What we need is leadership! Yes, but what kind?

Professor David Pendleton

While debating leadership with a group of very smart people, I was provoked by a man with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. I had just been extolling the virtues of distributed leadership and sharing some compelling evidence about it when my interlocuter wanted to remind me of the towering figures of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and others. These leaders, he insisted, were iconoclastic, uncompromising visionaries whose single-point, authoritarian leadership was the key to their organisations’ success. They had no truck with shared leadership, he went on, so why make leadership any more complicated than that?

I knew he was playing devil’s advocate and simply curious as to how I would respond, but the provocation is a good one. Steve Jobs was not known for his patience or willingness to compromise. He seemed to have made a virtue of extreme self-belief to the point where anyone disagreeing with him had to be wrong. This approach built Apple twice! Elon Musk, similarly, strikes me as a somewhat maverick individual with a fierce intellect, creative imagination and single-minded determination to succeed. And what success! Who can argue with these examples?

Yet this model of leadership is somewhat anachronistic, reminiscent of the leadership of the 19th century and probably not the best model for the 21st century. When an organisation succeeds spectacularly like Apple or Tesla/Space X, we tend to attribute that success to the founders, especially when they are charismatic and highly visible, ignoring the fact that, for example, Apple has grown much faster after Jobs than when he was in charge. We find heroes comforting and impressive, possibly revealing the potential in all for us for a little dependency.

Individual, authoritarian, single-point leadership is also the approach of the dictator. For every Jobs or Musk, we need also to consider Mao, Pol Pot, Putin, and others. But rather than trade stark examples of leaders we admire or abhor, we can consider evidence more systematically. And there is a great deal of it emerging now about ‘plural’ leadership.

Plural leadership is variously described as shared, distributed, collective, collaborative, integrative, relational and post-heroic. Reviews of the literature suggest[1] that it is becoming more common in the 21st century, especially in knowledge-based organisations characterised by task complexity and highly qualified employees, for example in education, healthcare and high-tech. The evidence suggests that shared leadership increases the motivation of senior colleagues and that this leads to better outcomes. Shared leadership also encourages the adoption of shared mental models which facilitate coordinated action. Shared leadership among boards of directors and selling teams improves performance, though establishing such an approach can be disruptive for a while.

In a 2018 study of 269 high-tech firms in China[2], shared or distributed leadership was demonstrated to promote knowledge-sharing and built the foundation of shared purpose, vision and values. The authors concluded that distributed leadership has a positive effect on so-called ‘innovation ambidexterity’ or the ability both to explore innovative ideas and to exploit them commercially.

My own conclusion[3] formed in 2021 after reviewing the research was simply that ‘…in the 21st century, democratised, plural leadership is emerging as the best response to complexity, the growth of the knowledge economy and the increasing expectations of able workers for participation’.

But I will leave the final word to another colleague in the same meeting as the playful provocateur I mentioned earlier. She said that her field of research involved under-privileged communities and that the shared leadership approach would be welcomed eagerly in such settings where people are fed-up with being told what to do. I quite agree.


[1] Denis, J-L Langley, A & Sergi, V. Leadership in the plural. Annals of the Academy of Management (2012) 6 (1), 211-283

[2] Fu, L. Liu, Z. and Liao, S. ‘Is distributed leadership a driving factor of innovation ambidexterity? An empirical study with mediating and moderating effects. Leadership and Organisational Development Journal, 2018, 39 (3), 388-405

[3] David Pendleton, Adrian Furnham and Jon Cowell (2021) Leadership: no more heroes, London, Palgrave Macmillan

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