Blurry Leadership

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


Most MBA schools, Boards of Directors and management types prefer clearly defined management structures and authority. Who answers to whom, who is accountable for what, everyone knows their place, etc. I agree that accountability is key, but have no problem with ‘joint’ accountability or with ‘shared leadership’. I know it’s frowned upon at all the right think tanks, but I’d argue that it’s a superior breed of leadership. At EllisDon it’s all over the place.

Leadership’s an impossibly difficult subject. It’s like some kind of endless paradox zen thing. I love to speechify ponderously that great leadership is demonstrated by resolutely not giving direction, but by building terrific leaders around you and letting them lead. There’s also the more admirable quality of leading through influence rather than authority - when you don’t have the authority or (even better) when you do. Building these abilities should be a top priority everywhere (they just aren’t what I want to speechify ponderously about here).

EllisDon has a unique, longstanding practice of shared leadership. This isn’t the same as delegation – handing it off to someone else – it’s recognizing that certain decisions are not entirely yours to make, though you must play a key role in the decision, and remain personally and fully accountable for the outcome.

If you think that won’t ever work, you have to duke it out with EllisDon’s founder. At every (other) construction company I know, the Superintendent reports to the Project Manager. Fifty years ago, Don Smith gave these two key positions equal authority and equal accountability on every project. It’s been that way since, and has never been reconsidered. More recently, we had co-Executive VP’s at ED, jointly accountable for construction operations in every sense. Everybody said it couldn’t work (I certainly wasn’t sure myself), but it worked extremely well. It requires shared values, trust, integrity and capability (no weak links). (On another level, everyone says JV’s must have a ‘managing partner’. Why? We’ve done lots of great 50/50 JVs. Nothing like looking across the table at an equal partner to force a full and balanced discussion.)

I have no idea where the ‘leadership balance’ is. Sometimes a leader must stand alone, and make the singular decision. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride, or bide your time. Committee decision making, of course, won’t ever work. It’s far too slow, reinforces conventional thinking and mediocrity, and subverts accountability.

But I have seen co-leadership and co-accountability - and even tri-leadership - work extremely well, far better than a single person would have ever accomplished. In fact, I’d argue that a person can best exhibit great individual leadership by demonstrating their ability to share it in almost all situations.

If you are going to attract great people, then leadership is going to have to be shared, period, and if people can embrace that, it can be a very powerful thing.

Thanks for reading.