Sara Ramsey & Penny Lawrence reflect and share lessons learnt

For founders and CEOs of purpose-led organisations, shared leadership approaches are gaining traction for good reason. A practical way of enabling growth and transformation, they also build leadership capability, increase inclusion, and improve wellbeing.

While many find sharing decision making and accountability isn’t necessarily easy, in an ever more complex and changing world, it can prove much better – whether that be via co-leaders, leadership teams, self-organising environments or franchise type models.

This article follows on from our session at last year’s Skoll World Forum on “From Heropreneurship to Collective Leadership”, sharing some of our learnings from working with a range of inspirational leaders over the last two years. With their kind permission we share key learnings, together with the different routes these leaders have taken, to meet their particular organisational needs, vision and context.


From co-founders of social businesses, to not for profits distributing power and resources to their communities, many forward-looking leaders are exploring and achieving the benefits of shared leadership, which include:

  • Collective intelligence to solve ever more complex issues     Effectiveness
  • Improved decision making, devolved to those with local knowledge and expertise Agility
  • Succession planning, avoiding dependency on any particular individual                Sustainability       
  • Attracting a wider talent pool, bringing in a diversity of skills and perspectives        Inclusivity 
  • Ensuring effective checks and balances, avoiding power imbalances            Resilience 
  • Mutual support, learning and enjoyment through shared responsibility         Wellbeing                                            

Our growing set of case studies highlight some common traits and observations from helping a range of leadership teams to evolve, we profile some inspirational leaders as case studies, sharing their stories, reflections and practical learnings.

While highlighting positive examples, we also recognise criticisms of shared leadership are real – just as there are with the single leader (heroic) model. However, we are finding that the advantages and potential mean it is worth exploring as an alternative way of leading, building and sharing knowledge, experiences and learnings.

Particularly so, given the “power with” rather than “power over” model is perhaps of its time, providing an opportunity for building a culture in line with the equality, diversity and inclusivity ambitions and values, while also avoiding over-dependency on a single leader and the issues that can arise from that – at one extreme burnout and the other abuse of power.

From what we are experiencing, rather than a single winning solution, or debating between a single decision maker versus consensus decision making, the art is in aligning the leadership model with your purpose, context and people.  Moving towards it step by step, the challenge is more in the ‘how’, perhaps combining for a hybrid “bespoke” solution. Whichever model or models is best for the particular context, we are finding there are some common themes.  

  1. It starts with you…

As the Founder or CEO, your motivation, openness and readiness to explore a different approach is an essential first step. Perhaps too many decisions are being deferred to you which is untenable as the organisation grows.    Maybe the increasing complexity of the work you do requires tapping into collective intelligence and influence. Perhaps the central team doesn’t have the knowledge to be able to respond appropriately and quickly enough to local issues. Or maybe you are wanting others to step up to grow the business, and you can no longer take responsibility for everything you used to, without slowing down decision making and running yourself into the ground?

We find the following questions can be a useful starting place, helping build a clear way forward, with appropriate investment of time and energy for a successful transition

What are your needs now and in 5 years time? What are the needs of the organisation? And how well do they align?  This includes some honest self-questioning as to your natural style and approach, your trust and confidence in the team, together with the life stage and priorities of the organisation. Beyond considering what’s working well and what needs strengthening, it’s about what’s needed to take the organisation where you want it to be.  

What control are you open to relinquishing, and in which areas?  Consider the type and level of decisions you are willing to let go of, or at least are willing to experiment. In what areas would ‘letting go’ be most comfortable for you, and where would it add most value to the business? How well do these align, and what would need to happen to provide reassurance, achieving the right balance of autonomy and oversight for your team?

What’s most important to you – the methodology, the decision making or the outcomes? For example, is it OK if the team use a different approach to that you would have used, or make decisions you wouldn’t make, as long as they achieve the results you seek? Alternatively, if the decisions and methods fit with your values and identity as a business, are you comfortable to relinquish control, to get different results that you can also be proud of?

What’s the time frame for needed change? This includes your personal motivations and timeframes – whether for your own wellbeing, life stage transition or other aspirations – aligned with the needs and readiness of the organisation. Key is in ensuring the way forward works well for you, your personality, beliefs and circumstances, with the organisational culture a reflection of you.

What support would be helpful through the transition? In preparing for the next stage of your own and the organisation’s journey, some founders find personal coaching can be really helpful in both thinking through these questions, and through the transition to new ways of working and relationships. 


 2. Exploring the best model for your organisation 

We believe it all starts with what you are trying to achieve. How do you want the world to be different? What products or services do you want to deliver – to who, by who, and how? The best leadership approach for a community based organisation may be different to that delivering consultancy services.

