By many accounts, centralizing power erodes trust and loyalty, but spreading it ultimately results in a powerful team and widespread success.
Children often are taught to share, but once they reach grade school, competition becomes the modus operandi. Indeed, many academic or leadership accomplishments are achieved as a result of years of competition — such as getting into a prestigious school or being selected for a prized residency or fellowship. Only one person gets the top job offer, so is there room for sharing?
“A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.”
− Arnold H. Glasow, American thinker, author and businessman
U.S. President Harry S. Truman famously kept a sign on his desk: “The Buck Stops Here.” It became a popular phrase, espousing the idea that decisions ultimately belong to a leader. A leader often gets credit for an entire organization’s or team’s accomplishments. Where does the buck stop with praise and blame? In the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins says successful leaders look “out the window” when everything is going well and “in the mirror” when things aren’t.1
In a survey asking 64,000 people in 13 countries about the qualities of an ideal leader, sharing credit ranked among the most important qualities, along with collaboration, flexibility and selflessness.2 Occasionally, individuals will succeed while an organization or business fails, but this is not a sustainable model for success. Thriving organizations lead to widespread success, and sharing is a critical pillar of a thriving organization.
“You only have true power if you can share it, because otherwise, it has you.”
− Minh Tan, Vietnamese-Canadian poet
Leadership is often equated with power. However, leaders who strive to amass power end up spending a significant amount of time and energy trying to protect it, which takes time away from actually leading. By many accounts, centralizing power erodes trust and loyalty, but sharing it ultimately results in a powerful team.
Secure leaders do not need to surround themselves with weak subordinates. On the contrary, as stated by Mark Feldman and Michael Spratt in Five Frogs on a Log: “ ‘A’ players hire ‘A-plus’ players, ‘B’ players hire ‘C’ players, and ‘C’ players hire idiots.”3 Instead of spending energy pushing backward to keep others down, secure leaders foster a work culture that allows the energy of a powerful team to move the organization forward.
“[A humble man] will not be thinking about humility. He will not be thinking about himself at all.”
− C.S. Lewis, Irish writer, scholar and theologian
An oft-misunderstood aspect of sharing in leadership deals with exposing imperfections. Followers can identify with a leader who gives permission to be fallible. Sharing at a personal level projects humility and permits a leader to use mistakes as teachable moments. Indeed, the best leaders are humble at their core. A 2014 study by Catalyst of more than 1,500 workers from six countries agreed that humility was one of four critical factors that enabled leaders to be included in work teams.4
Another study suggests that, next to honesty, a leader’s most important trait is the ability to be forward-thinking in his or her vision for the organization.5 Sharing that vision is vital to success, and that starts with sharing time and ideas with people. To share ideas is to subject them to critique, which can refine the perspective, identify areas of weakness and strengthen worthy ones. A leader who is willing to reshape and refine ideas garners the respect of those involved in the collaboration, and in turn fosters a work environment where sharing becomes part of the workplace culture.
What happens when colleagues do not share? Success at a high-level organization requires more than a single standout member. Hiding or hoarding knowledge may encourage others to mirror that behavior, which can hinder workplace creativity in the end.6 While there is no replacement for basic skills coupled with experience, creating a knowledge-sharing culture is one of the fastest ways to optimize skill sets and increase efficiencies.
Transformational leaders develop a workplace culture where both the leader shares and others can share as well.7 Good leaders are “givers” not “takers,” and, over time, their generosity infects the organization. Veteran entrepreneur Chip Conley advises: “Being a giver is not good for a 100-yard dash, but it’s valuable in a marathon.”8
“Leadership isn’t about simply being in charge and treating your people like soldiers and barking orders. Leadership is sharing your knowledge and your direction so that others grow and reach their potential.”
− Cal Ripken Jr., Hall of Fame baseball player
Think about the paternalistic physicians of the past. Often, the flow of information was one-way and pedagogical. Certainly, physicians were respected, but they also had a monopoly on information, which limited open communication. Society has changed. Information (and misinformation) is readily available. The relationship between physician and patient has changed. Physicians now practice in a collaborative model of shared decision making.
The same concept applies to a team. Transparency reduces the suspicion of hidden agendas or ulterior motives. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, author Patrick Lencioni highlights “absence of trust” as the core dysfunction.9 Building trust takes time, but the sharing of information, skills, strategies and responsibility helps develop that trust over time.
Sharing shows self-confidence in leaders and builds self-confidence in colleagues. Great visions fail when a team doesn’t trust the leader or understand the “why” behind a vision. People are more willing to support an idea or vision when they’ve been involved in or were privy to the process.
