How Does Shared Leadership Work?

Like many of my posts, this post was born early one morning at the gym — I suspect it’s because, with my body engaged, my mind can wander while I’m working out. And over the past several years, my mind has often wandered to the topic of shared leadership. 

Admittedly, when my two sisters and I began telling others that we were going to share leadership of Hoffer Plastics, it was awkward — despite the fact that we thought it was the best way to move forward. Many people did not understand how it would work. What would happen when two of us wanted to take the business in a particular direction, and the third did not? What decisions would be made by all three of us, and which could be made autonomously? 

Not only were these questions worthy of our time, but they were instructive. We realized that if we wanted our shared leadership model to succeed, we had to gain clarity on our answers. We began the process of doing the work and clarifying expectations — and then the pandemic happened. 

As Mike Tyson allegedly said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” And boy, did COVID punch us square in the face! But it also helped us prioritize, rendering secondary issues unimportant and reinforcing the early bonds of our alliance. COVID also legitimized our shared leadership model in the eyes of internal and external stakeholders. After all, the biggest question for any leader (or leadership model) is how they will perform under stress. When our company began turning a profit in July of 2020 — thanks to the hard work of our team — the three of us had demonstrated we could weather the onslaught of COVID-19 stress. 

While it is true that our business has continued to succeed in the months (and now years) after the initial stresses of the pandemic — and while it is also true that the shared leadership model we originally created has worked — I still find myself thinking back on its creation. This is especially true at times when I am alone with my thoughts. 

Do You Want to Be CEO?

In last week’s post, I mentioned the leadership coach who regularly works with my sisters and me. And in late 2021, he asked all three of us, “Do you want to be the CEO?” I raised my hand and said that I did. 

As I told the group, being CEO had nothing to do with power. Instead, I think it is the culmination of leadership. It is the ultimate test, with nowhere to hide and no one to blame — if it’s done well. 

I also affirmed that each of my sisters was more than smart enough to hold the CEO role. One of them is blessed with immense financial wisdom, the other with creativity and communication skills necessary for a CEO to succeed. This, I said, was not about having authority over them. It was about my inner desire to lead. 

What’s Driving Your CEO Desire?

As I reflected on my desire to become CEO, I realized a few things. First, I had to ask myself whether my ego was driving that desire. As my executive coach would remind me, one’s ego isn’t inherently bad — it can actually be good. And upon reflection, I discovered that my ego was absolutely driving some of my desire to be CEO. After all, the title has meaning and worth in business culture. 

I asked myself, “Do I really need a title to feel good about myself?” And my answer was this: as I’ve shared many times, my identity is built on my faith in Jesus. He died for me, and His love is the ultimate sign of my worthiness and identity. I am worthy because He says I am, not because of what I do or don’t do. My identity is therefore His and not wrapped in some earthly achievement. 

If the above paragraph doesn’t resonate with you or your specific situation, that’s cool. But, for me, knowing that I am worthy in Jesus’ eyes is the most freeing truth in the world. I don’t need a title to be content. I need Jesus —only Jesus. 

Leadership is Influence

Freed of the negative side of my ego, I also realized something. I suppose I already knew it, but I saw with renewed clarity. It’s one of those things that is so elementary that it’s easy to miss its significance— so lean in. Here it is:

The only kind of leadership is shared leadership. 

Let that sink in. 

What is leadership? To quote John Maxwell, leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less. 

This morning at the gym, this is what I realized. True leadership is always shared leadership. Spending time with my sisters to explore different leadership models is a waste of time. It takes leadership (i.e., influence) to effectively move any initiative forward. What ISN’T leadership is jamming an initiative down people’s throats. Family or not, that’s not leadership — it’s a dictatorship. 

The success of every board and company rely on shared leadership. It is dependent on human beings using their influence to move organizations from point A to point B. The moment that shared leadership dies, so does the organization. That is unless a dictator emerges, which brings an onslaught of its own problems with it — too many to address here. The point is that leadership always requires compromise, sacrifice, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to work with others. 

Outsiders have occasionally criticized our shared leadership model by saying that our dad could not decide who to put “in charge,” nor could we, so we just took the safe route. There is probably some truth to that. But what they miss, and what I have come to realize, is that the model we created was the foundation for the executive leadership development we needed. I’m proud to say that the three of us siblings have spent two years leading a business together, increasing sales and profitability without damaging our personal relationships. 

Influence, compromise, and candor is the only way it happens.