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BUSINESS SKILLS SERIES: LEADERSHIP: Sharing the responsibility

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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 1/2020 vom 18.12.2019

Führungskräfte stehen heute ganz anderen Herausforderungen gegenüber als noch vor wenigen Jahren. Im neunten Teil unserer Serie zum Thema „Führung“ zeigt BOB DIGNEN diese neuen Schwierigkeiten auf und macht Vorschläge, wie sich unternehmerische Ziele mit geteilter Verantwortlichkeit erreichen lassen.


Business leadership is in a state of crisis. The age of the leader as superhero is coming to an end, and a new definition of leadership is required to move us forward. One that respects the needs of a younger generation that is increasingly looking to values and practices beyond the mantra ...

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... of profitable growth.

In this article, we look at six key challenges for leaders today. Taken together, they mean that classical models of leadership are no longer adequate. It is time for a definition of leadership based on collective responsibility — what we call “shared leadership”.

Challenge 1: The knowledge gap

We live in an increasingly complex business world. New technologies are threatening established business models. Regulatory changes are interfering with and reconfiguring the business landscape. Customer behaviour is tracked in detail, forcing organizations to rethink their core processes to remain customercentric.

Indeed, organizations are in a state of almost continuous transformation, constantly changing their internal structures. No leader can therefore claim to properly understand the internal reality of their organization, or the external realities that affect it. Vision statements may give an illusion of control, but modern organizations are largely unpredictable and uncontrollable. Leaders no longer have the knowledge and insights to lead in a classical sense.

Managing the knowledge gap. People in formal leadership roles need to rebuild their identities away from narrow business expertise. They need to become polymaths, whose knowledge and talents include diverse areas such as mathematics, science, the arts, sport and even religious or spiritual thinking. Such knowledge can create a more holistic basis for informed decision-making. And at a more basic level, leaders simply need to become more curious, asking more questions to test their view of reality.

Leaders can compensate for their own deficits by surrounding themselves with individuals who possess complementary talents and knowledge. This means creating a form of “anti-culture”, in which norms are less valuable than a (sometimes uncomfortable) interaction of individual insights, without obvious rules.

Structures and processes need to be built that support new modes of interaction and collaboration. And fixed roles and job titles need to become more fluid, with groups of individuals exploring together how best to cooperate on specific tasks and deliver as yet undefined results. Career development needs to be measured not just by technical expertise but by broader multifunctional and multidepartmental cooperation. Learning and development (L&D) could become a vibrant platform where people from different parts of a company meet, learn together, share ideas and create a collective corporate intelligence. This can then be used to inform better decision-making.

Challenge 2: The remoteness issue

We live in an international age. We all now have to work with colleagues or business partners who are located far away.

• ergänzend
expertise [)eksp§:(ti:z]
• Sachkompetenz
fluid [(flu:Id]
• fließend, veränderlich
holistic [hEU(lIstIk]
• ganzheitlich
insight [(InsaIt]
• Einsicht, Erkenntnis
interfere with sth.
[IntE(fIE wID]
• auf etw. (störend)
knowledge gap
[(nQlIdZ gÄp]
• Wissenslücke, -kluft
polymath [(pQlimÄT]
• Universalgelehrte(r);
hier: Person mit vielseitigem
remoteness [ri(mEUtnEs]
• Distanz
• unkalkulierbar


Modern leaders: in charge but not in control?

Illustration: Yann Bastard

Team members frequently voice their frustration with the inability of leaders to be present enough, to provide clarity on what has to be done and why, and to be an inspiration to team members who work long, hard hours without knowing exactly how — or whether — their contribution matters.

Leaders, however, simply cannot be in enough places enough of the time to do the cheerleading that is expected of them, and that they sometimes expect of themselves. Traditional “leading by presence” is no longer possible.

Managing remoteness. Too many leaders underestimate the value of visiting key locations and stakeholders, claiming the lack of time and the necessary travel budget. But if you wish to occupy a leadership role, you need to see frequent travel as a necessity and recognize that it shows respect, allows knowledge exchange and keeps you grounded in organizational reality.

At the same time, you need to become very competent at virtual communication. Quality audio- and videoconferencing is possible, and videoconferences can be as good as — if not more effective than — face-to-face meetings if participants are prepared and disciplined (see Business Spotlight 6/2018).

