Sharing Leadership

The idea for today’s essay began with Seth Godin’s blog post on Tuesday. Then as I explored the idea he presented, I wandered through the arts and business and education and sociology perspectives. You’ll see those explorations in the resources section. I was intrigued by Godin’s idea of sharing, but ended up in a different place than I might have expected when I started writing.

First the seed from Godin’s blog entitled, “Please share the extra with friends”. Here’s the beginning:
“Krispy Kreme grew to become a doughnut behemoth in the US. The formula was simple: Scarce supply, high short-term taste satisfaction, and a dozen priced almost the same as just four.

As a result, most people bought a dozen. But few could eat a dozen, and you can’t really save them, so you realized that sharing a warm doughnut was the way to go.

Carmine’s restaurant in New York was the hot ticket for decades. One reason was that the only way to get a reservation was to come with five other people. So you needed to talk about it.”

He continues by explaining that as he is preparing his latest book, he sends two copies of the galleys to early readers asking that they share the second one with a friend. Clearly his focus is on sharing as a marketing tool.

What caught my attention though was the social action in the two examples I’ve shared. To hand over a warm doughnut requires a human interaction even if you are passing them out to strangers outside the store. An offer, then surprise, delight. It’s hard to turn down a warm doughnut, but even for non-doughnut lovers, I think there would be a positive response to the offer to share.

The Carmine’s restaurant example takes an element of the doughnut idea even further. There’s a reason so many religious traditions include meals, both symbolic and literal. Breaking bread together, whether sharing doughnuts or stopping in our busy day to have lunch with a friend or colleague is energizing. Spending a couple of hours with friends over a good meal is joyful. Sharing food builds connection and community. It’s a powerful experience whether we are sharing a sandwich or a lavish meal. It is a communal act, a way of bringing people together, a shared experience.

Artists talk about creating something and sharing that creation, whatever it is, with the world. For many the sharing is an important aspect of the creation. Writers talk about being in conversation with their readers. Sharing as connection. Photographer David Hockney believes “you wouldn’t be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought.” Author Paulo Coelho says, “It’s part of the human condition to share things, – thoughts, ideas, opinions.”

And then I found the Bateson quote below and I began to wonder about the difference between sharing and giving. I can’t find the source and context of this quote, but then I began to think about the differences in Godin’s examples. You can hand out a doughnut – giving – but that’s a different experience than sitting or even standing and enjoying a warm doughnut with someone, while showering sugar glaze crumbs over your shirt or the table. If I get two copies of Godin’s book galleys or two copies of any book, and I give one away, that’s generous. But if I invite someone to read a book that I’m reading and we talk about it together, that’s sharing. All this to say, I’ve become convinced that Bateson is correct. Sharing is often more demanding that giving. It asks something more of us than simply giving.

In our organizations we can give people things – equipment, money, responsibility. It’s a transactional way of leading and it can be a trap for the receiver. It can lead to quid pro quo thinking. I gave you something, now you owe me something.

Sharing responsibility, however, is more demanding. If I’m sharing leadership, I have to be engaged with you in the work. If you are sharing leadership, we have to figure out how to make this partnership work. It’s easier to hand something off than it is to explore and learn together as we complete a task. This is the more demanding experience.

One of my least favorite interview questions is usually framed something like this – “Tell us about your leadership style.” Or “What is your preferred leadership style?” I mean really, who in today’s world is going to say, “I”m an autocratic leader who believes in command and control and that all decisions have to come from me.” Instead candidates know to about participative leadership. My preferred framing has been participative leadership, but I wonder if we might do better to think more about shared leadership rather than giving people leadership opportunities..

What if we take something from the creative arts? Perhaps we need to be sharing our ideas, our work, our creative ideas with others not as a gift, but as an opportunity to be engaged. What would happen if we understood leadership as a communal act, a way of creating a community rather than a transaction? What would happen in our organizations if we began to see our work as a communal rather than a transactional or competitive act? I can’t help but think that as demanding as that would be, it could have a powerful effect in our organizations and communities. What do you think of this reframing and what might you share with someone today?

Take care,


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