What about sharing with competitors? Consider, for example, one of the most competitive businesses — professional sports. During the 2013 WGC-Cadillac Championship tournament in Doral, Florida, Tiger Woods was struggling with the firm, fast greens of the Trump National Doral course. Woods, one of the best players in the world, asked competitor Steve Stricker for some help. Stricker, acclaimed for his putting ability, spent 45 minutes working with Woods.
Woods won the tournament, and Steve Stricker ended up as runner-up. The difference in prize money was $620,000. However, there was more than money at stake, as performance at the highest levels needs constant attention to sustain. Beyond friendship and professional respect, it shows that even the elite can still learn by sharing. And, ultimately, the game of golf is better off with such interaction, which elevates the value of the game for all involved.10
“Leaders become great not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.”
− John C. Maxwell, American leadership expert, speaker and author
While sharing with external competitors sounds daunting, it sometimes benefits all involved. Best-practice guidelines exist because leaders recognize the value of knowledge sharing. Adopting well-established models often serves to raise quality or performance across an industry, while allowing time to focus on other challenges or problems within the industry.
Leading organizations do not remain in front by being static and hoarding best practices. They must evolve and innovate to stay relevant. A leader who can navigate with vision and foster these tenets can influence not only his or her company but the industry as a whole.
In 2014, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk opened up the carmaker’s patents for any company to use, royalty free and without restriction.11 Musk understood that for the electric car market to grow, there needs to be a greater investment in infrastructure, which can happen only if other companies also produce electric cars and innovate with the fledging alternative-fuel market. Tesla cannot grow the market alone, but by growing the industry, Tesla can expand its offerings and continue leading its industry through innovation.12
Leadership ultimately is about the people, not the leader. Successful companies have cultures and identifiable visions that guide every employee. While these factors usually start with leaders, they are executed by the people who follow the leaders. Ultimately, success comes from empowering people to take ownership of their roles and use their knowledge to perform at optimal levels. Sharing credit serves as an inspiration, cascades downward and results in confident employees and cohesive teams unafraid to share their knowledge.
Stephen C. Koesters, MD, FACP, FAAP, is an assistant professor of clinical medicine at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.
Timothy Shea, PsyD, is an assistant professor and a neuropsychologist at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.
Bhagwan Satiani, MD, MBA, FACS, FACHE, is a professor of clinical surgery and director of the Faculty Leadership Institute at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.
- Collins, J. Good to Great.New York City: HarperCollins. (2001).
- Gerzema, J. Tomorrow's Leaders Will Be Flexible, Selfless, and Ready to Collaborate. (2013, May 16). Retrieved April 20, 2016, from https://www.fastcompany.com/3009751/tomorrows-leaders-will-be-flexible-selfless-and-ready-to-collaborate.
- Feldman, M.L., Spratt, M.F. Five Frogs on a Log.New York City: HarperCollins. (1999).
- Prime, J., Salib, E. The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders. Retrieved May 10, 2016, from https://hbr.org/2014/05/the-best-leaders-are-humble-leaders. (2014, May 12).
- Kouzes, J.M., Posner, B.Z. The Truth About Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (2010).
- Nerstad, C., Dysvik, A., Skerlavaj, M. Hoarding Ideas at Work? Why You Should Stop. (2014, March 5). Retrieved May 10, 2016, from https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/6011-how-hiding-ideas-at-work-backfires.html.
- Elshout, R., Scherp, E., van der Feltz-Corenelis, C. Understanding the link between leadership style, employee satisfaction, and absenteeism: a mixed methods design study in a mental health care institution. Neuropsychiatri Dis Treat , 823-837. (2013).
- McKinney M. Are You a Giver or a Taker? Retrieved from https://www.leadershipnow.com/leadingblog/2013/04/are_you_a_giver_or_a_taker.html.
- Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
10 Eblin, S. (2013, March 13). Five Reasons Why You Should Help Your Frenemies. Retrieved May 10, 2016, from https://eblingroup.com/blog/five-reasons-to-help-your-frenemies/.
- Musk, E. (2014, June 12). All Our Patent Are Belong to You. Retrieved May 10, 2016, from https://www.tesla.com/blog/all-our-patent-are-belong-you.
- Watkins, W. (2014, July 17). Rethinking Patent Enforcement: Tesla Did What. Retrieved May 10, 2016, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/07/17/rethinking-patent-enforcement-tesla-did-what/#64c25e6a3168