“We can talk all we like about the design of the product, but what ultimately matters is the design of the company/organisation itself.”   Kate Raworth

More profoundly, it’s about your organisation’s identity – do you aim to ‘be the change you seek?’ Being aligned internally and externally is becoming ever more important as a purpose-led organisation, with a high price for being “found out”.  

Often a natural form of the organisational structure and leadership team emerges. For example, a global youth movement such as Lensational, developed ground up, is a natural fit for self-managing teams. An organisation with a highly participative community such as OpenUK is more in line with a collective leadership model, with a highly technical organisation such as Proforest naturally leaning towards a matrix type of structure.

With others, a particular approach can appear attractive, with increasing profile for an array of alternatives to traditional ways of organising – teal, sociocracy, holacracy to name just a few. However, we find the best solution is contextual with no one model the best – it’s about choosing what suits you and your organisation best

In fact, it doesn’t need to be looking at one option versus another. For example, Proforest have evolved into a franchise type model for their country offices, alongside an organisational structure for their UK office that blends hierarchy and matrix, with the Founder gradually devolving decision making and responsibility as the leadership team evolves and steps up.  We are finding other organisations moving towards self managing teams, alongside a leadership team to provide overall direction and support, the level of autonomy evolving over time, and depending of the nature of the work e.g. whether highly regulated or with more creative and freedom.    

It’s also important to consider what’s needed at this particular point in time, while also looking ahead to the future.  Not only your own life/leadership journey, and the life stage of the organisation, but also the wider context and trends – whether specific to your industry or more general society.  Interestingly we are seeing a particular drive towards co-leadership, as people look to bring in new energy, skills and perspectives after a particularly challenging year, sharing the workload and helping navigate these times of increasing complexity and uncertainty. 

3. Bringing in the right combination of people, approaches and frameworks

Whether you are looking to bring in additional expertise and capacity, increase the sharing of responsibilities and rewards, or shift power to your communities, the art is in bringing the right combination of profiles together to lead the organisation effectively.

Of course, the way forward will be a combination of the skills, personality and aspirations of the people already around you, with bringing in people with complementary skills, abilities and personal qualities who together can help the organisation to achieve its objectives.

Several founders we are working with at the moment are facing a choice between bringing in someone senior who can take over day to day running allowing them to step back, or to supplement and strengthen the current team to enable them to step up as co-leads. While the first may seem quicker and more straightforward, not only is there the challenge of finding someone with the right “fit” of experience and personality for smooth integration, but there is a risk of impacting the motivation and loyalty of your existing team. In addition to perhaps feeling their own aspirations cut off, they are likely to value direct interaction with you as the source of the business.  Lifting the whole team, encouraging and supporting existing talent may be the best solution all round – lower risk and with a more inclusive and long term solution.      

The question then is how do they integrate – like singers coming together to duet or a quartet/choir?  At times their voices combine into beautiful harmonies, and at others their individual strengths are at the fore, while also checking in to step in and support each other when needed.

Our accompanying article on co-leadership highlights some observations, common themes and traits, together with practical frameworks from working with a range of effective leadership teams.


4. Moving forwards your way…step by step

We find that a gradual transition is key – trialling, learning and adapting. This allows the stepping up and letting go to move forwards at the speed of trust, while building the needed frameworks.   


To conclude…

Leadership can be tough, developing and leading an  organisation focused on a positive impact in the world. Particularly over the last year with the need for fast change, and some are finding that transitioning to a more emergent, agile and collaborative approach, not only enables the organisation to continue to flourish and grow, but allows them to progress their own personal journey in a way that suits you.

This parallel journey of individual and organisations is particularly important for founders who can find their identity, time and lifestyle entwined with the organisation. For some it’s about wanting to move onto new chapters of life, for others simply to step back, reducing their workload and sharing responsibilities. 

Whatever the driver, the key is to think about it early, giving time for incremental changes, learning and adopting to achieve the end goal.


As we continue to help leaders and organisations evolve to shared leadership models, we will continue. If you are interested in a discussion exploring the concept, perhaps being involved in the community we are building, please do get in touch. Either register for updates and events or email and let’s have a chat.


#sharedleadership  #emergence  #inclusiveleadership

Sara Ramsey is passionate about helping changemakers bring their visions into being. Focused on building impact, sustainability and wellbeing, she supports a wide range of Social Businesses and Not for Profits evolve through the various life stages, from start-up and scaling, to maturity and re-imagining.   

Penny Lawrence is an Executive Coach, activist, part time strategic director and consultant in the purpose-led sector, specialising in organisation design.