Formal communication cycles, such as regular weekly or monthly meetings, need to be combined with telephone calls and emails simply to check in, just as you would if you were in an office. Such informal virtual encounters are essential to maintain alignment. Leadership can also be exercised through local leaders. Indeed, building a team of trusted and skilled local advocates is one of the most critical success factors for leading virtual teams successfully.

Challenge 3: The authority paradox

During leadership training, I like to provoke participants by saying that organizations no longer exist, and that we live in a world of “disorganizations”. I do this to highlight the dysfunctionality of many organizations: inadequate budgets are allocated to strategic projects; poor IT systems don’t support international operations; and there is a high level of competition between the different parts of an organization (“silos”) and between different leaders.


• Fürsprecher(in);
hier: Vertreter(in)
• Ausrichtung;
hier: Koordinierung
check in (with sb.)
[)tSek (In]
hier: sich (bei jmdm.)
melden, (mit jmdm.) in
Kontakt treten
cheerleading: do the ~
hier: die Motivation
clarity [(klÄrEti]
• Klarheit
critical [(krItIk&l]
• wesentlich
• Begegnung
[)feIs tE (feIs]
• persönlich
grounded [(graUndId]
hier: verankert
• Interessengruppe;
hier: Projektbeteiligte(r)

Case study: Problems with the team

Guy Thomas, a US-born team leader in his 30s, works for a marketing agency in Chicago. He is leading his team of six young, creative designers in six different countries and wants to use a shared leadership approach.

He encourages high levels of collaboration and collective responsibility by not assigning tasks individually but to the entire team. He leaves it to the team members to decide who does what and to what level of quality. But Guy can see that this approach is not working. There are conflicts among team members, and customer deadlines are being missed. Guy talks to Sharon Tote, a colleague, about the problem over lunch.

Sharon: What’s up? You look worried? Guy: I am. I’m having problems getting my team to accept responsibility and collaborate. They spend more time arguing about who does what than getting things done.

Sharon: I don’t understand. Aren’t you giving them the tasks and timelines?

Guy: I want the team to own leadership together. I don’t believe it’s my job to be the superhero who decides everything. They need to think for themselves.

Sharon: But they also need direction.

Guy: I want them to take responsibility.

Sharon: But it’s a young team. Are they really ready for that? I think people need some experience and confidence to be proactive. And it’s a virtual team, isn’t it?

Guy: Yes.

Sharon: So, collaboration and sharing is going to be difficult: different time zones, videoconferencing, relying on email. I think you’re expecting a lot of them.

Guy: Maybe.

Sharon: And some of them are working in quite topdown leadership cultures. What you’re asking them to do could be very alien. They’re going to need support and they’re going to need time.

Guy: OK, you’ve got me thinking. It’s just that I don’t believe in this top-down approach.

Sharon: That’s fine, but if others prefer it and perform better under it, then how can you say it’s wrong? It’s the customer that matters, not your leadership beliefs. Just get things done, or you’ll be in trouble.

Guy: Thanks for the feedback. Let me think about it this evening.

What ⋅Whahta tto le tahdienrskh aipb cohuatllenges is Guy facing? ⋅What does Sharon suggest as a solution? ⋅What other options does Guy have?

alien [(eIliEn]
• fremd; hier: ungewohnt
argue [(A:gju:]
• debattieren
assign sth. to sb.
[E(saIn tu]
• jmdm. etw. zuweisen,
timeline [(taImlaIn]
• Zeitrahmen,
zeitliche Vorgabe
[)tQp (daUn]
• hierarchisch

Absent leader: threat or opportunity?

Illustrationen: Yann Bastard

This is an uncomfortable truth for leaders today. They are no longer sovereign. Instead of kingdoms, they have territories in which others are allowed to ride and cause damage. They have responsibilities for lands not yet fully explored, but dotted lines of responsibilities transverse the floors of their castles. This makes clear to them every day that they can no longer decide alone. They can often feel like puppet kings.

Managing the authority paradox. We live in a complex world in which nobody can own the truth. Collective decision- making, in which dominant authorities are challenged by those with creative ideas, is likely to be optimal. So, leaders need to let go of leading and embrace a more collaborative decision-making process.

