Leaders: You Can’t (and Shouldn’t Have to) Lead Alone

UPDATED: July 21, 2017
PUBLISHED: July 21, 2017

At Micron, an international memory and storage solutions company, leadership in the systems solution department is fluid. When a project is identified, one person takes the lead, organizes timelines and meetings, and drives the cross-functional teams’ tasks and deliverables—based on the system issue and the area of focus. The department uses an ARCI model (determining who should be Accountable, Responsible, Consulted and Informed), and the team comes together based on the answers.

The same fluid leadership concept is at play at Indianapolis-based public relations agency Borshoff. Depending on the client, the initiative and the tasks, one member of the account executive team is in charge and the rest of the team falls in line to support where needed.

You might wonder, Who’s in charge? Well, no one person, exactly. That’s because the leadership of these teams changes based on the project and the talent of its members, much like “tagging” the next leader into the game when it’s time. In these situations, leadership is more fluid, less rigid and certainly less conforming.

Related: 10 Qualities of Masterful Leaders

This type of situational leadership gives new life to teamwork in virtually every industry. Progressive companies are increasingly realizing that the benefits of leadership flexibility outweigh traditional models in certain situations. Even if you don’t think your company is set up for this type of leadership, you can still reap the benefits by making a few leadership shifts in this direction.

Work Is Changing

Traditional leadership has been hierarchical, but in today’s workplace, this one-size-fits-all method isn’t always the best solution. As new generations enter the workforce, the traditional leadership model gradually breaks down, leading to more cross-functional teams and flexible leadership approaches, where more than one leader can be at the helm.

The influx of millennial workers has been the strongest driving force for a different leadership model. Their inherent social nature and love of the “pack mentality” causes them to excel in teams. This team preference flies in the face of the leadership style of baby boomers, who are more accustomed to traditional leadership where one person calls the shots.

Modern companies are increasingly placing value on teams, seeing the benefits of collaboration on projects, even small ones. They know that a team can generate more ideas collectively than one person can alone. I recently moderated a hiring panel where representatives from high tech, fashion retail and professional services all listed teamwork as the most important skill they look at when considering a new employee.

The Benefits of Shifting Leadership

Nontraditional leadership approaches are growing in popularity because of the many benefits to both employees and companies. By allowing team leadership to be fluid depending on the project or initiative, companies are experiencing a range of benefits.

1. It creates a shared vision.

Sharing leadership roles produces a different kind of team. It requires team members to not only see the big picture, but to take ownership of it. Formally sharing leadership empowers employees and develops them in a way that is aligned with the organization’s values. Moreover, it provides an alternative employee engagement technique that can be contagious.

2. It allows employee strengths to be seen.

Tag-team leadership allows companies to identify and develop emerging leaders in real time, giving them the opportunity to discover where the bench strength is and what their skills are. Understanding employee strengths and weaknesses is helpful in choosing future collaborations and determining potential leadership opportunities. For example, a team member who has quietly and steadily worked in the background might turn out to be a very effective leader on a certain initiative.

3. It builds individual skills.

In traditional leadership methods, management tends to choose the most overtly self-confident and outgoing person to lead. But tag-team leadership creates professional development opportunities for everyone on the team.

One of my clients was a new tag-team project leader, and received feedback that she was “bossy” and wasn’t listening to others. She was surprised by the comments, but after nursing some hurt feelings, she used it as a learning opportunity and was mindful going forward to exercise more patience and make sure that all voices were heard. This wasn’t just about being a better listener; she developed a honed ability to draw out team members.

4. It requires adaptability.

Tag-team leadership requires adaptability because roles are constantly shifting. The inherent change is an opportunity for a surge of growth and creativity. Adaptability is an important skill to hone. Think of how many inventions have been discovered by accident, yet the inventor was flexible enough to see the possibilities and change course.

5. It strengthens relationships.

Shared leadership also strengthens team relationships, by allowing them to form and develop in diverse ways. The collaboration needed to achieve success in a dynamic, evolving team creates strong bonds and support systems. Shifting leadership also requires co-workers to give feedback for the leader to grow. Unlike hierarchal leadership, there is not an intimidation factor or fear of retribution. Instead, team responsiveness and transparency leads to more thoughtful leadership, and ultimately creates a culture of trust.

6. It teaches a leader how to follow.

The ability to both lead and follow in a team setting are critical skills to develop. Team members can be better leaders having been good followers. My previously mentioned client became a better follower, particularly with team members whose behavioral styles were different from hers.

Following takes the same skills as being a leader, starting with self-awareness. Those who typically lead should identify where they can make a contribution without actually being in charge. Just because someone is not leading doesn’t mean they are not respected as a leader. People look to leaders for an example of how to be good followers. And those who have been leaders in the past are also providing the context to give the current leader more confidence to develop.

Not only does tag-team leadership allow a team to flex its collective muscle, utilizing the best talents for each project, but it is also an effective tool for engaging millennials, building teams, enhancing results, and developing a broader base of leaders and leadership skills. If your company isn’t taking advantage of this phenomenon, it might be time to give it a try.

Related: Titles Don’t Make Leaders—But These 7 Actions Do

Dr. Lisa M. Aldisert is a speaker, author and business adviser based in New York City. She is the president of Pharos Alliance. Her latest book is Leadership Reflections: 52 Leadership Practices in the Age of Worry.