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Looking to multiply your team’s innovative potential? Share the lead!

By Dr. Des. Karolina Nieberle andProfessor Susanne Braun- January 2020

Leadership is one of the key influences on a team’s creative potential. In modern work environments and especially in the entrepreneurial team context, generating the best and most useful ideas rarely depends on the influence of a single individual. Leading in the collective, or shared leadership, represents a promising new route towards innovation.

Creating and implementing new ideas is at the heart of what startups and entrepreneurial teams are striving for in today’s fast and competitive business world. They are challenged to handle complex tasks and emerging problems quickly. More often than not, the issues at hand will stretch the knowledge, skills and decision-making capacities of single leaders to their limits. Rather, multiple individuals are needed who share the lead.

Recent research has diverted our attention from traditional ideas of leadership resting within a single individual towards leadership in the collective. Specifically, sharing leadership describes a dynamic and interactive influence process among team members, who lead one another towards the achievement of shared goals or even visions. Across different points in time and dependent on different tasks at hand, team members take over both leadership and followership. Several studies now support the idea that when team members share the lead, they reach better outcomes – especially when tasks are complex and solutions require creativity and innovation.

But how do entrepreneurial teams get to share the lead? And how can we help them to multiply their innovative potential through shared leadership? In an ongoing international research collaboration with Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, researchers from the School’s Centre for Leadership and Followership are currently exploring this question. We interviewed several entrepreneurial and startup teams in Germany and spoke to their members about how they share the lead.

To begin with, most teams combined shared leadership with more traditional forms of leadership. For example, managers kept an overview of ongoing processes in the team, made sure the right person was assigned to the right issue, and stimulated idea generation through questions and critical feedback. At the same time, they left space for shared leadership to emerge. For example, they did not pull rank in critical decisions, but spent time on team discussions and supported the team with their strategic knowledge. Managers therefore played a motivating and enabling role for their team’s sharing of leadership.

Interestingly, not all team members were comfortable in labelling themselves as ‘leaders’, yet most of them described some behaviours through which they shared the lead in their teams. This reveals that although team members are able to be both (a leader and a follower at different points in time), how they define themselves in terms of self-identity may still reside within their formal follower role.

These results show that there’s development work to be done. Clearly, shared leadership won’t fall into your lap. Hence, we identified some of the most important factors to support teams in their quest towards sharing leadership:

  1. Claiming and granting

    Teams in which individual team members’ ‘claims’ for leadership were reciprocated by ‘grants’ for leadership from the other team members.

    To share the lead, individual team members need to signal that they want to take over responsibility and leadership. At the same time, team members need to know each other’s expertise and be willing to grant each other leadership in relevant areas. Being both a leader and a follower at different points in time is challenging for individual team members and requires them to be very sensitive to situational needs and interpersonal cues.
  2. Open discussions and critical feedback

    Teams that jointly discuss their ideas and gained feedback from each other.

    On the road to shared leadership, teams are recommended to incorporate brief, but frequent feedback sessions within their day-to-day work in order to stimulate discussion and critical feedback.
  3. Creating cohesion

    Teams that shared values and standards while at the same time realised each other’s complementary expertise.

Knowing what one has in common (i.e., a shared vision and shared standards of the team’s pursuits) as well as engaging in activities that foster knowledge about each other’s strengths and weaknesses created the right environment to share the lead.

Sharing the lead is an exciting prospect and a challenge for entrepreneurial teams. To multiply your team’s innovative potential, think about how to best support each team member individually to be able to do both – leading and following – and how to strengthen critical discussion and the collective vision within the team.

Are you part of an entrepreneurial or startup team and looking to reflect and work on your leadership structures? We are looking for collaborators in this exciting research project. Get in touch with Karolina Nieberle, Postdoctoral Research Associate: karolina.w.nieberle@durham.ac.uk

Visit our Leadership and Followership research centre here