Sharing The Throne

Sharing the ThroneLessons in Collective Leadership 

By Paul Conder, Director, All Green Lights Limited


In August 2014 I was part of a series of discussions in relation to leadership and the merits of co-leadership, including at a CEO level and in a family business.  Each conversation was independent and the circumstances  were very different.  But it did prompt me to revisit some research I did in 2003.  This was the result, originally posted to this site in August 2014.


One of the universal myths is that leadership is always singular.

Plato wrote: “Leadership is a rare trait, typically possessed by only one person in any society”.  (Plato 400 BC).

Entire organisations are portrayed as the shadow of the “great man” who leads them…sometimes into oblivion.

Even in the best seller “Good to Great” (Jim Collins, Harper Collins, 2001), Jim Collins and his researchers found that many of the comparative companies had not benefited from a strong leadership figurehead.

But if leadership is so individualised why can some successful organisations continue to grow and outperform other organisations while having co-leaders or several leadership changes?


Collective Leadership has many titles such as shared leadership, cooperative leadership or even distributed leadership.  We can see it in Co-leadership roles but also in a high performing leadership teams (what Jim Collins would describe as having the right people in the right seats on the right bus) that have a shared confidence in each other.

From a business perspective it has only really begun to feature in texts and teaching in the last ten or so years, despite successes dating back hundreds of years.


Interesting the most often cited successes come from the health sector, in particular nursing, and we see the collective leadership focus within “magnet” hospitals.  Other successes of shared leadership roles have included BBC, Gillette, Xerox.  Successful introduction of Collective Leadership is often evidenced by business turnaround.


There are some failures, too. IEC we discuss below and Damilar/Chrysler is one we will see later.

Organisations often learn the hard way that no individual can save a company from mediocre performance.  Failing organisations often go through a chain of leaders in an effort to arrest poor performance with little success.

Take for example IEC (name changed in most literature).  IEC was a tech darling that suddenly found itself on the back foot due to the poor performance of a couple of product launches.  Suddenly the markets considered it could do no right while a small competitor could do no wrong.  An analyst even declared it was worth more dead than alive.  There was doubt if it would meet loan payments as they fell due.  IEC was under a negative halo and even innovative product launches could not shift its market performance.

Managers began to call for cost cutting in an effort to control falling earnings.  They tried to launch new products faster (often with bugs) in response to managers demands.  The tighter autocratic management backfired.  Staff only worked the minimum.  Managers began telling staff and outside consultants they disagreed with joint decisions. Managers began to blame each other and hide bad news from their own division.  Meetings were often cancelled or postponed.  IEC began promoting heavily to boost quarterly sales targets at the expense of the following quarter perpetuating the problems.

The CEO reacted by calling for a focus on improved performance and increased at risk portions of salary into performance bonuses around company targets. Defending budgets became the most important topic in meetings. Cross functional teams were closed to work on divisional performance and teams began to duplicate effort due to the loss support.  Most managers said they did not know how other divisions worked.  The management team rarely met together and blaming one another was often done around the board table with directors present.  The CEO in fact had to order managers to attend the Christmas event.  Managers with opportunities began leaving.  Others began setting low goals they could achieve.  Learned helplessness had set in.

Believe it or not this organisation is now one of the best performing in its sector.  The entity had a change in CEO and in the opening weeks he challenged the leadership team to change the momentum.  He lost a couple of managers but ultimately most stayed.

Spiral of Destruction
Pointing the finger – the spiral of destruction

Collective leadership fails when we see the spiral of destruction.  The first outward sign is pointing the finger.


  • Succeed or fail, it’s together
  • No chance of solo leadership
  • Responsibility shared equally
  • There is one office
  • Part of our Culture
  • Formal veto power
  • Sacrifice of our own
  •  Trust
  • Celebrate our skills
  • Practice a Degree of Self Denial and Humility

Some of the benefits of collective leadership include

  • Leaders constantly challenge each other
  • Prevents trauma of transition

Amana Corporation from 1995 shared the CEO role between 4 leaders. Author Joe Tye noted that there was a shared set of guiding principles, a team where each member is able to set aside ego or “what’s in it for me”.

