams.
Training involved discussing the roles of each team member, whether those roles
would be rotated and the ways to hold each team member accountable.

“What I found is that in a team where there is no formal
leadership, someone who is extroverted and wants to take charge will do the
work, but it may not necessarily lead to the best results.”

Are we too competitive to share the leadership responsibilities?

“The rewards system is set up to reward you for your individual
performance,” Dennis explained. “Companies would really need to take
a look at their performance standards and rewards. You may move toward team
sharing leadership, but at the end of the day when the bonuses are handed out,
is the team receiving the bonus or does just the person the company believes
did the most work? The reward system needs to be aligned with the approach. Not
thinking about that will absolutely undermine the process.”

No overnight success

Moving toward shared leadership does not happen overnight. It requires
changes in both mindset and behavior for leaders, according to Hackman.
Similarly, members of the teams will be expected to take more initiatives to
make sure things get done correctly and on time.

Dennis recommended that employees discuss their definitions of a great
team, what it will take to get there and how they are going to hold the team
accountable in order to reach their goals.


“It is more [about] rethinking roles,” Hackman explained to
O&P Business News. “The leader’s own role, as well
as the roles of team members, will be expected to assist with leadership tasks.
The best teams I have studied, in health care as well as other kinds of
organizations, have more leadership than previously because leadership is
expected of everyone.”

Shared leadership is not a concept or program that can be implemented in
an organization. Instead, shared leadership materializes when favorable
conditions are present, according to Hackman. What are those conditions?

Hackman’s research suggests that shared leadership is likely to
emerge when:

  • The team or work unit understands who is and is not a member;
  • Members are interdependent for accomplishing some shared outcome for
    which the team as a whole is accountable;
  • The team has sufficient autonomy to discuss and decide its own work
    processes; and
  • The team has sufficient stability over time for members to learn
    each other’s capabilities, how they can best work together.

Adjust to the circumstances

Hackman does not want to give the impression that shared leadership is
the only approach for companies and managers to take when working on leadership
models. He understands that ultimately one person needs to be in charge in
order to make sure things are completed efficiently and effectively and nothing
is forgotten.

“I would argue, however that what is sometimes called co-leadership
— in which two individuals are supposed to equally share a single role
— almost never works. Typically, they spend too much time and energy
negotiating who is on top and sometimes critical things do not get done. It is
better to have one leader, but with shared contributions from any and all who
have information to offer,” he said.

Recently Hackman has been starting to learn about what he calls
“sand dune” teams. These are teams that form and reform as
circumstances change, but within a larger unit that has purposes and norms of
conduct that are endorsed by all, according to Hackman.

“It can be inspiring to see teams autonomously adjust their
membership and their work processes as circumstances change, but to do that,
the key conditions need to be in place in the larger unit,” he said.
— by Anthony Calabro


Shared leadership on teams is a challenge and I think Dennis is correct
in saying the U.S.culture drives us more towards a hierarchy approach to
leadership. Also, those who have a stake in the outcome of the project that a
team is working on want to hear from one person who has the knowledge and the
control over what the entire team is driving towards, not several people. That
also needs to be considered as well. All in all, food for thought, but harder
to do in the real world.

— Mary Lou Leib
Manager, human resources,
C.R. Bard Inc.


Perhaps the “heroic” single leader has always been a bit of a
myth — our preferred way in the United States for making sense of how
leadership happens. But look closely at anyone labeled a top-notch leader and
you will find others surrounding him or her who may be less visible, but who
are certainly carrying out leadership functions critical to the success of the

Effective formal team leaders will be the first to point out how
cultivating shared leadership is part of their strategy. The interesting
question is what will happen as organizations work to formalize shared team
leadership. Will it get in the way of informal social processes that develop in
high-performing teams? Or will it help change our mindsets so that we can
better see how leadership has often been shared all along?

— Cynthia McCauley, PhD
Senior fellow,
Center for Creative Leadership

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