This means listening to the insights and needs of others, requiring extra time commitment and better time management. It also requires a climate in which people feel able to offer challenging insights and points of view. This climate is the “zone of psychological safety” identified by Google as critical for highperforming teams. Strangely, it may also mean embracing more traditional modes of authority in crisis periods. Upward escalation becomes a valid tool when the petty kings atop their silos refuse to collaborate. For many modern leaders, such escalation may feel uncomfortable, even an admission of failure. In the future, it will become an essential tool.

Challenge 4: The diversity dilemma

The degree of diversity that we encounter can increase dramatically when working internationally. And there is still no firm consensus across cultures as to the attributes and behaviours of “good” leaders. The only safe assumption when leading a diverse international team is that some members of the team will find your style highly problematic and may even reject it. You need to resolve the problem that you are unlikely to get everyone to buy into your vision of leadership.

Managing the diversity dilemma. Leaders need a good understanding of the different beliefs and values about leadership in their team. If you don’t know people’s expectations of you as a leader, how can you meet them? You can discover these expectations both formally in a workshop or informally over a coffee, by asking a simple question: “What is good leadership for you?” Flexibility is also essential when handling diversity. This may mean being directive when you would prefer to empower others, if that’s what others prefer. It may also mean delegating tasks that you know you could do faster and better yourself, if that’s what motivates others. Perhaps the killer strategy for managing difference is to prove its advantage in decision-making. Of course, it’s important to take the time to integrate different ideas and perspectives into key decision-making processes. But openly celebrating the positive outcomes is the smart add-on. This proves the value of all that painful listening to people who have challenged your own ideas.


Challenge 5: The sustainability risk

Many organizations are involved in a “war for talent” to recruit the leaders of tomorrow. Succession planning is a critical activity, identifying those who can step up once the current leader is promoted, retires or is removed. As paradoxical as it sounds, developing a person with the skills to replace you is a key activity of leaders. Without this focus, organizational performance becomes dangerously dependent on the current leader(s). Future potential leaders then don’t acquire the necessary skills and experience to manage transformation, as they are blocked by the incumbent expert.

Managing the sustainability risk. Surprisingly few leaders have a clear development path for their direct reports, and few view the management of professional learning as a priority, seeing it as the responsibility of another department. But leaders who want to encourage sustainable personal development should have a kick-off meeting with direct reports at the start of each year to set targets for personal development, job enrichment and delegation. They should also use monthly conversations that integrate aspects of coaching, mentoring and training to track progress. They need to ensure that everything is linked to a proper understanding of the individual’s intrinsic motivations, which, in the end, will drive their full commitment to the process. Interestingly, a younger generation is emerging for whom intrinsic motivation is less about working and more about living, less about earning and more about enjoying, less about profit and more about social impact. Sustainable engagement may require a recalibration of leadership and business values at a fundamental level.

bias [(baIEs]
hier: Vorliebe
buy-in [(baI In]
hier: Akzeptanz
clarify sth. [(klÄrEfaI]
• etw. klarstellen
• zwingend, überzeugend
• Übertragung von
food for thought
[)fu:d fE (TO:t]
• Denkanstoß/-anstöße
foster sth. [(fQstE]
• etw. fördern
• Rahmen, Grundstruktur

INTERVIEW: “Organizations need independent cells growing and competing with each other”

BILL YOUNG is a management consultant, coach and facilitator in procurement, supply chain and outsourcing. He lives in Basle, Switzerland. Contact: kestrel4@gmail.com

What does “shared leadership” mean to you? It’s essentially about taking turns to lead a team: people stepping up to the mark where appropriate, stepping back when necessary. The team leader doesn’t have to be in the chair all the time.

Is it something that you personally buy into as a leadership philosophy? Yes and no. I have a bit of a problem with leadership because it’s a very loaded word. When one talks about leaders, one tends to think of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and so on. But I don’t think that this is what companies want. I think companies want followership.