Gordon Sprengher of Allina Health worked with K James Ehlen and records “we were transposable, we made that clear from the first day”.  They always showed a united front and took turns fronting staff and public events.

The united front though does not stop the hard questions behind the scenes.  Sprengher and Ehlen met one-on-one before and after leadership meetings to ensure they had dealt with disagreements ahead of time.

Collective leadership provides an informal succession plan that is often stronger than a formal succession plan.  For most of the organisation there has been no change the same team makes the same decisions, just a member has changed.


Sychronised swimming or drowning
Sychronised swimming or drowning

Synchronised swimming or synchronised drowning?

Too often we forget that any leadership team, large or small, is measured as a whole. We sink or swim together.

Stakeholders may have different expectations, which affect their perception of the organisation.

So a leader may still be perceived as a failure, even if succeeding within their own area, if something outside their immediate portfolio is not performing.

Some organisations take this a step further with entire leadership teams coming and going together.  While still not common it is a growing trend…businesses fail and the CEO and executive team all get to fall on their swords.  But it can also apply for success…team leadership will become a growing trend.

Success or failure is not just about timing of leadership changes though.

It is about a single shared vision.  It is about going in a single direction.

Taking the swimming analogy further, we may be in different lanes in the swimming pool but we need to be swimming in the same direction.


No solo flying! There should be no ability for one member to ascend to solo leadership.  Any hint that one person may become a leader also results in immediate competition rather than cooperation.

This lesson has been around for thousands of year.  The elevation of Sulla, Pompey and then Caesar to the role of Dictator over Consul resulted in the fall of the Roman republic.

Jurgen Schrempp of Daimler/Chrylser admitted that he waited to be elevated to sole CEO over Robert Eaton as the stand alone division status of Chrysler was “always the structure he wanted”.

In all cases the result was not positive.  True Co-Leadership is about working to achieve a single outcome not to get ahead of each other.


  •  Power must be shared equally
  • Manage our egos
  • Take different roles within the team

The tasks we each have should be perceived as equal contribution and equal responsibility.  We must trust our colleague leaders.

Would we be willing to decide by “flip the coin” who will take responsibility for a particular task.  Remember, responsibility is not necessarily doing.

This is covered in different ways under various rules.

Ultimately it comes back to the biggest challenge not being technical or even relational but rather self-management of our own egos!  Are we able to share the glory or even step back for others to take a bow?

Compare the INTEL with Disney examples from the 1990s and you see one group sharing credit and workloads and another where the executive team just couldn’t seem to work together.

Responsibility sharing is also at the team role level.  Facilitator, Mentor, Innovator, Broker, Coordinator, Producer, Director and Monitor roles need to be shared throughout the team.  And this sharing must be flexible, changing as the role or forum changes.


  • Complementary roles with one purpose
  • Consistently applied – consistently applicable
  • Be careful of complexity becoming confusion
  • Act as if it is a real person
One Office
One office that is shared – each is part of a whole!

Co-leadership has a particular challenge in that there needs to be one office that has two individuals acting as one.

The most successful examples have the two individuals effectively taking a parental approach.  Parents will quickly build a rod for their own back if a child knows they can talk one parent into overruling a decision made by the other.

In the same way Co-leaders need to show a consistency in their decision making.  Their subordinates cannot think they can approach the other leader and get a different answer if they have already been turned down by one.

As Gordon Sprengher said “Tansposable”.

Larger organisations may have a large corporate and large operations team.  In those circumstances the teams need to act as if they were two individuals one effectively is the COO and one is effectively a CFO.  But both teams also need to understand they are part of a bigger organisation reporting to the CEO.

Our role as leaders is to make sure that the teams are viewed as a living person.  For us we have to ensure that we are acting as one body.  Each of us has complementary roles such as a hand or foot or eye.  But ultimately we have one purpose, our strategy.

