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Leading Beyond Oneself: Developing Organizational Capabilities through Shared Leadership

In today's complex business landscape, organizational leaders are faced with ever-increasing challenges and demands on their time. The myth of the singular hero leader who must excel at all things has long ceased to adequately describe how successful, sustainable organizations are built and run. While individual expertise and strengths are certainly valuable, no single person possesses all the necessary skills, experience, and knowledge required to tackle big challenges and drive strategic organizational goals on their own.

Today we will explore how embracing a philosophy of shared or distributed leadership can help build true organizational capabilities that extend far beyond any one person. By cultivating collaboration, developing teams, and empowering others through distributed responsibilities, leaders are able to accomplish more, achieve higher performance levels, and ensure organizational resilience in the face of change or transition.

Distributed Leadership: Definitions and Research Foundations

To begin, it is helpful to define distributed or shared leadership and understand its supporting research foundations. Distributed leadership moves beyond traditional hierarchical notions of a single appointed leader to acknowledge that "leadership is an emergent property of a group or network of interacting individuals" (Harris, 2013, p. 5). Researchers differentiate between leadership as an individual attribute or role and the leadership required to guide an organization. Harris and Spillane (2008) describe distributed leadership as "a leadership practice characterized by interactions between people and their situation while engaged in solving problems and seizing opportunities" (p. 31). A key theme of distributed leadership research highlights the importance of mobilizing expertise wherever it resides rather than limiting sources of influence, knowledge, and decision-making to a single person (Gronn, 2002; Spillane, 2005). Substantial empirical evidence points to distributed leadership models correlating positively with school effectiveness, employee engagement, innovation, and overall organizational performance (Harris, 2013; Leithwood et al., 2007; Bolden, 2011).

Developing Organizational Depth through Empowered Teams

A core application of distributed leadership principles involves empowering teams to share responsibilities throughout the organization. Rather than shouldering everything alone, leaders can build organizational depth by actively developing cross-functional teams with dedicated problem-solving mandates. For example, companies like 3M, Amazon, and Toyota are known for their team-first cultures that incubate new innovations (Catmull, 2014; Liker, 2004). When individuals feel collectively responsible and empowered to contribute their expertise, organizational capabilities grow exponentially rather than staying confined within the span of a single executive's time and talents. Leaders can foster this by clearly communicating strategic priorities and goals but then stepping back to let teams self-organize and drive initiatives forward through distributed decision-making (Day et al., 2004; Morgeson et al., 2010). Regular check-ins and feedback provide guidance as needed without micromanaging how teams operate. Over time, this develops the types of cross-functional relationships and shared mindsets that enable fast, coordinated responses to shifting business conditions.

Establishing Support Mechanisms and Accountability

For team-driven approaches to distributed leadership to work effectively, leaders must also establish support mechanisms and accountability structures. Some specific techniques include:

  • Provide training and mentoring opportunities. Leaders ensure team members have the necessary skills to take on additional responsibilities through continuous development initiatives (Conger & Fulmer, 2003).

  • Clarify decision rights. Clear guidelines outline appropriate levels of autonomy for teams versus escalating issues requiring executive guidance or sign-off (Day et al., 2004).

  • Share performance metrics. Teams understand how their work contributes to broader organizational metrics and goals through transparent scorecards and reporting (Morgeson et al., 2010).

  • Establish feedback forums. Regular check-ins allow for constructive feedback and recognition of both progress and improvement areas across all collaborative efforts (Drath et al., 2008).

  • Rotate leadership responsibilities. Whether formal sub-team leaders or rotating facilitation, leadership opportunities are spread wider to develop future organizational capabilities (Härtel & Ashkanasy, 2010; McMurray et al., 2013).

With the right supports, teams feel empowered versus overwhelmed by distributed leadership duties. Clear expectations keep collaborative efforts focused and accountable.

Case Study: Distributed Leadership Models at International Non-Profits

A powerful case study examining distributed leadership models involves large-scale international non-profit organizations, where capabilities must extend far beyond any single office or executive team given the global scale and diversity of operations. Two leading examples are CARE International and Oxfam International. Both organizations have adopted "hub and spoke" management models that deliberately distribute authority across multiple regional hubs worldwide versus a singular centralized head office (Smillie, 2009). Each hub acts as the leadership and coordinating body for the network of local offices or affiliates operating within its region. This structure builds local context knowledge and relationships directly into decision-making.

For accountability and coordination, multi-tiered governance boards provide oversight at global, regional, and local levels. Hub directors maintain close working relationships with affiliate staff, regularly rotating roles and responsibilities to share leadership experience and develop future leaders from within diverse communities served (Smillie, 2009; MacQuarrie, 2017). Local leaders have autonomy in designing programs tailored to community needs within the overall framework and strategy established by regional boards. Cross-hub and cross-regional working groups further empower collaborative efforts around shared priorities like humanitarian crises response.

Through distributed leadership structures like these, international non-profits exponentially widen organizational capabilities versus relying on centralized leadership alone. Local contextual expertise and diverse perspectives are incorporated into decision-making from the grassroots up. Community relationships and ownership of programming ensures greater resilience and impact over the long-term.

Practical Application: Three Strategies for Distributed Leadership in Your Organization

Based on this discussion of both academic research and real-world examples, here are three practical strategies organizational leaders can apply to develop a more distributive approach:

  1. Conduct a leadership audit. Map where formal and informal leadership currently resides across departments and levels. Identify untapped expertise and talent that could share greater responsibilities if developed and empowered.

  2. Build cross-functional project teams. Pilot high-priority strategic initiatives led by multi-departmental teams provided training, resources, and accountability structures. Rotate leadership roles to spread experience.

  3. Establish mentorship programs. Pair senior leaders with high-potential individuals to guide their professional development into expanded leadership duties over time. Encourage mentees to take on sub-team or task force leadership roles.

These types of deliberate change management efforts will require time, open communication, and flexibility. But by gradually shifting the organizational mindset and building new capabilities leaders can develop resilience beyond any single position. Done right, distributed leadership benefits both business performance and long-term leadership succession planning.


Embracing distributed models of leadership aligns organizational structures and capabilities more closely with today's complex business realities. No single person possesses all necessary skills or bandwidth. By cultivating collaboration, empowering teams to share responsibilities, and developing talent from within, true organizational depth and resilience can be achieved. International non-profits provide compelling case studies of distributed leadership in action on a global scale. By conducting leadership audits, empowering cross-functional teams, and establishing mentorship initiatives, any organization can cultivate leadership beyond a single position over time. Distributed approaches ensure sustainable capabilities that extend strategic success far into the future.


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Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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