Working in Co-Leadership: Why and how?

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Co-Founder. Strengths-based Coach for Teams and Leaders. Co-create. Activate. Grow. Elevate leaders and unite teams l (Gallup CliftonStrengths, CoachingOurselves, Codevelopment Action-Learning)

Ordre des conseiller en ressources humaines du Québec

Source : Coin de l’expertise, Nov 2, 2021

This article was published in French in Revue RH in 2021 and translation approved by l’Ordre des CRHA.

In French :

Summary: We can all agree that the pandemic has brought about a great many changes. However, it has also prompted many of us to rethink the way we work. The time has come to talk about Co-Leadership.

Nathalie Sabourin, CHRP

Catherine Bédard, CHRP

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people work, at both the individual and team level, prompting them to try and find working methods and practices that enable everyone to work to their full potential, both in person and remotely. Indeed, research has shown that remote work will become widespread in the workplace (Citrin & Derosa, 2021). To stimulate innovation, people will increasingly work in networks, in interdisciplinary teams, and on cross-disciplinary projects.

Daring to use a Co-leadership model

Still today, organizational charts tend to feature hierarchical structures showing which roles can influence interactions and connections (Rahnema & Van Durme, 2017; Autissier et al., 2018). Also, the very notion of leadership is usually associated with a senior position in a more vertical decision-making structure (Luc, 2010), despite that work is often organized in organic and complex networks that include interdisciplinary and cross-collaboration (Gallup, 2021).

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If you are responsible for managing teams today, you must be bold, think differently about leadership and collaboration, and choose a model that strengthens social connection and bonding. Innovative organizations that successfully succeed in complexity build on a collective vision of leadership (Gosselin, 2020). Furthermore, they encourage their teams to co-create a shared intention to move forward (Lavallée, 2021). This shared intention precedes and shapes a Team vision that may emerge later.

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To foster interdisciplinary work, team members must engage in crossover collaboration, while co-creating new solutions and opportunities (Austissier et al., 2018). Iterative, action-based learning will enable everyone to learn, unlearn, and relearn the skills that they will need both today and moving forward (Bedard & Sabourin 2021; Sabourin & Bedard, 2020; Whiting, 2020).

Working in Co-Leadership: successful capabilities and practices

Practically speaking, this means that managers must view leadership as each person’s ability to positively influence situations and people. Consequently, any person who takes on this role can become a Leader.

To adapt, progress, innovate and learn together, teams that decide to work in Co-Leadership build four key capabilities/practices:

1.    Activate the synergy of talents and expertise through cross-disciplinary partnerships that help teams reach their goals more quickly and stimulate innovative projects.

2.    Work together and learn to co-create new solutions to open new possibilities that challenge the status quo.

3.    Continuously learn from each other in action and help each other. (In fact, the ability to continuously innovate can only be amplified in a culture in which we are not afraid of making mistakes and we are encouraged to quickly learn from them).

4.    Co-create a shared intention and ways of working together to serves as the common Team path to motivate and guide future actions.

 Contexts for implementing Co-Leadership

Co-Leadership can be more easily implemented in three environments:

1.    Organizations that want to stimulate innovation and establish a collaborative, meaningful, learning culture.

2.    Teams that want to improve their group effectiveness and promote a more collective and interdisciplinary style of leadership.

3.    Cross-disciplinary projects that bring together people from various disciplines who want to dare to work differently.

 The Co-leadership model always entails a culture of openness, as this promotes positive relationships and a sense of unity among team members (Grutterink et al., 2011). This culture also enables them to learn from each other, to feel comfortable asking questions, to express differing opinions and, most importantly, to pool their knowledge to find new solutions together (Grutterink & coll., 2011; Sabourin & Lefebvre, 2017).

 Two concrete examples

  • An Executive Team agreed to establish a shared Team intention given that the current complex and unpredictable business environment made it difficult to develop a clear vision. To rally people around this initiative, various teams were invited to participate in the co-creation of this new intention, which was first articulated in three inspiring key words. Previously, only Executive Managers were responsible for developing a vision. In this time of uncertainty, this first collective intention enabled to ignite Team alignment, and engagement to move forward, together.
  • A senior leader in charge of a new team tasked with completing ambitious cross-disciplinary projects decided to allow the team members to rediscover their strengths beyond their technical abilities. Thereafter, Co-Leadership circles were set up every three months to continue spark the synergy of talents, which helped the team reach its new goals and complete projects more quickly. Thanks to this initiative, it was able to create new partnerships, and establish a more fluid, interdisciplinary way of working.


Adopting Co-Leadership is an effective and participative way to build success together and change the way we think about leadership. This paradigm shift helps us adopt a more collective and interdisciplinary model that encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration, the co-creation of innovative solutions and intentions, and a new learning culture. What’s the best way to start? Begin with a simpler project. Make sure you have Co-Leaders who are prepared to guide the project which can then be leveraged throughout the organization.

About the authors

Nathalie Sabourin, M.Sc., CHRP. Strengths-based coach for Teams and Leaders. Expert in Codevelopment and Action-Learning Facilitation. Founder of Sabourin Consult Group Inc. I activate Co-Leadership in Teams to help them move forward, innovate together and reach their full potential. I have created the FlashCodev CoachingOurselves Module (in English) and co-authored: Le guide pratique pour implanter des groupes de codéveloppement professionnel : Collaborer et agir – Mieux et autrement (as yet available only in French), a practical guide to implementing codevelopment groups in organizations.

Catherine Bédard, M. Ed., CHRP.

Coordinator, Continuing Education, the Union des Municipalités du Québec. Motivated by my commitment to skills development, I have worked for over twenty years to develop and coordinate training programs for various client groups. I have a Master’s degree in Training Management and, in 2017, with Mathieu Guénette, G.C. I co-authored Le candidat viscéral: un guide pratique en sélection pour un regard approfondi sur le candidat (Éditions Yvon Blais). In 2018 I won the Prix du Livre RH de l’Année (HR book of the year award) and, in 2017, the Prix professionnel de l’Ordre des conseillers et conseillères d’orientation du Québec.