We do have to remember that greater complexity, while adding greater functionality, can also confuse people.  Rules about what is executive and / or GM team business needs to be consistently applied and consistently applicable.

Great-West Life & Annuity Insurance Co’s experience highlights complexity issues.  Great-West correctly picked a coming market shift to health networks.  They decided if they got the jump on their competitors maybe the competitors would use their networks too.  But they counted on leaving blocks of traditional business branded under their old names.  Great-West CEO Bill McCallum commented “The market was changing and the result was confusion…even the brokers in the marketplace were confused”.  In the end Great-West decided to pull all the pieces together under the Great-West banner to remove confusion.

In place of Great-West’s brokers read our staff and teams.  We need to ensure they know where they stand.


Sharing needs to part of our own team cultures, throughout the entire organisation.  Without it we lose the ability to develop future leaders to step up to other teams.

In almost every successful case of collective leadership that I came across there was self managing teams at all levels of the organisation from the bottom to the top.  A similar thing is observable within “Magnet” hospitals and organisations with good clinical/non-clinical co-leadership.

I look at organisations I have been part of and I can often find good examples at the small team level and some good examples at a leadership level on occasions.  But I often found autocratic hierarchies in between.

This would often be reflected in the engagement survey’s, where small teams had confidence in their colleagues but less confidence in other teams in the organisation.  A natural result, we all know more about the people immediately around us, but sometimes indicating an unhealthy level of silo behaviour rather than a cooperative relationship.

People value their own small team because of how it works not who is involved.  But they struggle if they perceive others acting to different agenda.



A very important word and every leader needs the power to say “no” and veto a decision.  People have to be able to say No and the group should act conservatively.

Leadership teams often work as a democratic majority but interestingly the various authors I reviewed all concluded that the best collective leadership teams were very conservative and any one could veto a decision if they felt strongly enough.

One organisation had a twelve-person leadership team and nothing happened unless it was unanimous (which was occurring only about 70-80% of the time)

Ouch! It could slow down decision making but also showed a genuine commitment to sharing leadership.

It is a very good protection against group think, something that can become a significant issue if a team is being lead by a strong personality who is unwilling to listen.

I don’t suggest we change the way we vote but I suggest we may have to be better at recognising dissent and considering it.

I sometimes wonder if we discuss things as much as we should or if we trust others enough to make an issue of a particular decision.  Instead I think there is an attitude of “why bother”, especially when it might make us personally uncomfortable or risk sinking our preferred approach.


  •  Involves Sacrifice
  •  No Favourtism
Involves sacrifice
Involves sacrifice

We have to be willing to give up things for the good of the organisation or our purpose.  Sometimes this means the best people not our people.

One example of this I could find was in the amalgamation of CIGNA (Connecticut General and INA Insurance), which has been widely reported.  Effectively the co-CEO’s appointed all their favourites to their teams, there was no overlap.

The willingness to sacrifice our own areas in a decision will remain one of the most critical skills we have, yet I observe that it is not always one of the strengths we see in leadership teams (budget rounds can be notoriously good or bad examples).

There must be no protected or excluded regions.

Rule 8:      TRUST

  • Joint decisions remain that
  •  Never speak ill of the others to any audience
    •     It always gets out
    •     Undermines the trust needed to work together
  •  Good Cop / Bad Cop

Topics that are subject of joint decision making in a leadership team need to remain joint decision topics.  As soon as one of us starts making unilateral decisions we undermine the joint leadership.

And yes I see we are all looking at the table!  We have all done this on occasions.

Never speaking ill is also about trust.  If we disagree with a decision the time to discuss it is in the group.  Once decided, a decision should be recorded as unanimous and acted upon accordingly.

The Unitec Institute of Technology leadership team I was part of struggled with this on occasion.  Eventually they came up with the term “Let’s Laminate That” to mean that we would not relitigate the decision outside the meeting, particularly not criticising or indicating disagreement in front of others.

One of the areas of trust already mentioned is that we need to make it easier for people to dissent earlier and honestly listen before a decision is made.  Otherwise the “why bother” attitude remains.

