Defining Shared Leadership

At the 2004 Olympic Games, my eight-man rowing team failed beyond anyone’s worst expectations. In 2008, my team won gold, finishing one second faster than the silver medal boat — an eternity in Olympic eights racing.

What changed in our team between 2004 and 2008? How did we morph from a team that crumbled at the Athens Games of 2004 to a group of successful and resilient gold medalists at Beijing in 2008?

We grew from a team able and willing to be led by a great leader to a team of leaders, guided by openhanded leadership. We adopted a new and powerful team dynamic, what I now recognize as Shared Leadership.

Our transition from a hierarchical model occurred without significant changes in the team. We kept the same coach and five of our nine team members. Instead, three central factors shaped our team’s evolution.

{advertisement} First, our team reframed the way we received leadership from above. Our coach’s role shifted from a supreme leader to a guide. We embraced his advice and support, while building confidence in our abilities as individuals and focusing on self-direction. Second, we established a meaningful team identity that represented the goals of all members. Finally, team members agreed to assume individual responsibility for our successes and failures.

Openhanded Guidance

Our coach, Mike Spracklen, often said, “Success in high-performance sport is 90 per cent athlete and 10 per cent coach.” It wasn’t until our team’s massive failure on the world stage at Athens that I began to understand this. Our team had trained as hard as humanly possible, six days a week, three times per day, 50 weeks of the year. We had followed and believed deeply in Mike’s coaching abilities and philosophy. We had a truly great leader and a team eager to be led. Yet we crossed the finish line in fifth place, devastated.

Something was missing. In times of hardship, our model had failed. As a team, we came to recognize that one leader could not sustain and pull a team through adversity singlehandedly. What we required was a brimming cup of leadership: 90 per cent athlete, 10 per cent coach. Slowly and steadily over four years, our team adopted and perfected this ethic of Shared Leadership (SL). We changed from a team led by one strong and supreme leader to a boat full of leaders.

Mike Spracklen

Mike leaned on a broom and shuffled his way through the bay where our boats were up on racks. His knees were hobbled, the result of a childhood accident during the Second World War. Arguably the world’s greatest rowing coach, Mike would arrive early each morning to our training centre and sweep the floor before our 7:30 a.m. training session. He never asked for help or referred to his daily efforts. His actions spoke for themselves, loud and clear. Mike arrived at practice in time to prepare adequately for the day ahead. His character was incredibly infectious. By the year before the Olympics, our whole team arrived early, in time for pre-training warmups, mental preparation, and other simple rituals that helped equip us for the day ahead.

He was ever-present through his encouragement, instilling trust and support and a timely enforcement of norms and rules. Mike led effectively in our SL environment by reinforcing his belief in us and promoting the development and application of our individual leadership gifts toward our shared goal.

He understood when our team members needed emotional support and when we needed to be pushed. This was incredibly effective. If someone pushes you all of the time, you learn to ignore them; if you are coddled, you never grow. Instead, Mike used his intuition, gut feeling, and experience to gauge whether you were truly struggling and needed support, or if you merely needed a firm hand of encouragement.

Mike’s ability to lead within an SL environment was paramount and brought us a critical 10 per cent toward success. The remaining 90 per cent would come from within, through our adoption of team identity and “distributed onus.”

Forming a Team Identity

I once asked my teammate, Jeff, why he rowed. Without hesitation, he said: “I just want to be the best!” This drive is present in most successful Olympians. It appeals at a base and habitual level, rooted in personal ethic.

We built our identity around this shared goal: to be the fastest in the world. All aspects of our lives could align beneath this high-level goal. Each member also had the drive to maximize his own potential. The team goal, therefore, aligned with personal ambitions.

This is what I call finding the sweet spot, the place where an individual’s goal overlaps with a team goal or a value held by broader society.

A strong team identity helped us see beyond daily hurdles and kept us focused on our long-term objective.

Distributed Onus

As in most organizations, in high-performance rowing, no individual superstar singlehandedly generates success. Shared responsibility and contribution are necessary to create sustained accomplishment. All team members need a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities. They share accountability for their actions and their effect on the team’s success or failure.

Our job was not merely to listen dutifully and then memorize and execute scripted orders and directions from our coach and CEO. Our team had formulated its own collective pact by sharing and bargaining, by negotiating and agreeing that success and goal achievement had everything to do with the power of an inclusive group. Our team shared common values, principles and ethics, and egos were checked at the door. Ours was a flat hierarchy, much like a rowing shell. All members were equally responsible for our team’s success and we embraced this onus.

Shared Leadership To Shared Victory

When we crossed the finish line at the Beijing Olympics as gold medallists, our philosophy of Shared Leadership had blossomed into something priceless: shared victory. The joy, satisfaction, love, pride, elation, and satisfaction of success were incomparable.

We can all be active participants in the process of leadership. As individuals, we have enormous motivation and confidence to lead ourselves. The task in our organizations is to become knowledgeable,capable, and willing to transform and share the power of leadership with others in the pursuit of shared ideals.

We each have the ability to mentor openhandedly, or seek guidance from our peers to enhance our skills. Consider the multitude of goals that drive us and focus on those that unify us in our organizations. You may have to experience it to truly understand it, but believe me, the value of Shared Leadership is Olympic in its proportions.