(206) 686-4400 ext. 13

(206) 686-4400 ext. 13

Henley Leadership Group Blog

The Surprising Benefits Of Co-Leadership


The wrong partnerships can pull you down, but the right ones are like magic.

It’s time to abolish the “great man” myth, that rusty, outdated notion that one smart person (typically a white male) should lead a company or a country. 

The world is complex. Many of the problems we’re facing have no precedent. We need teams of talented leaders and co-leaders working together to unravel the complexities, find new ways of doing things and get complicated stuff done. 

In other words, we need co-leadership.

Co-leadership is two or more people in charge of a team or group. Co-leaders share ownership of the goals of their team yet divide the roles and responsibilities. Effective co-leaders create a partnership with those they work with based on trust and respect. They sort out differences with people who may be very different than them but who are still rooted in a deep common ground of values, vision and what they believe is possible through their mutual work. 

The key is setting that partnership up for success. While there are plenty of examples of shared leadership out there, that doesn’t mean they automatically deliver on the promise of co-leadership.

As O2E Brands CEO Brian Scudmore points out, “Dynamic duos are everywhere you look — in pop culture, history, and on the big screen. Some of them, like Batman and Robin, have the potential to change the world. Others, like Jekyll and Hyde, are a recipe for disaster. It’s the same in business: The wrong partnerships can pull you down, but the right ones are like magic.” 

The Magic of Successful Co-Leadership 

What my team and I are seeing in teams and organizations is that working together at a higher level — what we call collaboration and partnership — works. I also know it from my own experience. My business partner and I have participated in a 20-year experiment in co-leadership and have learned a thing or two about what makes it effective.

Here’s the best of what our co-leadership has made possible:

  • We are a safe sounding board for ideas. We run pretty much everything by one another. Sometimes, I can hear my own bad idea just by saying it out loud. Other times, my co-leader tells me so. This vetting process leads us to more creative and strategic solutions for our business. 
  • Our business benefits from the duality that we bring — good cop/bad cop, optimist/pessimist, idealist/pragmatist, etc. Rarely are we on the same side of these dualities. But this doesn’t mean we are pitted against one another. Simply that, together, we have a broad perspective that includes and is served by these polarities. 
  • Our partnership mostly eliminates the often-felt isolation and loneliness that many executives experience. We’ve had a lot of fun working together and have lightened the load of the tough and yucky stuff that comes with growth. 
  • Our friendship and working partnership challenges us to grow in the ways that matter when it comes to growing a business. We are better because of one another. I’m a fan of work contributing to making you a better person. If you’ve read what I publish, you also know that becoming more self-aware and conscious matters in my worldview. I believe that, more often than not, great leaders have open minds and hearts. They are better humans and citizens. 
  • Together, we have more resiliency and motivation — because there are two of us. When one is down, the other is up. We remind one another of the big ideas and help regain our footing. We relieve one another when the going gets rough. 

Co-leadership asks more of leaders than the “command and control” style did. You have to give and receive clear feedback. You have to voice your expectations. You must be accountable for your actions and what you said you would do. You have to learn to communicate more effectively. You have to learn to address conflict in the healthiest way possible without devolving into gossip or coalition building. You must learn to share power and privilege, as well as breakdown and failure. It’s the whole package as far as learning and development goes. 

A two-in-the-box model doubles your capacity for creativity and innovation. Co-leadership can be forged between the CEO and the COO, where power sharing and accountability are equal. And co-leadership can look like “three in a box” or “four in a box.” Think bigger than one.

Of course, there are downsides. Sometimes we slow decision-making down. Weaknesses we each bring can become barriers to our success. At times our co-leadership is confusing for our team, who just want one point of contact. Being far more comfortable with the outmoded one-in-a-box style of leadership, they want to know just who’s in charge here. 

Even with these downsides, I invite you to consider co-leadership. Co-lead a company or a team with someone you trust. It will expose all your strengths and weaknesses. Your precious beliefs will be challenged and, at times, found wanting. Your worldview may be questioned. You will have to let go of some bad habits and cultivate better ones. This is all good work, in my opinion. You will be a better human and citizen.

Previously published by Forbes