• Contemplating Reciprocal Leadership

    by  • September 28, 2015 • OD and L&D • 0 Comments


    Can leadership be reciprocal or is it collaborative and shared?

    Can leadership be reciprocal or is it collaborative and shared?

    I was in a dawdle-y mood today.

    I had a whole bunch of emails to fire out, I had to finish up some urgent administration, I had to review my research questionnaire, I also had to write a blog.

    But instead of doing all those things, and against my better judgement, and in spite of that annoying little noise at the back of my head telling me off, saying “sit down already and get to it”, I played the drums for half an hour (and totally got Fine by the Cardigans pinned), then I re-installed chrome on my desktop, then I sewed a button back on a white shirt, and then I got on twitter to do the dailies.

    I then messaged a new recent follower who is a leadership author and speaker. As I clicked the “Follow” button, my mind reminded me that leadership is as much about followship and fellowship as it is about leadership, and how odd (or cool, or fortuitous, whichever you choose to pick) that Twitter uses that language of following, but without leading.

    So in a bizarre non-mathematically-valid transference, Twitter promotes reciprocal leadership.

    What’s Reciprocal Leadership?

    So I did a little bit of research on this concept. Really – just a little bit, and nowhere near the kind of research that went into… say… my MSc research paper (so apologies if I missed on some really important stuff). I found a couple of definitions to reciprocal leadership:

    Where leadership is shared between group members and they take turn governing group activities.

    Where leaders must acknowledge that their subordinates exude influence on them because leadership is complex like that.

    Leadership is an inclusive activity (and a bit more that was very very vague).

    Leadership is a socially-constructed practice that depends on context and perspectives of participants (meaning, leaders and followers) (also called Relational Leadership Theory).

    My Two (argumentative) Cents

    On an academic level, I’m completely bought on to the socially constructed bit, that leadership is not a fixed state, it is malleable. It depends on the situation and the participants and the objective and the circumstances.

    On a practical level, though, that’s borderline tosh. Because in reality, someone has to be in charge, someone has to be accountable, someone has to sign things off. There are practical deliverables that completely non-context dependent.

    The other definitions, are also on the impractical side: the one that acknowledges complexity of interaction, the one where the leadership baton gets passed around, the one where it is a vague, inclusive thing…

    They are just so difficult to actually practice.

    My Two (practical) Cents

    I’ll be clear – I won’t give you a magic wand of a blueprint for what reciprocal leadership is. I’ll paint you a little picture, give you a little exercise, then invite you to join me to have this discussion.

    Imagine this: You are in charge of a project that needs delivering. You have a bunch of people working with you, some internal to the organisation (employees, colleagues), some external (contractors). You have been endowed with the project management crown, and with great power comes great responsibility. Here are some choices you can make about your leadership:

    • Agree strength and weaknesses in the team. Agree who wants to work to their strengths and who wants to develop a weakness. Will you take part in this activity as a leader?
    • Define a goal (or goals), roles and responsibilities. Will it be your job to define them?
    • Discuss flow of work and information. Who’s responsibility is that?
    • Clarify ownership of budget and deadlines. How are these agreed? Who’s accountable?
    • Understand implication of choices made on all the above. Who should have this understanding? Who should govern it?
    • Make critical choices at critical milestones. Who has that power?

    And – every time one of these is agreed or played out – what will you do as a leader? What do you expect your followers to do?

    The Two Cents I’m playing with

    The thing about “reciprocal” (as opposed to “shared”, for example) is that there is an insinuation of quid-pro-quo-ness.

    In my mind, I see it as a kind of Newtonian thing, where every leadership action has an equal (and possibly opposite) reaction. In this case, the opposite could mean followship:

    Leadership action triggers an equal followship reaction

    And similarly:

    Followship action triggers an equal leadership reaction

    It sounds like a lot of deliberate actions, from both leaders and followers.

    The Two Cents I’m asking you

    My friends at ConsultancyHive and Sheffield Business School (of Sheffield Hallam University) are putting up an unconference. We’ll be talking about leadership and collaborative practices and how they help individuals, teams and organisations do better.

    We’d love for you to join us on October 21.

    How do you see this playing out in your leadership roles?

    Remember that leadership isn’t always explicit. It isn’t necessarily in a pay grade or a job title or a qualification.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please comment.

    Or tweet @me. Or email@me.

    Thank you!



    None of this, which I hope you found a little bit useful, will have happened if it weren’t for dawdling.

    So give yourself an hour to dawdle every once in a while.

    It may surprise you where you’ll end up.


    Image credit to Marcel Hol via freeimages.com.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *