The Rise of Shared Leadership

This is the first installment of a regular blog on leadership, where we will share insights and perspectives by UB School of Management faculty and professionals to stimulate thought and discussion. Please join in, share your thoughts and reactions, and make suggestions for future conversations.

Paul Tesluk, Dean and Professor, University at Buffalo School of Management

About 10 years ago, my colleagues and I were contacted by an organization that was interested in the work we were doing on shared leadership and employee engagement. It turns out that Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato processor, had been practicing shared leadership nearly from its inception in 1970. Paul Green Jr. and his colleagues at Morning Star contacted us because they felt that our research could help them find ways to practice shared leadership more effectively. We were amazed to learn the extent to which this organization practiced self-management and shared leadership, where everyone is expected to demonstrate leadership.

At Morning Star, there is no formal organization chart or chain of command, no formal bosses and no formal job titles for its several hundred employees (known as “colleagues”). When colleagues need new equipment, for instance, they don’t ask a manager or supervisor (there are none to ask!), they go ahead and order it and, when the equipment arrives, confirm receipt and submit the invoice to accounting for payment. For larger purchases, a small group of colleagues who need the equipment (e.g., a team in steam production) will prepare an analysis, purchasing plan and budget, and gain approval from a group of their peers responsible for large capital equipment decisions.

Colleagues at Morning Star do not receive promotions — after all, there is no formal hierarchy to climb. They also do not receive bonuses or pay increases from their bosses — again, there are no bosses. Instead of seeking promotions, Morning Star colleagues negotiate with their peers for greater responsibility by demonstrating how they have contributed to the mission of the business and their ability to expand their roles. And, by taking on expanded responsibilities and demonstrating how they contribute to the team and exceed performance expectations, colleagues receive greater pay based on decisions from a peer-elected colleague compensation committee. (To learn more about Morning Star, read the Harvard Business Review article “First, Let’s Fire All the Managers.”)

Read the Harvard Business Review article “First, Let’s Fire All the Managers.”

While Morning Star might be on the far end of the continuum between “extreme self-management and shared leadership” and “extreme hierarchical, command-and-control leadership,” we see more and more organizations moving toward and adopting shared leadership. As the pace of innovation increases with greater reliance on the ability to make quick decisions; as workplaces become more complex and dynamic and require teams to harness different types of expertise; and as organizations increasingly need to be able to seize opportunities and move quickly to gain competitive advantage, teams simply cannot be effective if they are highly reliant on a single leader to make decisions and provide direction to the team. It’s not surprising to see industry leaders like Southwest Airlines, Haier (China’s fastest growing and now world leader maker of appliances), and online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos use shared leadership to out-innovate and compete their rivals.

Four Conditions for Shared Leadership

In our initial research [PDF], my colleagues and I found that shared leadership in teams comes about when four conditions are present.

1. Team members need to have a shared purpose that provides a clear and engaging direction. At Morning Star, each colleague develops a personal mission statement, shaped by input from team members. This process ensures that each member of a team (e.g., a 10-person team working in steam production at a processing facility) has a clear understanding of his or her role and how that role connects to, aligns with and supports others in and outside of the team.

2. Employees need to be able to trust their team members. True shared leadership is dynamic and flexible. There are times when a team will encounter a situation or challenge that requires specific knowledge or skills. Shared leadership allows a team member with that expertise to step forward and exert leadership while other team members become followers, trusting that emergent leader and supporting his or her initiative and direction. Without that shared trust in each other’s capabilities, shared leadership is more difficult to develop. To facilitate trust at Morning Star, each team member has a clearly outlined set of roles and responsibilities on the team and identifies their internal and external customers. Morning Star calls this a Colleague Letter of Understanding (CLOU), which is available to everyone in the organization on the company’s intranet.

3. Individuals need to have the ability to influence others on the team and feel that they have true voice. At Morning Star, they take steps to encourage team member voice in several ways. One is by ensuring that team members learn to constructively disagree with one another and work through their differences. They learn how members of their team experience and deal with conflict, so everyone can feel more confident and capable of sharing ideas even if they believe others might see things differently or potentially disagree. Morning Star also explicitly selects people who feel comfortable speaking up as part of the interview and hiring process.

4. To encourage team members to feel comfortable stepping forward as emergent leaders and stepping back and following others when circumstances warrant, individuals need to experience social support. This is true not just at Morning Star, but at other organizations that emphasize shared leadership. For instance, at Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer with legendary customer service, teams are expected to spend 20 percent of their work time on activities that build a supportive environment, rather than solely focusing on daily tasks or projects.

Based on our research, these conditions create a team environment that supports shared leadership. What are your experiences with shared leadership? Have you found it to be effective in teams you have been on or led? What has worked for you, and what has not?


Paul Tesluk is professor and dean of the University at Buffalo School of Management. He is an expert on leadership, team design and organizational change and effectiveness.

3 Replies to “The Rise of Shared Leadership”

  1. Comment on #3 Constructive Disagreement within the team…As we all have this innate desire to be right, I have always promoted the attitude that as individuals “we reserve the right to get smarter”. So, instead of someone being wrong that person can deflect the win/lose paradigm and feel better about getting smarter. Of course as you may expect the only way this seems to really catch on is if you model it yourself. When it works there is little need for excuses or blame. The real challenge though is recognizing these opportunities to model this behavior and belief in yourself.

      • That concept of “we reserve the right to get smarter” is indeed a great way to operationalize the principle. Along those lines and to your point of needing to recognize the opportunities as they happen “in the moment,” I once saw a team leader stop the discussion happening in her team involving a debate on alternative courses of action in response to a problem…things were becoming quite heated in a debate among several members of the team. She stopped the discussion, not because it was becoming intense, but because she wanted to point out how it was helping the team be more intelligent on the issues and therefore make a better decision. As she said to her team, “this debate we are having is the type of constructive conflict we need to have more often when we make important decisions.” It was a great example of how leaders can make it safe for teams to mix it up and be better for it.

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