Shared Leadership: A new way to build organizational muscle

Shared Leadership: A new way to build organizational muscle


This article was published in the Business Monadnock section titled: Economic Outlook 2015 – Volume 2, Issue 4 – January/February 2015. 


If you Google search the word “leadership,” you’ll get no less than 484 million hits. Leadership is not a new topic, with roots dating back to Plato in Ancient Greece. Even still, according to Wikipedia, leadership has only become the focus of contemporary academic studies in the last 60 years, and particularly more so in the last two decades. In other words: the study of leadership is still in its infancy.

As leadership and organizational coaches, we know that theory leads to practice, which in turn leads to theory over and over again; the definition continually gets tweaked. I had the extreme pleasure of interviewing Lori Hanau, a local leadership expert and entrepreneur, to expose one such definition that she calls Shared Leadership. I deeply resonate with her thoughts because they give credence to and synergizes with the work I do supporting high functioning leaders and work cultures.

But first, a little context. Lori is a friend, colleague and mentor, and we are fellow leadership and organizational coaches. I first met her in 2001 when we worked jointly to create the Monadnock Mindfulness Practice Center. This came out of our mutual exposure to Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Buddhist Zen monk.

Upon her return from a mindfulness retreat in 1999, Lori envisioned and co-founded a mindfulness practice center in Keene with Tom Bassarear, a member of the faculty at Keene State College. We met when I, too, became involved with the center’s inception.

Our paths continued to converge, and in 2008, Lori brought me into Marlborough College Graduate and Professional Studies in Brattleboro, as adjunct faculty in the emerging MBA in Managing for Sustainability program. There, we have been working together for more than six years as community builders.

Our role is to support a culture of collaborative leadership – one that is trusting, open, excellent at communication, leading with heart and mind, and in which everyone is responsible for stewarding the well-being of the whole. We help engender a focus on people and good process so as to allow the best of ourselves, individually and collectively, to surface. Lori and I share these values, and fostering the learning community in this way at Marlborough afforded us an incredible opportunity to apply our experience and methods while also learning from the collective wisdom of the whole group. This is where Shared Leadership comes in.

Lori, can you give the readers a little background of your path into coaching and conception of Shared Leadership?

I was raised in an entrepreneurial family. Beginning in my late twenties I spent a decade working within my father’s corrugated manufacturing company named Vermont Container. Although he didn’t articulate it as Shared Leadership, and it was well before the terms and applications of emotional intelligence and mindfulness were developed, my Dad, Ken Hanau, built a culture of empowerment and responsibility not only to the customers, but to all stakeholders, from the inside out. He was always reminding us that the essential importance of relationship equaled a thriving, meaningful and sustainable business.

What do you mean by thriving?

I have worked – and my guess is most of us have – in a few other environments where the leadership was strictly positional – it was a true hierarchy – and the people as a whole did not feel empowered and responsible to all those around them and to the well-being of the organization. Not only did these work environments take a toll on my heart and creative spirit, but on my physical self as well. We all know all too well what stress and unhealthy relationships feel like, and they breed toxic work environments that we sit in all day long. It is the opposite of thriving. The difference between these experiences and what I experienced through my father’s leadership at Vermont Container fascinates me, and it has inspired me to create Shared Leadership as a key part of my life’s work.

At Vermont Container, people were totally engaged, not only at the level of our roles but at the root level of our humanity. We took full responsibility for our individual success and well being and for the success and well being of the company as a whole. We thrived creatively and productively at a very high level of excellence and care. I never experienced anything close to the level of collective intelligence and, dare I say, true greatness that we embodied together at Vermont Container. It felt like magic.

How do you define Shared Leadership?

Shared Leadership is the practice of bringing out the greatest capacity in everyone by empowering each individual to be responsible for and engaged in the success of the whole. It is not positional leadership. It is a fundamental shift in how we understand and apply power and are awake to our actions and impact in any situation and in every moment.

How is this different from other types of leadership?

Well, the definition of leadership is never static. I see leadership as both a product and driver of contemporary culture. As leadership adapts to meet the needs of the times, it simultaneously shapes how we see our problems, our solutions and ourselves.

I think that we are moving away from an era of individualism that is dominated by a culture of positional leadership. Positional leadership can limit us to the genius of those in charge. This “boss” model of leadership requires leaders to hold the answers, survive a universe of stress, and assume (and even enjoy) singular control over outcomes and others. This definition of leadership perpetuates relationships rooted in a competitive growth mentality, too often diminishing our drive and enabling us to hide our truths behind our titles. It compromises our creative, collaborative and cultural potential.

Shared Leadership is different because we are in a very different place as a culture than we were when the “boss” model was a necessary mode of operating. We were able to assume more control as individuals because our worlds were smaller. We often operated as if nothing was finite and as if nothing was connected. We set up our institutions to function in this way, but now we know better. Today we live in a time of unprecedented connectivity and access – we can see the bigger ripples our actions have socially, environmentally and economically. Our problems and our potential have grown to a global, wholeearth scale, pushing us to lead beyond the limits of existing institutions and structures; toward truly systemic and sustainable solutions. It’s an evolutionary leap.

Why do you think that Shared Leadership’s time is now?

It’s all around us. Cooperative business models, crowdsourcing and the democratization of information are just a few examples of a cultural shift toward collective intelligence and impact. This shift requires that we cultivate new ways of working together, rooted in our innate abilities to accomplish organizational objectives and collectively impact social change. This shift requires Shared Leadership.

When we all share responsibility for excellence and care, our capacity and creativity expand exponentially. Shared Leadership calls all stakeholders to rise in our responsibilities and actions in bringing the “wisdom of crowds” outside of the informational and theoretical right into the boardroom, classroom, workspace, community and household. By creating the conditions for the genius of our grand diversity to thrive, we develop the collective power, skills and tools to act effectively to our greatest success.

Any last thoughts?

Shared Leadership is about us becoming more awake to our ecology. Not just to the world of people – our employees, colleagues, families, and friends – but to the world itself – our places, our communities, and our planet. I think that looks like taking responsibility for not only our own greatness and well-being but for the greatness and well-being of everything we are together. There are a lot of really creative and effective tools and practices we can use to work this way. So, stay tuned for more on Shared Leadership.


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While they were saying it couldn't be done, it was done.
— Helen Keller