Co-leadership: A Theory that Sounds Good but Doesn’t Deliver

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Let me re-phrase: I’ve never seen co-leadership achieve its intended objective. Theoretically, if two is more than one, then co-leadership should deliver twice as much value as single leadership. In my experience, dual leadership sometimes produces less than one. Why does co-leadership not deliver when the theory sounds so attractive?

Why Co-Leadership Doesn’t Work

In many cases, co-leadership is set up for failure from its start. Co-leadership by its design means co-responsibility, and yet, co-leaders rarely take the time to discuss co-leadership objectives, boundaries, responsibilities, decision-making, accountability, and deliverables. These areas need to be defined, discussed, and decided between the co-leads; otherwise, one or both leaders will believe he or she is doing more than a fair share, which can then lead to feeling:

  • overwhelmed for having an increased workload
  • resentful for not getting fair credit or that the other is getting more credit than deserved
  • unproductive because of wasting time circling back to bring the other up-to-speed
  • stifled for not being able to make timely decisions
  • frustrated in the communication process and slowness in achieving goals

A co-leadership structure can make leaders feel less empowered

Ideally, co-leaders should have complementary, not similar gifts, so that leadership has a breadth of strengths to lead a team. What happens, more often than not, is that co-leads share similar talents, and tension results when each feels he or she cannot lead in their gifting without checking in with the other.

Resentment can easily build when one co-lead is pulled toward a priority outside of the team and leaves the other lead with the same accountability and more responsibility. Co-leads are more likely to become distracted, because they know they have a co-lead who can pick up the slack. The second co-lead may or may not have time to pick up the extra work. What happens next?

Over time the team notices a fraction in the co-leadership. Teams are emotionally and mentally attuned to the unity of their leadership. In some ways, teams are like families. When children sense their parents aren’t united, each aligns with one parent more than the other based on personality, similar views, and loyalty. The team naturally starts to split into subgroups in which energy is pulled away from the task and wasted on unhealthy team dynamics. When allowed to play out long enough, one co-lead typically emerges as the single leader, so why waste precious time and resources setting co-leadership up for failure.

When Co-Leadership Works

As mentioned, I’ve never seen co-leadership work, which then begs the question: how could co-leadership work well. In my opinion, co-leadership might be a viable choice when two very different teams or cultures need alignment and co-leadership serves as continuity. For co-leadership to work, the co-leaders should have complementary skills and clearly defined co-leadership responsibilities, boundaries, and decision-making power, which should then be communicated with the rest of the team so there is no confusion.

Co-leadership is a tall task even for the seasoned leader. Before considering co-leadership, define the compelling reason and payout.


About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a professional coach with an extensive background in leadership and business consulting. She administers DISC® and Myers-Briggs/MBTI® testing, designs and facilitates workshops, and coaches both individuals and teams. She has a passion to help people be the best versions of themselves. You can learn more about Sandra or engage her as your coach by reaching out to her at coach.sandra.dillon@gmail.com or by visiting her website at www.shinecrossings.com

One thought on “Co-leadership: A Theory that Sounds Good but Doesn’t Deliver

  1. Great article! This is very true, that Co-Leadership can easily fail because of all the reasons mentioned in the article. But if both leaders bring complementary skills to the table, then the Co-Leadership could really deliver twice!

    Like

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