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Shared leadership

Michele Erina Doyle and Mark K. Smith explore the theory and practice of shared leadership — and the significance of ethical practice.

Leadership can be explored as a social process — something that happens between people. It is not so much what leaders do, as something that arises out of social relationships. As such it does not depend on one person, but on how people act together to make sense of the situations that face them. It is happening all the time.

The group took over. There was a whole group leadership thing. I don't think leadership is necessarily about one person sometimes — everyone has the qualities of being a leader or taking some form of responsibility in their lives, and sometimes that's a whole group ethos. I want to work in a situation where people can take on roles and responsibilities, tasks, whatever they want to do. As long as I can assist in this, rather than being the forerunning force taking it over, then that's what I'm aiming for.

Everyday leadership
If we look at everyday life — the situations and groups we are involved in — then we soon find leadership. Friends deciding how they are going to spend an evening, families negotiating over housework – each involve influence and decision. However, such leadership often does not reside in a person. It may be shared and can move. In one situation an individual may be influential because of their expertise or position, in another it can be someone completely different. What these people may be able to do is to offer an idea or an action that helps to focus or restructure the situation — and the way in which others see things.

Sometimes there may not even be one person we can readily label as leader — just a group working together to achieve what is wanted. Rather than people leading, it is ideals and ideas. We don’t follow an individual; we follow the conversation. Through listening and contributing, thoughts and feelings emerge and develop. It is not the force of personality that leads us on, but the rightness of what is said. Other factors may also operate.

From this we can see that it is not our position that is necessarily important, but our behaviour. The question is whether or not our actions help groups and relationships to work and achieve. Actions that do this could be called leadership — and can come from any group member. Many writers — especially those looking at management — tend to talk about leadership as a person having a clear vision and the ability to make it real. However, as we have begun to discover, leadership lies not so much in one person having a clear vision as in our capacity to work with others in creating one.

We may also recognize the power of self-leadership, as one worker put it: ‘me trying to get the most out of my own resources’. Some people have talked of this as the influence we exert on ourselves ‘to achieve the self-motivation and self-direction we need to perform’ (Mans and Sims 1989). Such self-motivation and self-direction can impact on others. The worker continued:

[It] then moves onto staff, for them to discover the self-resources that they have within themselves and then look for anything that needs developing… For young people, it's about getting them to realise their self-leadership, to realise their own potential.

The leadership process is part of our daily experience. We may lead others, ourselves, or be led. We play our part in relationships and groups where it is always around. Sometimes there is an obvious ‘leader’, often there isn’t. Nor are there always obvious followers. The world is not neatly divided in this respect. Part of our responsibility as partners in the process is to work so that those who may label themselves as followers come to see that they, too, are leaders.

What I understand of leadership is encouraging, or getting, people to realise their own resources, what they've got within them.

As individuals we are part of the leadership process and, at times, receive the gift of being the leader from others.

We also want to take things a stage further. For something to qualify as ‘leadership’ we must also make judgements about the quality of what happens. It should enrich the lives we all lead. Here we want to highlight two aspects. Leadership must be:

We want to include these ethical qualities so that we can make proper judgements about leadership. For example, if we stay with a simple, technical definition such as that offered by Bass (1990) (leadership as the exercise of influence in a group context) then we can look at a figure like Hitler and say he was, in many respects, a great leader. He had a vision, was able to energize a large number of people around it, and develop the effectiveness of the organizations he was responsible for. However, as soon as we ask whether his actions were inclusive and elevating we come to a very different judgement. He was partly responsible for the death and exclusion of millions of people. He focused people’s attention on the actions of external enemies, internal scapegoats and false images of community while avoiding facing a deeper analysis of the country’s ills.

Hitler wielded power, but he did not lead. He played to people’s basest needs and fears. If he inspired people toward the common good of Germany, it was the good of a truncated and exclusive society feeding off others. (Heifetz 1994: 24)

We could go on. Hitler’s failings weren’t just moral. Hopefully, the point is made. Leadership involves making ethical as well as technical judgements.

Craig E. Johnson (2001: 9-23) has usefully employed the metaphor of shadow and light in this respect. He argues that leaders ‘have the power to illuminate the lives of followers or to cover them in darkness’ (ibid.: 9) and they cast shadows when they:

Democratic leadership and shared leadership
Aspects of the approach we are exploring here are sometimes called democratic leadership. It involves people, and can foster a belief in democratic principles and processes such as self-determination and participation. These are concerns that we share. However, we want to widen things out. We want to include everyday behaviour that is inclusive and looks to enriching all our lives, but that does not have an explicit democratic focus. We call this ‘shared leadership’.

