In an excellent review earlier this year in The Academy of Management Annals, Jean-Louis Denis, Ann Langley, and Vivianne Sergi discussed patterns of plural leadership. Plural leadership Is a “collective phenomenon that is distributed or shared among different people, potentially fluid, and constructed in interaction” (p. 212). Denis and his colleagues describe four types of plural leadership. My guess is you may have seen these in your organizations.
Teams often use “sharing leadership.” Anyone can perform leadership functions. Everyone is a follower.
In knowledge-based organizations we sometimes see leadership just emerge out of interactions. In a meeting of equals, ideas flow, a path is developed, a plan started, an agreement reached. In this “producing leadership” style, individuals lead each other. Leadership emerges as a property of group interaction.
In both “sharing leadership” and “producing leadership”, followers are leaders and leaders are followers. Denis and his co-authors call this mutuality. In essence these involve reciprocal interactions that move things along where there is no clear “leader” identified.
Other forms of plural leadership still have identifiable leaders. In “pooling leadership”, there may be a group of people who lead together, a dyad, or triad. The leadership group leads the followers. There is still an “elite group”.
Likewise in “spreading leadership”, leadership is passed from person to person, much like a relay team, as parts of a project or undertaking are completed. Leadership is periodically shifted. Not all followers lead nor are expected to lead.
Sharing, producing, pooling, spreading: four approaches to plural leadership. We’ve identified these styles. Now we need to find the best approach for different situations. In the meantime we can use our understanding of these different forms of plural leadership to expand our own leader skill set --- and to build human capital in our organizations.
Reference: Denis, J., Langley, A.,& Sergi, V. (2012). Leadership in the plural. The Academy of Management Annals, 6:1, 211-283.
Image of painting of General Patton by B. J. Czedikowski from http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-3006648163. Used with permission of Craig1066 per http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/