What do you mean by “followership”? Well, “followership” is also a loaded word, as it can imply passivity. But in the end, companies set strategy, and they rely on layers and layers of people following. And if they don’t have that, they get disrupted. And if you have leaders all over the place, then you have lots of independent cells competing with each other, tearing the organization apart. So, followership — or maybe “active followership” is better — is about taking the top direction and helping people around you to go with that. I think this is probably what other people call “shared leadership”.

Do independent cells produce conflict? And is that good? I believe that organizations need independent cells growing and competing with each other, but I don’t think that they know that they need this. But I think that’s how organizations evolve and survive. The temptation is for organizations to smooth out rough edges, and make sure that everyone is totally aligned.

What’s the problem with that? The problem is that it’s short-term. It might solve the immediate problem, but as the situation or environment changes, or people move, the organization may not be fit for the next purpose, only the last. So, you have this tension between streamlined and efficient organization, and a looser and fatter, more fragmented entity with internal competition from which a new shape can emerge and become sustainable.

Who really ensures that an organization is sustainable? The leaders or the followers? Well, now we can get more complex because what do you mean by “organization”? I mean many people see an organization as something defined within a set of walls; it’s a certain number of people on the payroll, plus the desks and the machines. That was probably the case at the turn of the 20th century.

But it’s no longer the case? No. Companies now exist way beyond that boundary and have ceased to exist within that boundary. Just one example: if you now take the average company headquarters, around 35 to 40 per cent of the people who walk in through the gates with a security pass are external: consultants, temporary staff, facilities people, etc. Now, if senior leadership still believes that an organization is the people who are on their payroll, they are missing something. And maybe leadership in the future needs to look at this human capital in a bigger way because most corporations overlook these people. Yet these people often know the organization very well, they are sometimes involved in critical change areas, and they have ideas and skills from other organizations. And this is where a competitive advantage, curiously, could arise and enable survival. But these people are at present entirely missed by most organizations and their leaders.

aligned [E(laInd]
• auf einer Linie
• angebracht,
boundary [(baUndEri]
• Grenze
buy into sth. [)baI (Intu]
• von etw. überzeugt sein
cease [si:s]
• aufhören
chair: be in the ~ [tSeE]
• den Vorsitz führen
critical [(krItIk&l]
• wesentlich
disrupted: sb./sth. gets ~
[dIs(rVptId] , hier:
jmd./etw. wird in seinem
Betriebsablauf gestört
entity [(entEti]
hier: Unternehmen
evolve [i(vQlv]
• sich entwickeln
hier: Ansprechpartner(
go with sth. [(gEU wID]
• mit etw. mitziehen
layer [(leIE]
• Ebene
loaded word
[)lEUdId (w§:d]
• belastetes Wort
payroll [(peIrEUl]
• Gehaltsliste
• Beschaffung
step up to the mark
[step )Vp tE DE (mA:k]
• sich bereit erklären,
Verantwortung zu
• gestrafft, optimiert
supply chain
[sE(plaI tSeIn]
• Lieferkette
• zukunftsfähig
take turns [)teIk (t§:nz]
• sich abwechseln
• Verlockung
tension [(tenS&n]
• Spannung

Who’s pulling the strings here?

Illustration: Yann Bastard; Foto: privat


Challenge 6: The democratic demand

There is always a risk when we entrust leadership to others. They acquire an element of control over our professional and personal destiny. The more we allow others to lead, the more potentially dangerous they become. And we increasingly realize that leaders will fail us if they are given too much power and respect.

Managing the democratic demand. Part of the solution lies in sharing information. Leaders need to offer more transparency, accountability and involvement in the leadership of their organizations, so that enough people can participate in the leadership process. Although we live in a world of data overload, more information can still be more useful than less information. I know of CEOs who write a weekly newsletter to their staff to update them on company news, important developments and key decisions, and include a forum for posing questions.

In a shared leadership model, however, there is also an imperative for “followers” to stop blaming leaders, and instead to engage with them, learn from them and challenge them. If not, you get what you deserve.

• Verantwortlichkeit
data overload
[(deItE )EUvElEUd]
• (übermäßige)
engage with sb.
[In(geIDZ wID]
• mit jmdm. interagieren
entrust sth. to sb.
[In(trVst tu]
• etw. in jmds. Hände
• Neujustierung

There is, however, a real elephant in the room among all this talk of democracy: salaries. If we really want to talk about democratic ideals — the sharing of decision- making and open information exchange — then we may need to reduce the remuneration disparities that exist. The greater the elite status granted to those in leadership roles, the more likely this elite will protect its position. Leadership then becomes the act of protecting the institution of leadership. Now, that’s not sharing, is it?


