The Whys and Hows of Shared Leadership in Higher Education

May 10, 2017

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By Elizabeth Holcombe & Adrianna Kezar

Declining budgets. Free speech and student activism. Racial tensions on campus. New technologies. Accountability pressures. These are just some of the complex issues confronting higher education leaders today. While higher education as an enterprise has previously undergone periods of significant change, today’s environment is arguably unique in terms of the sheer number of areas that demand change. In fact, these complex environments require new forms of leadership, including forms borrowed from other sectors.

Collaborative or shared leadership is one such leadership style that will empower leaders and ultimately allow campuses to become nimbler in light of changing circumstances. More common in the private sector, shared leadership is emerging as a successful model in higher education, with a small but growing body of research behind it.

Shared forms of leadership dispense with the idea of a leader-follower binary, maximizing the contributions many more individuals can make to solving difficult problems (Gronn, 2002; Spillane, Halverson, & Diamond, 2001). Shared leadership recognizes the importance of leaders in positions of authority, but focuses on how those in power can delegate authority, capitalize on expertise within the organization, and create appropriate infrastructure so that organizations can capitalize on the leadership of multiple people. Leadership is a process—not an individual—and can be supported by professional development, access to information, team-based work and incentives.

Shared leadership is different from shared governance. Shared governance is based on the principles of faculty and administration having distinct areas of delegated authority and decision making. Shared leadership, by contrast, is more flexible and identifies various individuals on campus with relevant expertise. This allows multiple perspectives rather than those of a single decision-making body; for example, only faculty or only administrators.

Forms of Shared Leadership

What might shared leadership look like on college campuses? Several major models of shared leadership can inform our thinking in higher education (Denis, Langley, & Sergi, 2012). The first is co-leadership or pooled leadership, in which small groups of people share leadership in formal top executive functions. In these situations, shared leadership is built into the structure of top executive roles. The roles of the co-leaders are specialized, differentiated and complementary (Hodgson, Levinson, & Zaleznik, 1965). For example, a school within a larger university that wants to dedicate equal resources to research and teaching might appoint co-deans, with one dean focused on managing research for the school and the other focused on initiatives and policies to improve teaching.

The second approach, team leadership, is typically associated with the mutual sharing of leadership functions among individuals within pre-existing teams. It involves both vertical or traditional top-down influence and horizontal, lateral or peer influence (Pearce & Conger, 2003). For example, members of a student affairs team might jointly manage leadership programs and student government, social and cultural activities, and community service programs to capitalize on their combined expertise and potential overlap among programs, such as student leaders participating in community service events or club leaders requiring leadership training. Rather than creating specialized functions with a single leader of each, a team leadership approach gives everyone shared responsibility; leaders work out who takes charge on each task or project.

A third approach to shared leadership is known as distributed leadership. Unlike leadership sharing that occurs within top executive roles or in teams, in this approach, leadership is dispersed across organizations or even across organizational boundaries (Spillane, Halverson, & Diamond, 2001; Denis, Langley, & Sergi, 2012). Different individuals at multiple levels of the organization cross organizational boundaries to exert influence during particular projects or times of change. In higher education, this approach to shared leadership often exists in the form of task forces or committees with members at varying levels of seniority taking on broad, cross-cutting issues such as first-year experience or general education reform.

While slightly different from one another, these models of shared leadership all share some common characteristics:

1. A greater number of individuals are in leadership roles than in traditional models.

2. Leaders and followers are seen as interchangeable.

3. Leadership is not based on position or authority.

4. Multiple perspectives and expertise are capitalized on for problem solving, innovation, and change.

5. Collaboration and interactions across the organization are typically emphasized.

Benefits of Shared Leadership and How to Promote It

As detailed in our report on the subject, studies of shared leadership have identified many positive outcomes for teams and organizations that adopt this approach. These include improvements in attitudes and cognition, such as increased satisfaction and trust among team members; improved behavior, such as more constructive interaction and social integration; and improved effectiveness, including in task performance and student learning.

New research shows great promise in the use of shared leadership on college campuses. Findings show that shared leadership can create greater cognitive complexity, innovation and peer support in times of challenge and crisis. It can increase accountability within organizations and improve the implementation of organizational decisions. Shared leadership can also lead to greater diversity among leaders, as women and racial and ethnic minority groups often express a preference for this approach.

In order to reap these benefits, campuses should ensure that shared leadership structures and processes are authentic and thoughtfully designed. Conditions that promote and sustain shared leadership include team empowerment; supportive vertical or hierarchical leaders; autonomy; shared purpose or goal; external coaching; accountability structures; interdependence; fairness of rewards; and shared cognition. We describe these areas in more detail in our paper and also provide a few examples of what this could look like in practice below.

Putting Shared Leadership Into Action on Campus

Research suggests a range of strategies and approaches to promoting and implementing collaborative and shared forms of leadership on campus. Leaders should start by identifying critical complex challenges at their institutions—thorny issues that have not been well-served by traditional or existing strategies. Examples of some of these complex issues include doing away with courses that result in high attrition, supporting transfer student success, implementing new assessment mechanisms, or creating new academic programs to meet a community need.

Once such challenges have been identified, pull together a cross-functional team of leaders from varying campus units. Think about how to bring in knowledge from across the institution; there are potential untapped reservoirs of expertise in unexpected places that could help solve problems. Moreover, this expertise might not always come from individuals in positions of hierarchical leadership. For example, an academic advisor or faculty member who works with students on a regular basis might have different insights into high course failure rates than an advising director or a dean.

After the team is established, it is critical for vertical leaders to create support structures and delegate authority so that the team is empowered to think and act creatively to solve a given problem. Support structures include professional development for the team, clearly specified roles for team members, and explicitly defined channels of communication and accountability. The support of vertical leaders is crucial for the success of shared leadership initiatives, but it is just as crucial for them to know when it is time to step back and empower the team to push the work forward. Vertical leaders must be prepared to grant the team autonomy and meaningful input into decision making so that team members remain motivated and incentivized.

Important Last Considerations: Reflecting on Our Own Views of Leadership

For colleges and universities to truly reap the benefits of more collaborative forms of leadership, institutional decision makers should be willing to thoughtfully reexamine their own conceptions of what it means to be a successful leader. If a president or provost continues to think of leadership as a solitary, heroic pursuit, any efforts to establish shared leadership structures will inevitably prove to be merely lip service and will not create meaningful change. Campus leaders are right to couple their external support for shared leadership efforts with internal reflection on how leadership can and should work in an increasingly complex higher educational system. If leaders are willing to experiment with these new approaches, their institutions stand poised to meet these complexities and challenges head-on.

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