A Case for Shared Leadership in Higher Education

William Paterson University offers an online Master of Arts (M.A.) in Higher Education Administration with a concentration in Leadership Studies program. Degree candidates explore traditional and emerging leadership approaches, models and structures in higher education environments.

Leadership responsibilities in traditional models are often delegated to administrators, department heads and others, but authority remains top-down and often absolute. This leadership structure has benefits, but it can fall short when a responsive, transformative organizational environment is needed. Emerging shared leadership models may better meet these organizational needs and help institutions face today’s unique challenges.

What Is Shared Leadership?

Better Lesson states that shared leadership “gets diverse stakeholders involved in the decision-making process. In a school that practices shared leadership, policies are co-created by students and their families, teachers, staff and administrators.” According to a Higher Education Today article from the American Council on Education (ACE), shared leadership engages and incorporates many people’s diverse perspectives, ideas and leadership qualities.

Absolute authority may still be top-down with decision-making only partially delegated. But with shared leadership practices, participants capitalize on all of the expertise, creativity and problem-solving skills available in an organization. ACE refers to this as breaking down the binary leader-follower relationship and “maximizing the contributions many more individuals can make to solving difficult problems.”

Why Implement Shared Leadership Models in Higher Education?

Shared leadership offers many benefits. Incorporating multiple perspectives and a wealth of expertise into the decision-making process can lead to more informed decisions. Collaboration between problem solvers and synthesizing a diversity of ideas can improve the durability and effectiveness of solutions. Essentially, integrating a multitude of skills, knowledge and leadership qualities can strengthen the quality and impact of leadership process results.

Plus, all participants in shared leadership models are represented in these results. Thus, participants lead and follow interchangeably. This shared responsibility in leadership process outcomes fosters authentic engagement, investment and buy-in from every party involved.

In the university setting, engaged parties can include faculty, administrators, students, community members, academic and industry associations, relevant professionals, alumni and others. When executed well, the solutions, decisions and actions collectively and collaboratively created by these parties benefit all involved.

Shared leadership models also help institutions better navigate rapidly changing environments and emerging societal challenges. Organizations need to be nimble, agile, creative and innovative to maintain continuity and thrive amidst change and disruption. Collaboration, collective purpose and a diversity of ideas drive creativity, innovation and organizational agility. Shared leadership infuses an institution’s culture, operations and shared value system with these critical organizational qualities.

For example, another Higher Education Today article highlighted how institutions adopted shared leadership approaches to better navigate the COVID-19 crisis. Universities needed an “all hands on deck” approach to mitigate disruption and pivot drastically and effectively. Successful rapid response required the creativity, innovation, agility and collaborative problem-solving engendered through shared leadership.

Models of Shared Leadership

ACE breaks down shared leadership into three generalized forms: co-leadership, team leadership and distributed leadership. The form that is most applicable in higher education settings depends on an institution’s size, goals and organizational structure as well as other societal, logistical and environmental factors.

In co-leadership approaches, leadership duties are shared among top executives, all according to executives’ expertise and function. Deans may take on department-specific leadership roles and provide leadership opportunities to other faculty, students and community members. Or, high-level faculty may assume leadership of specific university functions like fundraising, research, service learning and professional development.

Team leadership is a more integrated form of shared leadership. Teams within overall functions or departments share responsibilities. Individuals assume leading roles when their skills and knowledge best serve the task at hand.

Distributed leadership spreads leadership processes out in a more task-specific and often cross-functional manner. For instance, leaders may assemble a task force to manage planning for continuity, resilience and recovery post-pandemic. Or, a committee of school community members, professionals and other individuals in the community might oversee school governance reform, programmatic change or community outreach.

Regardless of the specific form, shared leadership encourages a diversity of ideas and creative, collaborative problem-solving. In contrast to traditional, hierarchical leadership models, shared leadership fosters collective investment and a transformative higher education environment. This supports the agility and innovation institutions need to thrive in today’s constantly changing world.

Learn more about William Paterson University’s Online Master of Arts in Higher Education Administration with a concentration in Leadership Studies.


Better Lesson: To Improve Equity in Your School, Try Shared Leadership

Higher Education Today:
The Whys and Hows of Shared Leadership in Higher Education
Shared Leadership As a Strategy for Leading in a Time of Crisis and Beyond

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