Leadership is something that we can all own in the workplace. It does not need to be done to people, but can be exercised with others. And in an increasingly complex business world — in which multiple sources of information need to be collected, and multiple ideas discussed — it is no wonder that shared leadership is now emerging as a key future model. It is time for you to get involved. If you don’t, you’ll be handing control of your destiny to others. Is that really what you want?

disparity [dIs(pÄrEti]
• Unterschied,
elite [i(li:t]
• [wg. Aussprache]
grant sth.
• etw. gewähren
• Entlohnung, Vergütung

You can try our exercises on this topic on Business Spotlight Audio as well as in our exercise booklet, Business Spotlight Plus. To order, go to www.aboshop. spotlight-verlag.de

In the tenth and final part of our series on leadership, we provide a test of your leadership skills.

BOB DIGNEN is a director of York Associates (www.york-associates.co.uk) and author of many business English books. Contact: bob.dignen@york-associates.co.uk

Language reference

Here are some examples of the language you can use to talk about shared leadership and collective responsibility.

1. Managing the knowledge gap

Encouraging others to challenge

your view of reality

⋅What am I missing here? ⋅ Can you give me another perspective?

Forcing interaction

⋅Pam, what do you think of Gill’s idea?

⋅Can we put these two ideas together in some way?

Exploring collaboration

⋅What’s the best way to do this?

⋅Who has the expertise for each of these tasks?

2. Managing the remoteness issue

Negotiating channels of communication

⋅Can we decide this virtually or shall we do this face-to-face?

⋅When shall we meet face-to-face?

Checking in via telephone

⋅Paul, sorry to disturb you. I just wanted to catch up on a few things briefly. Are you free?

⋅Michaela, are you free for a second? I just need to get your ideas on a few things.

Building a team of local advocates

⋅Would you like to take on a bigger role here locally?

⋅I need someone to represent me here. Would that role interest you?

3. Managing the authority paradox

Planning collaborative decisions

⋅I would like us to decide which decisions we need to take and by when.

⋅How shall we take this decision?

Letting go of leadership

⋅Would you like to take the lead here?

⋅Who wants to take responsibility for this?


⋅I need to discuss this with my own boss to get a decision.

⋅Let’s escalate this to force a decision.

4. Managing the diversity dilemma

Expressing your leadership beliefs and values

⋅For me, leadership means…

⋅As a leader, my expectations of the team are that…

Exploring leadership expectations

⋅What is good leadership for you?

⋅What do you expect from a leader?

Celebrating the positive impact of diversity

⋅It’s great that so many different ideas have enabled us to…

⋅Our success is clearly the result of the different talents in our team.

5. Managing the sustainability risk

Setting targets for personal development

⋅So, what would you set as development targets for yourself this year?

⋅Can we agree that you will… ?

Tracking performance progress

⋅What progress do you feel you have achieved with respect to… ?

⋅How effectively do you think you can now… ?

Clarifying values

⋅I think our long-term focus should be on…

⋅In the end, we stand for…

6. Managing the democratic demand

Offering greater transparency

⋅In the interests of transparency, I would like to…

⋅In order to be transparent, I think we should…

Requesting accountability

⋅We all need to be accountable for…

⋅Accountability is important because…

Proposing involvement

⋅I would like to involve you more in…

⋅How do you see yourself playing a bigger role in… ?

• Verantwortlichkeit
advocate [(ÄdvEkEt]
• Fürsprecher(in);
hier: Vertreter(in)
catch up on sth.
[)kÄtS (Vp Qn]
hier: sich über etw.
escalate sth. [(eskEleIt]
• etw. (an eine höhere
Stelle) weiterleiten
[)feIs tE (feIs]
• persönlich
knowledge gap
[(nQlIdZ gÄp]
• Wissenslücke, -kluft
let go of sth.
[)let (gEU Qv]
• etw. loslassen; auch:
sich von etw. verabschieden
• Distanz