Leading from Every Chair

Roger Schwarz

Most leaders still cling to the one-leader-in-a-room approach because we have difficulty imagining a better alternative. We think leadership is based on control, and that prevents us from realizing the benefits of shared leadership.

For example, we think our role as leader makes us responsible for setting the agenda and guiding the discussion in team meetings; otherwise two or more people with conflicting ideas will attempt to control the meeting and create problems.

Leaders are only beginning to entertain the idea that there can be leadership from every chair. This kind of team leadership involves shared control that is engaging, fluid, and flexible, and recognizes that any one sitting around the table can provide the insight and ability to move the team forward. At the same time, it provides the formal leader with responsibility for how decisions will ultimately be made.

Making a shift to effective team leadership, where there is shared responsibility for the team’s functioning, requires us to think differently about what it means to be a formal leader, and what it means to be a team member.

Those of us who are members of a team often act in a way that reinforces the traditional role of a leader, and then we complain.

  • We think it is our boss’s role to raise and resolve difficult issues that are hindering our team’s performance, yet at the water cooler we express our frustration that they either don’t see the issues or don’t address them to our satisfaction.
  • We think it is our boss’s role to give feedback to our peers whose behavior is problematic, yet we complain to others when we don’t see any changes in how our peers act.
  • We think it is our boss’s role to see how they are contributing to our team’s problems, yet we don’t provide them with the information that would help them see this.

These complaints aren’t a result of a boss being a poor leader; they come from how we think of the relationship between our boss and our role as a team member. In many ways we think, “That is my boss’s job, not mine. That is what he gets paid for.” We expect our boss to make things move forward, to resolve problems, without realizing that we as team members hold the information on which action can be taken, that we are accountable for sharing that information, speaking up, and expressing what we think is needed.

Leading from every chair requires us to recognize how our own assumptions about roles lead us to act in ways that unwittingly reinforce the outcomes we are dissatisfied with. It compels us to take responsibility for our own leadership role and not let team leadership fall exclusively to our boss.

originally published July 2011