Can leadership be shared?

Of course it can. We share it all the time. Most academics agree with the definition of leadership as a process of influence towards a goal. It’s not a single action, it’s not a personality trait. Leadership is dynamic, evolves over time and is interactive. So leadership is per definition shared. No leader leads everything all the time. He* slices his responsibility into parts and delegates them. He leaves things undone and unsaid for others to do or say, consciously or not. He institutionalizes his leadership in policies, strategies, structure and systems. The more complex the organization is, the more leadership is distributed.

On the other hand, it’s true that most books on leadership, most interviews in newspapers and most films picture hero leaders. There’s seemingly a deep human need to look at our leaders as the people in charge, the deciders, the one’s who make the difference. I’m reading a book on “De beslissers” (The deciders) by Marc Gevaert (2010). He explains how 2×25 deciders changed the world in modern times, starting with Napoleon and ending with Khomeini. ‘Pour la petite histoire”, only three women made the list: Eva Perón, Rosa Luxemburg and Marie Curie. Each story proves the unicity of leaders: there’s no exact formula for leadership. But there’s one common element: they are all described as individuals.

This romanticized leadership is as deceiving as models on the catwalk are. Real life leadership is complex, like humans and  a fortiori, groups. Leadership proceeds in an unclear, interdependant way, through a mix of logic, guts and emotions, dealing with the context as it presents itself. Leadership is tedious, dirty, hard work and struggle. It’s only in hindsight that we clean up the mess and make up a story of true leadership, clearcut decisions and grand schemes behind the works. And we do it without consent of the leader. Most of the time the leader understands the limits of his impact and doesn’t feel inclined to take all credits. Unless he starts believing the stories about him. And that is the moment that he starts to be in trouble.

But we need stories. They entertain us. And sometimes they inspire and challenge us. We discover ourselves through confrontation with other images, pictures or stories. They give meaning. “Great leader” stories are as good as documentaries on wildlife to develop insights on leadership.

As long as we don’t forget: leadership is shared. Per definition. Allways. And more and more. We all lead together.

Koen Marichal, 28 December 2010

* I use the words ‘he’ and ‘his’ without ‘gender’ meaning. Using he/she and his/her would limit the fluency of the text too much.


About Koen Marichal

Director Future Leadership Initiative at Antwerp Management School
This entry was posted in 2. Shared & collective, Comments & events, English and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Can leadership be shared?

  1. Pingback: Leadership thought 9: Fools rush in where angels fear to thread (A. Pope) | Thefutureleadershipinitiative

  2. Pingback: De drie nieuwe poten van leiderschap? | Thefutureleadershipinitiative

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