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Shared Leadership as a Catalyst for Change

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – Traditional African proverb

To keep pace with today’s educational demands, teachers, principals, and superintendents work ardently to counteract the traditional structures that often keep them isolated in their practice. In order to continuously and consistently zero in on high leverage goals, strategies, and outcomes for high performance success, it takes deliberate collective effort over time. High performance practitioners know that shared leadership is a key concept and critical best practice in successful learning organizations.

Shared leadership is the effective distribution of leading and learning opportunities, balanced with the interdependence of trusting and respectful relationships, designed to support the greatest good. The once ‘all-knowing’ leadership approach (the “me”) is replaced by one who is committed to extending and supporting leadership in authentic and symbiotic ways (the “we”).

The Shared Leadership Disposition

Leaders who practice shared leadership believe in distributing their leadership both as a norm and a practice, in order to help challenge and stretch individual and collective capacity. These leaders communicate purpose with honesty, transparency, grit, and tenacity in a way that resonates among stakeholders, conveying trust and integrity. They also routinely scout out human capital; seeking to engage and empower others by spotlighting successful strategies, highlighting promising practices and promoting fail-safe opportunities.

These leaders accept that shared leadership is emotionally-charged work that must be continually guided and nurtured. To that end, they possess a strong emotional quotient—attuned to the attitudes, perceptions, and feelings of others, always ready to accept feedback and make visible changes. This type of leader is known for being relationship-centric and must be adept at managing competing ideas, creative tensions, and changing roles. The work is much deeper than one-off delegation; it’s about being perceptive and engaging in constant analytical thinking—matching up ideas, skills, and passions among diverse people in various layers of roles.

This drive; this disposition; this desire—to continually harness talent in order to maximize the organization’s total sum potential—is nothing short of a daily phenomenon. Savvy leaders who practice shared leadership appear to come naturally equipped with these exceptional skills and somehow make heavy lifting look easy; but don’t be deceived—it takes years of practice and refinement under the work of an expert leadership mentor to hone one’s craft.

Shared leaders ultimately multiply learning opportunities for everyone. It’s not any surprise that a leader who demonstrates a true shared leadership approach is often deeply admired and respected among stakeholders, and most importantly, has a durable effect on student and adult learning.

Ways to Practice Shared Leadership

Leaders practice shared leadership in various ways. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, they demonstrate certain types of actions that become characteristic of their style. For example, they:

  • Honor professional autonomy, individual creativity and passion-filled learning opportunities
  • Ask colleagues what they believe their greatest strengths are and why
  • Seek to capitalize on professionals’ strengths by building relationships across colleagues by matching up unique aptitudes with interests and passions among stakeholders
  • Encourage innovation and risk-taking, and share successes as well as failures without consequence
  • Practice giving and receiving constructive feedback
  • Trust professional decision-making when it has been executed in informed and thoughtful ways
  • Serve as a support from behind or the side, rather than a spokesperson at the front or the top
  • Circle back to colleagues to ask their professional opinions and feedback
  • Monitor and adjust the course based on observations and feedback

Transforming Traditional Structures

Shared leadership can be observed and practiced in both familiar and new ways. This can only happen with ongoing conversations horizontally and vertically within the organization, with and without the formal leader in the room. Teams, committees, and meetings can be transformed into “shared leadership think tanks” to exchange diverse viewpoints and develop new ideas. When open conversations are held routinely in open forums, this behavior becomes the norm and reduces the likelihood for unhealthy forms of dissension. Open conversation forums also help the organization productively struggle through idea-shaping, alternative perspectives and unexpected solutions. The more practiced the organization becomes in shared leadership work, the more it sees conflict as a natural part of the collaboration cycle thereby, increasing its capacity to work through dilemmas without the leader. Leaders who are committed to shared leadership principles seek to create multiple open conversation forums throughout their organizations. When exercised together, these forums become reliable and routine structures in which to promote shared ownership:

  • Action research teams
  • Article/book study groups
  • Coaching models
  • Critical Friends groups
  • Data teams
  • Department meetings
  • Grade level teams
  • Interdisciplinary teams
  • Interview committees
  • Leadership teams
  • Lesson study groups
  • Needs assessment work
  • Panel discussions
  • Peer/lesson observations
  • Peer sharing at faculty meetings
  • Professional learning communities
  • Retreats
  • Shared goal setting meetings
  • Shared walkthroughs
  • Staff/student/parent council meetings
  • Taskforces
  • Unconferences
  • Vertical learning teams

In essence, the leader and organization communicate, “This is how we get the work done.” By updating traditional structures with shared stewardship and shared decision-making opportunities, all stakeholders have an equal opportunity to influence the direction and outcomes of the organization.

Navigating the Challenges of Shared Leadership

Leaders know full well the complexities of shared leadership, too. They understand that a culture of democratic ideas and decision-making doesn’t come quick and easy. Rather, it takes time to build and comes loaded with with risks, doubt, confusion, and sometimes public failures along the way. Savvy leaders recognize it’s an uncharted, but worthwhile journey. To best support, leaders can:

  • Promote a culture that seeks to understand by probing varied perspectives, opinions and ideas
  • Model open-mindedness and a humble neutrality as they embrace differences of opinion
  • Over-communicate the “why” (the purpose of the work)
  • Sense when to lead solidly from the center, versus when to lead with courage from the edge
  • Pull on both ends of the organizational spectrum—engaging both loyal followers and the opposition to model thorough and thoughtful understanding
  • Manage and monitor issues of perceived power and potential envy among colleagues
  • Reassure that shared decisions are indeed sound ones
  • Demonstrate that behind leading is learning; and behind all learning is reflecting. Continual personal and professional reflection is everyone’s business.

It’s important to note that leaders growing shared leadership cultures embrace uncomfortable truths as their own (both inherited and owned issues) by displaying their own vulnerability—not because they want to, but because they recognize it as a pathway to personal and organizational improvement. They understand that their own level of personal reflection is directly proportional to the success of the organization’s ability to engage in open, honest communication. Leaders understand that change in shared leadership environments happen slowly and vulnerably over time. They are reminded again and again, through their own personal and professional lessons, that shared vision starts deep within the leader, before it is extended outward. In time, there is no question, leaders’ growing pains inevitably lead to dividends among the organization.

Moving Forward

Leaders modeling change for their organizations communicate that the past does not define the present, and that every day is—figuratively and literally—a new opportunity. This collective effort of professionals, teams, departments and organizations helps to lay new a foundation and build an improved framework for shared leadership. Although the leader is not at the traditional helm, the teachers and other leaders are the key capable drivers—the catalysts that provides fresh ways of approaching old problems. The leader’s role is to listen, observe and guide-from-the-side (or even from afar), helping the organization avoid the traditional spin of “this is how we’ve always done it.”

In the end, a new organizational dynamic is academically, socially, emotionally and behaviorally contracted. In essence, the organization radiates, ”This is who we are and how we do business.” From that point forward, when the leader and the organization are faced with challenges; the organization is ready to rise to uncomfortable and unexpected moments. The truth is, none of this would be possible without the struggle and coherence-building process of shared leadership. Modeling, encouraging and supporting introspection and inquiry; risk-taking and design thinking; and successes and failures make for not only a well-rounded leader, but also a resilient shared leadership culture that will stand the test of time with change and challenge as certainties in its future.

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Written by

Sandra A. Trach is Special Assistant to the Superintendent in Lexington Public Schools, Lexington, Massachusetts. Her principalships and 25 years of diverse experience have led her schools to perform at consistently high levels, and her principalships have been recognized for academic and cultural success. Sandra is a new author with Corwin who actively writes, mentors and presents nationally. You can find Sandra on Twitter @SandraTrach and sandratrach@blogspot.com.

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