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Why Shared Leadership?


All sectors of business and social purpose businesses have to respond to the changes created by this interconnected dynamic and some, like North Star Housing Group, are thinking more proactively in terms of the kind of internal world that needs to be created in order to ensure flexibility and agility in turbulent times.

Additionally and very creatively, North Star is also exploring how internal ways of operating – adult-to-adult, creative and empowering relationship – can be translated into external world interactions with customers and other stakeholders.

The development of shared leadership within the context of a more traditional hierarchy is a challenge. Hierarchy, which is only a hundred years old, is highly effective in ordering complexity, rendering it manageable through organisation and is critical in the smooth operating of sizeable entities. Where it is less effective is when the external world moves quickly. Too much reliance on hierarchy can render an organisation overly static or immobile as the internal tries to match or even slow down the external world to meet the internal.

The journey that North Star has embarked upon, as well as courage, confidence and perseverance, also calls for resilience. Creating robust internal relationships, working outside of the usual boundaries and territories whilst continuing to operate within a traditional hierarchy is challenging.

From the outside, North Star is as it appears to be – a traditionally structured Housing Association. However, venture inside and what is discovered is a vibrant, demanding and relationally-orientated environment, operating out of a developing set of shared values rather than organisational structure.

Being able to manage both within and without hierarchy certainly demands 21st century skills rather than those of a hundred years ago and those skills, alongside a developing mindset, are being enhanced and acquired throughout the organisation as all staff attend bespoke programmes of development.

Encouraging new patterns of leadership can positively benefit the organisation in areas such as innovation and creativity, bringing new ideas into action and embedding the authorities to make a difference. In addition, a loosening reliance upon traditional approaches to authority can lead to an increased connection to the values of the organisation as these collectively created and owned principles come alive and are utilised in decision making and action.

Increasingly shared leadership can lead to business success and recognition and, whilst the seeking of awards has never been a North Star pursuit, receiving the Investors In People Gold Standard has been welcomed, particularly given only 2% of companies across the UK have managed to achieve this award. Following a comprehensive Health Check, a further much wanted outcome has been a reduction of 50% in staff sickness. Both of these measurable outcomes fly in the face of early detractors who thought North Star ‘mad’ to be undertaking such dramatic shifts in leadership style and approach.

Regardless of the type of organisation, increasingly people want to move away from a transactional model of operating towards one that is more relational, which allows people to bring more of their ‘whole’ selves to the their work life. Engaging in meaningful work, influencing self and others and having greater freedom to work out what is required with others is a 21st century approach to work and North Star, through the dissemination of shared leadership is encouraging, empowering and enabling everyone to have the opportunity to grow and develop with the organisation. By moving beyond a culture focussed on those in leadership positions, shared leadership is an interconnected web of activity, operating out of a shared set of values with people working across and beyond the traditional hierarchical boundaries. This does not mean there is no leadership, quite the opposite but it is leadership through relationship rather than by rule.

The Characteristics of Shared Leadership

Shared leadership is concerned with:

  • The process of leadership – how making things happen occurs within the organisation
  • Developing participatory activity – how making things happen with others is enhanced and encouraged
  • Individual development – how the approach enables people to engage, learn and develop

Shared leadership is an organisational condition rather than a set of personal qualities and is anchored in self management, self initiative and self monitoring activities, rather than in position or role and actively supported and encouraged by the minimum of policies and procedures and the maximum of dialogue, inquiry and partnership.

So far, we have learned that shared leadership:

  • Is not about delegation but about taking responsibility
  • Requires organisational mechanisms and processes to be aligned to approach and values
  • Means that whilst everyone has the opportunity to lead, it does not mean that everybody leads all the time (situational leadership)
  • Requires time, space and the opportunity for people who have learned to comply and be silent, to learn to bring more of themselves to work
  • Requires groups to have the resources and freedom to meet, learn, plan and reflect
  • Requires a healthy relationship between responsibility and authority to act
  • Is fostered rather than mandatory
  • Is inclusive and participatory
  • Requires people to be equipped with the tools and attitudes for effective human relations
  • Requires a wiliness to work with alternative approaches to power and authority
  • Requires affective competence
  • Is context specific
  • Can mean different things to different people, therefore communication is critical
  • Creates anxiety for centralised leaders who prefer control to trusting others
  • Enables letting go more readily if there is a clear sense of the parameters for action and a shared understanding of the direction of travel.

Through working together on the North Star to 2018 strategic direction, staff within North Star have had the opportunity to influence and share understanding of the direction of travel. The challenge, as the organisation moves towards 2018, is to ensure that actions reflect strategy and that, under both internal and external pressure the commitment to a precious and pioneering approach is strengthened and sustained.