For such leadership to develop we need to pay special attention to three things. We need to encourage (after Gastil 1997):

We want to look at each of these in turn.


Leadership to me is around taking some form of responsibility in any given situation

There are some very practical reasons for encouraging people to own the problems facing them. For example, where the problem is non-routine and needs an unusual response, it is important to have the right information. Involving those with a stake in the situation – especially those at the sharp end — gives a chance for insights to emerge. Further, the more people take on an issue or problem as theirs, and involve themselves in thinking through responses, the more likely they are to act and to carry things through. They have an investment in making things happen. It is their solution, not somebody else’s. In a lot of situations we may simply comply with what our manager, parent or friend tells us to do. It saves us thinking. More importantly it allows us to blame them if things go wrong. Sometimes we just ‘buy-in’ to a suggestion — we can see the sense of it, but don’t commit to it. As a result, we are less likely to stick with it when the going gets tough. We can also still blame the suggestion-maker in some way — ‘I wish I’d never listened to you’. When we own a problem it becomes our responsibility. If things go wrong when trying to find a solution, we cannot blame others. For these reasons alone we may be very resistant to shouldering responsibility.

We may also be frightened and lost. Sometimes the issue facing us is so complex or of such a scale that we don’t know where to start. We may be worried about getting things wrong, of not understanding what the issues are, or adding to conflict. Faced by a crisis or an apparently insoluble problem, we may look for strong leadership. It may be through anxiety, hostility or helplessness (to name just a few emotions) that we are ready to turn to those who seem to have an answer. There is a triple danger here. First, these powerful emotions may well push us to project all sorts of capacities onto the ‘leader’ that she or he does not possess. Because they talk a good talk, or look the part, we may want to believe that they know what they are doing and have our interests at heart. Second, the desire to rid ourselves of uncertainties and worries can lead us to turn away from our responsibilities. It is so much easier if someone else can take on the worries. Third, we can overlook the extent to which we contribute to the situation. It may be our actions, or our opinions that are helping to make the crisis.

The issue here is how we contain our distress enough to get over any initial hurdles. We need a breathing space. With friends, families and work colleagues we often turn to ‘a safe pair of hands’ to achieve this. Safety here is less about being told what to do, as feeling that we have some sort of structure supporting or maintaining us. We need a holding environment in which our attentions are focused and we can begin to work on the problem (Heifetz 1993). Within a team, for example, there may well be someone who is able to say something like, ‘I don’t have the answers, but if we take things bit by bit, we may find a way through’. This is a classic way of holding the situation. Actions such as breaking things into smaller pieces and trying to slow the pace down a little help us to put our brains into gear and to put panic to one side.

We may also try to avoid taking responsibility for things because we are lazy or want others to do things for us. After all, if we own a problem then we will have to act at some point. Why bother exerting ourselves if we can sit back and let someone else take the strain? This takes us straight into the realm of ethical questions. Is it fair that someone should take a ride on the back of others? Is it right to benefit from belonging to a group, teams or organization without making the fullest contribution we can?


I don't think leadership is about being a manager and cracking the whip and getting people to do the job, but do I think it is about just keeping the learning on track, so there is some sort of agreed… way forward.

To act for the best we need to be informed. Our actions have to be shaped by a good understanding of the situation and of the possibilities open to us. We also need to develop some very practical skills and to attend to our feelings. In short we need to deepen our understanding, develop, and share in this with others. Leadership entails learning. It means becoming wiser and more knowledgeable.

Wisdom is not something that we possess like a book or computer. It is a quality that appears in action. The people we describe as wise do not necessarily know a lot of things. They are not encyclopaedias. Rather, they are able to reflect on a situation and, as likely or not, encourage others to join with them. Crucially they are also able to relate this to the sorts of practical actions that are right for the situation (Kekes 1995). In other words, wisdom is concerned with making choices about something that has to be done or not done. And to act wisely we must think and evaluate. This is more than cleverness. We must want, and be able, to make some sense of what life throws at us. Knowing about lots of different things is of little use if that knowledge cannot be related to the problem that is facing us at this moment.

Yet there is something more at work here. Wisdom is wrapped up with morality. To be wise, we would argue, is also to have a care for people (including ourselves) and for how we may all live more fulfilling lives. If we are to think and to evaluate we must have standards by which to judge what we find. This means looking to what philosophers like Aristotle talked about as the good life. This involves having an understanding of the different things that need to come together if people are to flourish. There will be countless arguments about what this actually entails. People have different experiences of life and, as a result, see the world in contrary ways. Knowing this we should be ready to explore beliefs, hopes and feelings with each other. There is no monopoly on truth - but we do need to take a position. To act we must come to some decisions about what may help us to live fulfilled lives e.g. having food in our stomachs, a roof over our heads, a chance to contribute to society and so on. Some people argue (after Maslow) that there is a hierarchy of needs around such matters - that we need to eat and have shelter before we look to other areas of fulfilment. Others disagree. Wisdom lies in not having fixed ideas here, but in taking a position and modifying it in the light of experience. We must have some humility — to be open to others, to experiences and to criticism.

This is a theme picked up by writers like Ronald A. Heifetz. He argues that true leaders are educators. Their task is to work with communities to face problems and lead themselves rather than to influence people to agree to a particular position. They help to build environments in which people can reflect upon how they can help with solving problems and with achieving goals. Furthermore, we can add, there is a need to develop people’s ability to make decisions, work together and think in ways that respect others.


I feel if there's openness and honest sharing, I think you can deal with (things). If the climate is not set, people won't share and (things) are harder to deal with.

Alongside spreading ownership and cultivating learning we need to develop open and productive ways of sharing our thoughts and feelings. This isn’t just so that we can make better decisions, but also so we can talk and be with others. Through this we may learn about them, ourselves, and find our place in the world. In short, this means developing conversations that involve people, deepen understanding and help us make sound judgements and decisions.

Good conversation involves us in co-operating, thinking of each other’s feelings and experiences, and giving each room to talk. It is for this reason that Peter Senge accords dialogue a central role in the learning organization. The virtues it involves are central to building stronger and healthier communities and organizations:

In good conversation the topic takes over. It leads us, rather than us leading it. Sometimes we may interpret this as the speaker leading the group.

I think if you're discussing or conversing with a group, when anybody talks I suppose they lead the conversation in a certain direction, therefore, however short or long it may be, they're taking a leadership role in that group.

One way of trying to work out whether it is a particular person leading, or if the conversation itself has taken over, is to think about people’s frame of mind. For example, are they going into a conversation thinking they are right? If we are trying to win the argument or score points then we are less likely to hear the truth in what others are saying. Playing that sort of game can result in everyone losing out. Conversation flows. It takes on different shapes and forms. If we keep hitting the same line then knowledge doesn’t deepen; wisdom doesn’t grow. Where conversation has taken over, people run with the exchanges and gain learning from that. It turns into a journey of discovery rather than a route with a fixed destination. For leadership this can be liberating. It means that as individuals we don’t have to know the answers. What we need is to develop ways of being in conversation (including silence) that allow those answers to surface.

How do we do this? We deliberate. This entails weighing up situations and coming to an understanding. Crucially, it also involves coming to decisions. This requires:

People need to be involved in ways that allow them to face-up to situations and take responsibility. Often there will be times when individuals and groups require help to work together. Such facilitation may come from people within a group (and we may label it as leadership), or it may come from someone like an informal educator. Relationships, and how people feel about each other, often get in the way. Here ‘leaders’ or facilitators take on a special role. They can help people to shift from a focus on the topic to the processes they are going through and the feelings involved (and vice versa). All this can help build an environment in which there is respect and sharing.

Uncovering what it is that people want to talk about, defining issues, weighing up alternatives and making decisions on ways forward are not easy. They do not happen in some simple step-by-step fashion. There is ebb and flow. Rushing towards a decision might bring some sense of achievement but can crowd out the richness of dialogue. Going with the flow can allow people the space and time to make wise choices. Balance this with a concern for focus, relationships and feelings, and the virtues of conversation, and we open up a space where wisdom can flourish.

In conclusion
In this and the last chapter we have seen some deeply contrasting views of leadership. There are various ways of talking about these, but we thought the most helpful for the moment was to compare classical and shared leadership (see Exhibit 1).
Presented like this we can see how easy it is for people to misunderstand each other. When we talk of leadership are we looking to position or process, individual activity or social interaction, orders or conversation? What one person means can be very different to another. It is also clear why many informal educators like youth workers are unhappy talking of leadership. Their understanding often leans to the classical. If it were the other way it might be a very different picture. ‘Shared leadership’ carries some familiar qualities for informal educators.

Exhibit 1: Classical and shared leadership compared

Classical leadership

Displayed by a person’s position in a group or hierarchy.

Leadership evaluated by whether the leader solves problems.

Leaders provide solutions and answers.

