Agile methods suggest replacing top-down, command-and-control management with empowered teams and shared leadership. That all sounds nice, but what exactly is shared leadership and how do you get it to happen?
Katzenbach & Smith authors of the book “The Wisdom of Teams” explain that shared leadership can occur “where a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” - in other words, when we have a well formed team with a strong sense of commitment. In these circumstances team members know that they possess the technical knowledge necessary to make the best local decisions and will self-organize and encourage each other to achieve results.
Examples of effective shared leadership include the Orpheus orchestra that I wrote about in 2008. The Orpheus orchestra has no assigned conductor, instead performers rotate the role, providing unique perspectives and also broadening their experience. Unlike your first guess, this conductor-less orchestra does not sound terrible, but instead have won a number of Grammy awards and perform to sold-out audiences worldwide.
The other classic example is geese flying in “V” formation that reduces drag and extends daily flight range by up to 50% compared to individual birds. All birds take a turn on the front, maintaining direction and parting the air for the following birds. The rest of the flock “honk” encouragement at the lead bird to keep up the speed and when it tires it returns to an easier position in the “V”. If any bird gets too weak or injured, usually two other birds will drop out of formation to rest with it and form a new “V” once it is ready.
These examples are used because they easily show the advantages, but they do not hint at how to transform a dysfunctional group or even normal team into a high performing team using shared leadership. The good news is that providing you have some patience the process is achievable and within your control.
We have to start by understanding and believing in the benefits of leadership ourselves. Jeffery Pinto author of “Project Leadership: From Theory to Practice” describes these core leadership practices:
If these resonate as making sense and represent how you would like to work then you are already at the first step “Conceptualize” – thinking about these techniques and beginning to understand the benefits of leadership separate from management and the power of motivation.
The next step is to practice applying these ideas to your own work. Start following these principles in your everyday work. You will fail at some at first and others will work in easy situations and not in difficult ones. This is normal and to be expected with any skills acquisition. It is easier to ride a bike along a flat straight path than up a rocky, twisting trail, but you will get better with practice. The good news is that if you are just using these approaches on your own everyday work no one will notice or mind if you sometimes stumble.
However, as you get better at them your work and interactions with others will get noticed. The traits of honesty, being inquisitive and open to learning, encouraging others, and sharing praise will likely not go unnoticed. (I am not saying it will be necessarily rewarded well, you might just get given a bunch more work since here is someone who cares and can make a difference.) This leads to the final step:
Encourage others to work this way. Help lead them through the same steps of building empathy for wanting to work in a more meaningful and personally rewarding way. Explain leadership concepts and how a motivated team willingly pulls a rope and management attempts to push it.
The goal is to create an environment within your circle of influence where people understand and want to work in a more rewarding way. Where, yes they have to step up and take a turn at the front which is always hard work and daunting the first time you try it, but is also more rewarding and you get to steer for a while. As you succeed your circle of influence will get larger, moving from a couple of colleagues to a whole team and then a department or organization.
Obviously this is not a fool-proof way of transitioning from management to leadership. It may not work in dysfunctional organizations where people are just looking to do the minimum possible, but then not much will. It does however provide a possible path towards a better working environment, and, as with any lasting change, it starts with yourself - being the change you want to see in the world.
(Note: This article was first published at ProjectManagement.com, here)