Monday, June 16, 2008

Co-Leadership - A Failed Experiment

I recently have completed a failed experiment in co-leadership of a team. Yeah--sounds complex? It is.

Let me define for a minute what I mean by co-leadership. This is a leadership situation where multiple people (in my case it was three) attempt to lead a team. Multiple people are recognized as the empowered and official leaders. In the case of the team I was involved in, I was convinced that this situation could/would/should work. The leaders knew each other and we thought we actually liked each other and that we could work together. The co-leadership situation existed for more than three years before becoming apparent that it was not the optimal approach for the team or the three leaders.

Co-leadership is different than delegating tasks to individuals to accomplish, or empowering people to oversee specific areas. It is also different than having a leadership team with a leader, co-leader, and assistants. In this case, the three leaders were responsible for the total oversight of the team, in all areas to include setting strategic direction and policy, as coequals. A better situation would have one leader and a small (two person) set of advisers who met and worked behind the scenes.

Now understand--this co-leadership situation had some great moments. But, ultimately the experiment failed because of fundamental flaws in the concept that co-leadership could work in an extended situation for a long time.

What are the problem areas? Strategic vision, lines of authority, decision making, a sense among the leadership that the other leaders are constraining the success of the overall team, and accountability.

The problems or pitfalls of co-leadership:

Strategic Vision. This is an area where it is critical to have a clear vision for the end state or destination of the team. It needs to be a single, clear vision. In a co-leadership situation there can never be a single clear strategic vision. The leaders may believe they have the same vision, but each interprets the vision differently and the natural differences in style will cause problems in implementing the vision. This is an area where a single leader is best suited to work collaboratively with the team to formulate the strategic vision, but implementation is essentially as interpreted by THE leader.

Lines of Authority. Or: Who is in charge. Or who do the team members believe is in charge. This will cripple a team if it is not clear. While three people may believe they can function as one, they can't. While we should be able to work in a situation where team members can adjust to a co-leadership situation, from my recent experience this is very difficult for people to embrace. Co-leadership creates a sense of unsettledness and, if communication between the co-leaders is not instantaneous, it can create information voids. Information voids ultimately are responsible for reduced productiveness which contributes to team under performance.

Decision Making. This was an incredibly difficult area--especially when dealing with innovation and new ideas. Normal day-to-day decision making seemed to work well--but when confronted with opportunities or innovation, the co-leadership process almost ground to a halt because of the different levels of expertise and understanding. Whereas in a single leadership position the leader can evaluate the opportunity and make a reasoned decision about implementation fairly quickly, in the co-leadership situation even a simple decision about what to include in or on a website can become and intense negotiating opportunity. Co-leaders want to have it their way and when dealing with an equal it is hard within the bounds of civility it is hard to say--please, let's just try to do this my way, this time! It sounds weak.

The other guys are standing in the way of success. Sadly, every time a concession is made to the other co-leaders in an approach or decision, a nagging thought may come--if only it could have been done my way, we would be more successful. That, over time, can create a sense of disillusionment with the entire process which leads to disengagement which will lead to the crumbling of the structure of the co-leadership situation. Situations develop where one of the leaders always feels they have to defend their position and rarely see their ideas implemented. Or another of the leaders becomes passive-aggressive when discussions of mundane team management issues drag on for extensive periods of time. Things that with a single leader would disposed of quickly become topics for lengthy discussions resulting in intense negotiation. Leaders generally are strong character and believe in themselves and their abilities. Experienced leaders know success based upon their experience--a co-leadership situation rather than improving the chances for success ultimately grinds the creativity and enthusiasm out of the leadership.

For instance--one leader may have a radical new and potentially innovative idea only to discover that the other leaders don't want to do the work or take the risk. What happens in the ensuing negotiations spells either the success or failure of the co-leadership experiment. And it usually isn't good. It is a no win situation. Someone is going to be unhappy about the outcome.