Distinct differences between leaders and followers: character, skill, etc.

Communication is often formal.

Can often rely on secrecy, deception and payoffs
Shared leadership

Identified by the quality of people’s interactions rather than their position.
Leadership evaluated by how people are working together.

All work to enhance the process and to make it more fulfilling.

People are interdependent. All are active participants
 in the process of leadership.

Communication is crucial with a stress on conversation.

Values democratic processes, honesty and shared ethics. Seeks a common good.

Drawing from material in Gloria Nemerowicz and Eugene Rosi (1997) Education for Leadership and Social Responsibility, London: Falmer Press. Page 16.

Both approaches have their pitfalls. We have already discussed some of the problems with classical approaches. Here we highlight four associated with shared leadership. First, the emphasis on process can lead to a lack of attention to product or outcome. It can provide an alibi for laziness and incompetence when little is achieved. Care needs to be taken not to lose sight of the question or problem that is the subject of decision-making.

Second, the emphasis on group life within shared leadership approaches may mean that the excellence or flair of the individual is not rewarded. The person concerned can experience this as unfair and demotivating — and the group may lose out as a result. Resentment might grow, and innovative solutions to problems may not be forthcoming. There will be times when it makes sense to follow the lead of a gifted individual.

Third, the commitments, understandings and practices of shared leadership are sophisticated and it is easy to see why, at this level alone, people may shy away from it. It is an ‘ideal model’ and, as such, can easily mutate.

Fourth, all models of leadership are culturally specific. What may be viewed as appropriate in one society or group may not be so in another.

This said, thinking about leadership in these ways allows us to begin to get to the heart of what it may involve — and how we may respond.

Further reading

Grint, K. (ed.) (1997) Leadership. Classical, contemporary and critical approaches, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 385 + xvii pages. Excellent collection of key discussions of classical, traditional, modern and alternative forms of leadership.

Kouzes, J. M. and Posner, B. Z. (1995) The Leadership Challenge, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 390 pages. Revised edition of an established text that offers a presentation of leadership set on a framework for leadership development.

Heifetz, R. A. (1994) Leadership Without Easy Answers, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press. 348 + xi pages. Just about the best of the more recent books on leadership. Looks to bring back ethical questions to the centre of debates around leadership, and turns to the leader as educator. A particular emphasis on the exploration of leadership within authority and non-authority relationships. Good on distinguishing between technical and adaptive situations.

Johnson, C. E. (2001) Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership. Casting light or shadow, Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. 260+xii pages. An interesting, practice-oriented exploration of the ethical dimension of leadership (and what in Heifetz’s analysis could be described as ‘pseudo-leadership’. Part one uses the metaphor of shadow to examine some more questionable aspects; part two turns ‘inwards’ to the character and disposition of leaders; part three discusses ethical standards and strategies; and part four the process of shaping ethical contexts.

Wright, P. (1996) Managerial Leadership, London: Routledge. 260 + x pages. More of a traditional textbook approach (which may come as a relief to those over-exposed to the racier, populist texts that dominate this area). A careful dissecting of this 'elusive' notion. Chapters on the meaning and measurement of leadership; management; early approaches — traits and styles; situational style theories of leadership; situational style theories — some general issues; alternative approaches; self-management; modern trait theories; charismatic and related forms of leadership; conclusions.


Bass, B. M. (1990) Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership (3e), Ne York: Free Press.

Burbules, N. C. (1993) Dialogue in Teaching, New York: Teachers College Press.

Gastil, J. (1997) ‘A definition and illustration of democratic leadership’ in K. Grint (ed.) Leadership, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kekes, J. (1995) Moral Wisdom and Good Lives, Ithaca, NY.: Cornell University Press.

Manz, C. C. and Henry P. Sims Jr., H. P. (1989) Superleadership: Leading others to lead themselves, New York: Prentice Hall.

Nemerowicz, G. and Rosi, E. (1997) Education for Leadership and Social Responsibility, London: Falmer.

An earlier version of this piece first appeared as Chapter 2 of Doyle, M. E. and Smith, M. K. (1999) Born and Bred? Leadership, heart and informal education, London: YMCA George Williams College/The Rank Foundation.

Note: All the quotations printed in italic are taken from interviews with informal educators – youth workers, community educators and housing workers. Some of the interviews form part of the Born and Bred? CD created by Peter Cutts. A further eight workers were interviewed by Huw Blacker in March and April 1999.

Page reference: Doyle, M. E. and Smith, M. K. (2001) ‘Shared leadership’, the encyclopedia of informal education,