From presidents and chief executives to football coaches and ships’
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captains, the traditional view of leadership is one person at the top, sitting where the buck stops. But a model of shared leadership is proving that two heads may be better than one.
For the last eight years, Jill Martin and David Barrs have been co-principals of a high school in Essex in England. The pair share executive authority, and although each has an area of interest where they take the lead, the vast majority of decisions on strategy are made jointly.
Shared leadership is not new in education. Primarily a response to a shortage of candidates willing to take on the top job alone, it typically sees two people share the role on a part-time basis.
But what makes Barrs and Martin unusual is that both are full-time principals, in what is believed to be the only example of its kind in the UK. And the success of their partnership holds lessons for other organisations in developing new models for leadership.
Like many successful innovations, this one was the result more of accident than design. Martin and Barrs were deputy principals at the Anglo-European School when the principal died in post. Both had been looking for leadership posts in any case, so they agreed to share the job on an interim basis.
The smooth-running of this temporary arrangement prompted them to apply to continue their partnership, and both were subsequently appointed to the new post of co-principal.
But how can an organisation function with two people at the top? Surely there has to be one person ultimately responsible?
It helps that the co-principals share an educational philosophy, says Martin, and that there is a high level of trust between them. Disagreements still happen, of course, but remain behind closed doors. Public unanimity is a key part of making it work.
Although the pair meet every day and keep in touch through the day via email, there are times when decisions have to be made on the spot. Crucially, each principal has the authority to do that, without having to refer it to their colleague. A decision made by one principal is adopted by the other as if it were their own.
“I don’t say, ‘I will have to speak to David’, otherwise it would send the message that it was a weaker model of leadership,” says Martin. When she is in school she is the principal and behaves accordingly. “It is based on trust,” she adds.
So much for making it run smoothly, but what does it add? Aside from giving the students a good example of team-working, communication and of a man and woman working together as equals, Martin believes it invigorates their leadership, inspiring more confident decision-making.
“We challenge one another, it keeps us fresh and alert,” she says. “It means we can make better decisions and bolder decisions, because there are two of us making them.”
What does this mean for other organisations? Martin stresses that it was a local solution for a local problem and clearly it will not suit everyone. Some leaders will find it too much of a challenge to their ego to share authority. Others will find it hard to have the requisite level of trust in another person.
But the example at the Anglo-European School shows there is an alternative to the one-person-in-charge approach, and that it may actually provide better leadership. While co-presidents may be some way in the future, it may be time to rethink our attachment to the traditional model.
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