Accountability. Team success is based upon accountability. So who is accountable? For success? For less than success? And this is what it really all comes down to. A group of people cannot be accountable. Someone is accountable. Authority and responsibility are delegated to persons. When co-leaders are so busy trying to accommodate each others disparate views--they cannot each be individually accountable for the performance of the team. Even down to the hiring and removing of team members and enforcing performance standards on the team. The finger of blame gets pointed as soon as there is a problem: Well, it was YOUR idea! or Why didn't YOU take care of that?

It has taken me a couple months to finally wrap my thoughts around the whole idea of co-leadership. I admit--there is a bit of emotion still in the writing because, well, I'm a passionate person and take leadership situations seriously. And when a vision becomes clear for direction, it is very hard for me as a leader to accept, in the absence of empirical data to the contrary, that the direction and the vision laid out are not the best ones.

Advice? When asked to be a co-leader or if you are considering a co-leader situation for a team with a lifespan of more than about three months--avoid it. Address the underlying reasons that a single leader situation is not being considered. Don't believe it's best not to hurt someone else's feelings and agree to the co-leader situation. If they don't want to lead--then you lead, but don't accommodate their insecurity and agree to a co-leadership situation. Their feelings are going to be hurt anyway--just later in the process.

I would hope that there are ways to implement a co-leader structure for an enduring team situation, but based upon my recent experience I cannot conceive that the team or the leadership will be well served.

What to do if you are in a dysfunctional co-leadership situation? Get out. Resign, walk away! Swallow your pride and your vision and your passion whatever is keeping you there.

Because of an inherently flawed design, a co-leadership arrangement is not "fixable." The only viable approach is to terminate co-leadership. Either the co-leaders must step down or you must be willing to resign your leadership. In my view, if I'm not willing to do something, then I probably shouldn't ask someone else to do it for me--so I must be willing and comfortable with leaving the flawed leadership situation before I ask others to do the same.

If you can leave--and are willing to accept that the team will be better off without your input complicating the leadership situation, then the best advise is to leave. Is it hard? You bet. Do people get hurt? Yeah--but look at yourself, you are probably carrying a lot of hurt about the situation anyway and you will show compassion on the other leaders by reducing their stress at the situation and allowing them the opportunity to lead and follow their vision.


Jeremy Doan said...

That was pretty insightful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It pretty much confrims my experiences with co-leadership in all arenas as well. From Buzzoto with Rebecca... didn't work.. even down to running a guild "with other people" It never seems to work for exactly the reasons you laid out.

Bob Doan said...

I totally forgot you had a similar experience with the guild. Someone needs to be in charge!

O Newhouse said...

Thanks for this insightful article. I see your points are passionate and considered them carefully. Found deep thoughts in them regarding mixing passion and business.

Agree that some partnership situations are not suited to co-leadership.

But there are good examples in the corporate world, perhaps if the responsibilities are sharply split and emotions are more under control.

Would you say that Brin and Page, Walt and Roy, Gates and Allen are considerable success stories for the counter-factual...

Bob Doan said...

I think the three examples cited are all cases growing out of a special relationship between founders of the organization.

Brin and Page were college roommates and Google was an outgrowth of their common vision. So instead of being put in the position of co-leading an existing organization--they developed the organization around their common vision and style.

Roy and Walt were brothers--and Disney developed as an outgrowth of their ability to work together--the dreamer and the implementer. I'm nut sure Walt did much mroe that the visioning and Roy was the real implementer and leader.

And then there is Gates and Allen--another team who built the company around their vision. Again, a long standing personal friendship was the underpinning of this success.

Perhaps the exception is that co-leasdership can work when there is a long-term relationship underpinning the leadership paradign and that the team/company is an outgrowth of a common vision.

O Newhouse said...

Thanks Bob, for the thoughtful response. Most appreciated.

Ze Mario said...

Dear Bob,
I am facing a co leadership problem and I would like to have permission to use your insightful text to help me out on a big discussion about it in anear future.

Bob Doan said...

Ze Mario--

you are welcome to use the piece--just leave a comment about the circumstances when you are done.

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