Shared Leadership Teams: The Power of Diverse Perspectives

If many hands make light work, many minds make smart work.

Shared Leadership

Bette Manchester taught me long ago, at the beginning of MLTI, not only that leadership was everything, but that shared leadership teams performed better for an initiative than single leaders did.

Years later, I worked for a small, private, educational development organization. We created non-traditional schools for underachieving students in good sized cities. There were four of us. Two came from the business world and understood the business side of education and how to work with executive-level decision-makers in large districts. One was a former high school principal who had also worked in the corporate world as a VP for Education for a large, national cable company. He understood school leadership and administration, and community and business partnerships. And there was me. I understood pedagogy, student motivation, and professional development. And we were all Type-A personalities!

It made for the most interesting phone conversations (we lived all over the east coast and when we weren’t onsite at a school, collaobrated online and on the phone). My wife would come home from work to hear the tail end of one of the conference calls, grimace, and say when we were done, “Wow! That must have been hard!” I didn’t understand. The conversations were lively, but we weren’t arguing or disagreeing, really. We were strong personalities, passionate about shared work, critiquing an idea or plan from our own perspectives and areas of expertise.

What made it not arguing was that we actually listened to each other, and revised our ideas and plans with our input from each other. We always ended up with a much stronger plan because it stood up to scrutiny from multiple perspectives.

Since then, whenever I’ve had an initiative or project to work on, I have started by putting together a shared leadership team (or convinced the folks I’m working with to put together a shared leadership team).

These teams are made up of a spectrum of shareholders: students, teachers, administrators, school committee members, parents, and community members. But you aren’t just looking for a diversity of positions, but also perspectives. You don’t want all “yes-men” on the team, either. While you might not want too many active blockers, you certainly want some of the folks who are looking critically at the work and coming to the table with their “yes, but”s to be addressed.

Auburn's iPads in primary grades

As an example, when Auburn School Department (Maine) started their first-in-the-nation 1to1 iPads in primary grades initiative, one of the first things we did was put together a “Design Team,” the folks who would design the initiative. In addition to getting input from teachers, the Design Team included the following: Superintendent, Asst. Superintendent, Curriculum Director, Tech Director, Multiple Pathways Director, Principal, Elementary Technology Coach, District Grant Writer, School Committee members, parents, and leaders from several related community and educational organizations, such as the Auburn Public Library, the Career Center, the Chamber Business/Education Committee, City Council, ETC, NEREL, and the Maine International Center for Digital Learning.

At least one of the Design Team members was not necessarily a supporter. But her concerned position about how we were going to use iPads with young learners ensured we were addressing those concerns early in the design process. Further, seeing how we going about designing the initiative in thoughtful ways alleviated many of her concerns. (In the end, she became a supporter of the program, even when she continues to be critical when we aren’t as good about living up to our high standards for the program as we might be.)

And a key learning from our using shared leadership teams? No one of us is as smart as all of us together. The secret is the power of diverse perspectives.

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