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How to Co-Lead a Team

Jul. 14, 2015 Harvard Business Review

We don’t lead alone. We lead with others. The days of the ‘Great Man’ theory of Leadership – where one sole leader rules over the masses from their ivory tower, are long gone.

Some of us quite literally lead with another person – we co-lead a project, a team, or an organization with a peer. A study by Pearce and Sims (2002), published in Group Dynamics, found that shared leadership is a useful predictor of team effectiveness. Other research suggests shared leadership can also lead to greater team interaction, increased collaboration and coordination, as well as novel and more innovative solutions. But while co-leadership can be energizing and rewarding, if the relationship isn’t strong, the arrangement can easily become draining and frustrating.

Success in co-leadership begins with commitment. When colleagues and I designed and facilitated the first collaborative training between the police forces of two polities with a decades-long history of conflict, we had the opportunity to see co-leadership in its most intense and most powerful form. Not merely “putting the past aside” but rather prioritising a joint, peaceful future, the leaders from each of the forces ensured a successful training that rolled out throughout their communities. Their joint success was not only a result of their commitment to the program and its objectives, but their visible commitment to one another, which began with a steeled choice and ended with a valued relationship that would go on to impact countless others.

Whether we are recruited or promoted into a role to lead with someone else, we start a new project or venture with a chosen partner, or we actively bring someone on board to lead alongside us, co-leadership is a skill that most of us need to strengthen.

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