There will be times when a good cop / bad cop approach is required.  One of us may have to suggest something so another leader can come in with an alternative “more acceptable” proposal.  When this is done we need to be extra careful not to be seen as criticising each other.


Celebrate our skills
Celebrate our skills

We all have different thinking processes, experiences and skills.  That is one of the strengths we all bring to the table.

There are costs in coordination and negotiation from sharing roles.

At the same time we all bring complementary skills to the team.  Whether it is frontline operational, engineering, clinical, financial or people leadership skills we each have differing levels of skill and expertise that assists the group to work better together.

An article by David Sally quoted Bob Daly of Warner Brothers:  “We usually come to the same decision…but we have a different process of getting to that decision.  I’m Irish and, you know, it comes out…Terry [Semel] is much slower at arriving at conclusions…A lot of times I’ll let Terry do a lot of the talking.

This is about using those occasions when we suffer “sail past” more effectively.  These are the occasions when we will most likely learn from others we are not necessarily understanding at the moment.  Again, it also helps us avoid group think.


  • Practice Self Denial & Humility
    Practice Self Denial & Humility

    “Seasonable avoidance of glory can sometimes bring more renown than the pursuit of it”

  • Elevate the organisation above all else
  • “Venimus, vidimus, vicimus” or “We came, we saw, we conquered”

One of the things that I have liked about most of the teams I have worked with is that we have generally taken credit only on behalf of the group.  In other words it is about the success of the board, leadership team and staff, not just my success.

In a recent meeting someone commented that this was evident even when I spoke of examples many years later.

The contrast is very telling, when a team member feels disenfranchised as another team leader or their CEO takes sole credit for something they significantly contributed to.

Indifference to self-glory has characterised the success of most teams that share the throne.

This is not about self-depreciation or false humility.  It is about rightfully reflecting on the contribution of the entire team.  As leaders, we do it often for our own teams but we don’t necessarily always do it across an organisation.

In conclusion, I make no apologises for what I have said or implied.  I hope I have shattered a few windows in my own glasshouse as well as hit a few tender spots.

Collective leadership can work for us but first we have to make it work!

© August 2014. Article prepared by Paul Conder, Director, All Green Lights Limited.  Some content previously used in a presentation by Paul Conder to Bay of Plenty DHB leadership Team and  © August 2003 Bay of Plenty DHB.


“Good to Great”, Jim Collins, HarperCollins Publishers, 2001

“Co-Leadership: Lessons from Republican Rome” David Sally, California Management review Vol 44 No 4 Summer 2002

“When Two (or More) Heads are Better Than One:  The Promise and Pitfalls of Shared Leadership” James O’Toole, Jay Galbraith, Edward E Lawler, III, California Management Review Vol 44 No 4 Summer 2002

“Fit’s Like A Glove” Michael T McCue, Managed Healthcare Executive May 2002

“Leadership and the Psychology of Turnaround” Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business Review June 2003

“Sharing the Throne” Peter Troiano, Management Review February 1999

“Leading Jointly” Mary Chris Jaklevic, Modern Healthcare Vol 29 No 19 10 May 1999

“Partnership 2000: A Journey to the 21st Century” Larry F Hepner & Linda G Hopkins, Nursing Administration Quarterly, Winter 2000

“The Shared Leadership Challenge in Strategic Alliances: Lessons from the US Healthcare Industry”  William Q Judge & Joel A Ryman, Academy of Management Executive, 2001 Vol 15 No 2.

“Developing Staff Nurse Shared Leadership Behaviour in Professional Nursing Practice” Vicki George et al, Nursing Administration Quarterly, Spring 2002

“The Emerging Patterns of Power in Corporate Governance” Bruce Cutting & Alexander Kouzmin, Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol 15 No 5, 2000

“The Dynamics of Collective Leadership and Strategic Change in Pluralistic Organisations” Jean-Louis Denis, Lise Lamothe and Ann Langley, Academy of Management Journal 2001 Vol 44 No 4

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