The continuous adaptation of flatter organizational structures and the concomitant rise of self-managing teams represents unique challenges to developing leadership that would enable team effectiveness (Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007). According to Day, Gronn, and Salas (2004) the complexity of team work environments coupled with the ambiguity of group tasks makes it “unlikely that a single external leader can successfully perform all necessary leadership functions” (as cited in Carson et al., 2007, p.1217). Furthermore, the rapid emergence of virtual teams as the extension of workplace globalization poses additional barriers to traditional applications of hierarchical leadership due to the lack of face-to-face contact (Hoch & Kozlowski, 2014). In addition, newly emergent factors such as geographic dispersion, often asynchronous communications, complex media applications, as well as cultural differentials are often misunderstood within the capacities of traditional leadership that originates from an assigned individual (Hoch & Kozlowski, 2014). As a consequence, traditional leadership behaviors including leader-member relationship development, group motivation, and social dynamics management become increasingly difficult, time consuming, and often ineffective. Given that the impacts of hierarchical leadership appear to be diminished within virtual team environments (Hoch & Kozlowski, 2014), the emergence of these groups demands new solutions to leadership approaches. As one such approach, shared leadership might offer significant advantages in supplementing failures of traditional leadership, in particular when managing virtual teams.
According to early observations by Gibb (1954), “Leadership is probably best conceived as a group quality, as a set of functions which must be carried out by the group” (as cited in Carson et al., 2007, p.1217). Building upon this sentiment, the further research concluded that distributed, or shared leadership, where team members are open to reciprocal influence from each other, can add significantly to the team’s competitive advantage and the overall level of performance (Day et al., 2004 as cited in Carson et al., 2007). Given that leadership originates from multiple willing sources of influence, team members serve as both leaders as well as the followers in any given situation thus offering their unique talents and perspectives according to the needs of others. In other words, shared leadership arises from a collective responsibility in decision-making processes, whereby team members support each other towards given objectives (Hoch & Kozlowski, 2014). In virtual teams, shared leadership can compensate the lack of face-to-face communications by building trust from the perception of team support and cohesion (Hoch & Kozlowski, 2014). From a practical standpoint, shared leadership necessitates initiative and innovation to manage challenges that cannot be addressed via traditional leadership. Therefore, as a collective behavior, shared leadership provides a stronger foundation for team development, especially when accounting for different levels of team virtuality (Hoch & Kozlowski, 2014).
In my current academic experience, having numerous group assignments conducted via virtual teams has been an excellent exercise in shared leadership development. While normally I tend to initiate structure, I often fail to maintain the motivational force throughout the assignment. In one of my recent work teams I found that all members were willing to offer their own leadership throughout the project. As a result, all of us would gravitate towards moderating a specific behavior, whether it was task or relationship-based, which in turn facilitated the emergence of a more effective approach towards the given objectives. Being a task-oriented individual, I would focus on the primary objectives; meanwhile another team member would work on maintaining relationships, whereas the third would offer innovative problem-solving techniques. With the continuous support from various team members, I found that my own limitations as a leader were well compensated by other, equally capable individuals. Furthermore, despite the complexity of our virtual team environment where we would never meet in person, many communicative challenges were efficiently overcome via proactive involvement of all team members. As a result of shared leadership, I noticed greater engagement, positive and constructive exchanges, and the overall improved quality of performance of our team throughout the semester. While normally I would prefer working individually and rely on my own skills and efforts, based on my recent experience, I would certainly stress the importance of shared leadership development in academic teams.
To conclude, it is important to address the potential limitations of shared leadership within teams. First, little is known about the mechanisms of collective influence that link a variety of possible leadership styles and team performance (Carson et al., 2007). Put differently, future research needs to address how leader and follower roles interrelate and complement each other in shared leadership team environments. Second, a number of external factors, including the availability of outside mentorship, group size and maturity, job specifications, and cultural predispositions (Carson et al., 2007) might offer additional insights on emergence of shared leadership. Ultimately, teams appear to work more efficiently when all members share the responsibilities and joys of leadership. Given the pervasive presence of teams in most contemporary organizational activities, it would seem only reasonable to utilize the advantages that shared leadership has to offer.
Carson, J. B., Tesluk, P. E., & Marrone, J. A. (2007). Shared leadership in teams: An investigation of antecedent conditions and performance. Academy of management Journal, 50(5), 1217-1234.
Hoch, J. E., & Kozlowski, S. W. (2014). Leading virtual teams: Hierarchical leadership, structural supports, and shared team leadership. Journal of applied psychology, 99(3), 390-403.