With the law of the situation Follett (1924) introduced a modern group leadership approach where - instead of following hierarchical leaders - it sometimes made more sense to follow the group member who was the most knowledgeable in that particular field of interest. The first illustrations of shared forms of leadership were only found in the second half of the twentieth century (Pearce & Conger, 2003). When leadership begins to function independently without direct control from an external individual, leadership might shift from hierarchical to shared forms. For the past two decades, shared leadership has often been the subject of study even if the majority of research has been conceptual in nature (Wassenaar & Pearce, 2012, p. 364). Shared leadership occurs when senior roles are shifted from one team member to another in order to achieve set goals. It includes the minimization of power distribution between team member and the enhancement of perceptions of psychological empowerment and solidarity within the group, resulting from an increase in group-level caring (Houghton, Pearce, Manz, Courtright & Stewart, 2014, in press). Leadership influence is thus distributed among team members.
Cox, Pearce and Sims (2003) argue that “shared leadership involves mutual influence processes between the members of teams” (p. 171). Pearce and Conger (2003) contribute to that definition by concluding that shared leadership is a “dynamic, interactive influence process among individuals in groups for which the objective is lead one another to the achievement of group or organizational goals or both” (p. 1). Official as well as unofficial leaders emerge in this process consecutively (Pearce, 2004, p. 48). Shared leadership is often used interchangeably with collective leadership and distributed leadership (Avolio et al., 2009; Carson, Tesluk & Marrone, 2007; Ensley, Hmielski & Pearce, 2006; Murphy & Ensher, 2008).
Shared leadership is applicable in situations where individuals must rely on a certain degree of interdependency (Wassenaar & Pearce, 2012, p. 382). The group exists with the lack of a designated leading individual, thus each group member actively participates in the leadership process (Pearce & Manz, 2005). The researchers attempt to portray the clear distinction between leadership and shared leadership. Whilst leadership research places its focus predominantly on individuals (either leaders or followers), shared leadership concentrates rather on the process of work collaboration and supposes that leaders will emerge based on situation and need (Pearce, 1997; Pearce & Sims, 2002). To fully leverage the potential of shared leadership, group members must willingly and proficiently participate in the leadership process (Conger & Pearce, 2003). In particular situations, shared leadership is considered the more efficient way of leading, as identified in a study of startups by
Ensley et al. (2006). Even if shared leadership is attracting scholarly attention recently, hierarchical leadership will not become obsolete as there will always be a need for vertical leadership (Leavitt, 2005; Wassenaar & Pearce, 2012).
Scholars frequently support the hypothesis that shared leadership is a determinant of organizational performance (Wassenaar & Pearce, 2012) and team effectiveness (Pearce & Sims, 2002; Pearce, Yoo & Alavi, 2004; Small & Rentsch, 2010). For shared leadership to evolve, two conditions must be fulfilled: (1) team members must seek to provide direction while (2) they are willing to rely on leadership (Katz & Kahn, 1978). In order for shared leadership to occur, group members need to have a common understanding of the group’s purpose and goals (Carson et al., 2007). Followers must also provide social support to each other and communicate constructively. Voice can enhance shared leadership and is defined as the group members’ degree of influence on the team’s purpose (Carson et al., 2007, p. 1222). In a supportive environment, shared leadership is more likely to occur. Manz and Sims (1987) argue that supportive coaching enables in-group leadership development as it raises self-competence and independence.
Teams where leadership rotates among team members are amongst the most effective (Davis, 2004; Ensley et al., 2006). Shared transformational and shared empowering leadership were positively related to performance. Yet, vertical transformational and empowering leadership were negatively associated with performance, which contradicts recent findings (Pearce & Sims, 2002). Ensley et al. (2006) explain this outcome within the specific context of new ventures. Like the context, the internal environment also plays a significant role in the emergence and success of shared leadership. Furthermore, team empowerment might enhance the development of shared leadership within groups (Carson et al., 2007). Another study relates shared leadership to team performance by using a direct measure of distribution. Small and Rentsch (2010) found more collectivistic team members to increase the likelihood that shared leadership will emerge even if team members do not know each other. Therefore, this leadership behavior requires a high degree of intra-team trust (Small & Rentsch, 2010).
Assessing shared leadership in virtual teams, directive leadership behavior was found to be higher in high-performing teams, whereas transformational and participative leadership did not differ in low and high-performing teams (Carte, Chidambaram & Becker, 2006). Two key findings were further identified. First, members of virtual teams with specific task-related skills play a significant role when leading the group, due to expertise. Second, expertise alone might still not be sufficient as the group must monitor activities collectively and drive tasks forward. Shared lead?ership was found to be a predictor for virtual team performance, even more than vertical leadership (Yoo & Alavi, 2004).
Pearce and Conger (2003) conclude that self-leadership determinants could also work for shared leadership if abilities, skills, organizational understanding, and motivation were present within each individual group member. Shared leadership could even substitute for traditional leadership when age diversity in the team is low (Hoch, Pearce & Welzel, 2010). Developing shared leadership is still difficult. It might not be the solution to all leadership issues as it could fail under certain circumstances, for example, if a group is incompetent at performing a task (Pearce, Hoch, Jeppesen & Wegge, 2010).