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Shared Leadership: A Primer for Nonprofits

07.29.21 | Linda J. Rosenthal, JD

What have the Romans ever done for us?” *

— “Reg” aka John Cleese, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)


One of the hottest topics in philanthropy today is something you’ve likely never heard of – or imagined possible.

“Shared leadership” takes the historical model of organizations and leadership and turns it on its head. Gone is the rigid, top-down, vertical command-and-control hierarchy with a sole “heroic” leader at the helm.

So what takes its place? Lots of experts are trying to figure that out, but the answer seems to be in a horizontal model of co-leadership and team decision-making. Of course, the traditional Western model is so ingrained in our psyches that it’s almost jarring to consider any alternative. But social scientists have spent the last few decades toying with this formerly “unthinkable” notion, whether it’s called “shared,” or “distributive,” or “co” leadership. There is a strong consensus emerging that the old rigid model is “unsustainable,” out of step with modern thinking, and not all that effective in any event.

It began with a dribble of new scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the seminal references on point is Shared Leadership: The Hows and Whys of It (2002) edited by Professors Craig L. Pearce and Jay A. Conger [“This volume is but a beginning for research on shared leadership. One thing that is clear is that shared leadership will not merely be another blip on the radar screen of organizational science. Its time has arrived.”]

Shared leadership is a leadership style that broadly distributes leadership responsibility, such that people within a team and organization lead each other.” While this concept applies to organizational structures generally, it holds particular promise for the nonprofit sector. The team-centric focus melds well with the growing movement in philanthropy to expand governance beyond insulated and privileged boards of directors.

In the last two decades, there have been advances in the theoretical realm with significant academic research and scholarship. And there’s also been progress in the field with pilot programs. A perceived obstacle, though, is the apparent dearth of practical experience from which to draw.

Actually, though, there’s a treasure of real-world, time-tested, knowledge. But it requires digging into antiquity. (You were wondering – perhaps – when we’d get back to those Romans?)

John Cleese’s “Reg” asks his ruffian band of acolytes: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” He gets an earful from them. “All right,” concedes “Reg,” “but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

“Peace,” they add. **

And “shared leadership,” we add.

For over 400 years, republican Rome “had a successful system of co-leadership …. It “was so effective that it extended from the lower levels of the Roman magistracy to the very top position, that of consul.” See Co-Leadership: Lessons from Republican Rome, (July 2002) Professor David Sally, California Management Review. From the Abstract: “The Roman Republic embraced a system of co-leadership that thrived for over four centuries before dissolving into the dictatorship of the Empire….This article identifies ten key lessons that the republicans of Rome understood and that are extremely relevant for the modern organization attempting to institute or sustain” co-leadership.

Suggested References

This being a primer, here’s a reading list to get the ball rolling:

Scholarly Research

Nonprofits & Shared Leadership



“In most analyses of co-leadership,” Professor Sally observes, “the analysis is on the personalities of the partners. Yet, this cannot be the whole story….” He explains: “The fact that the Roman Republic sustained co-leadership for more than four centuries means that there were structures, norms, and behaviors that supported an immense variety of personalities in consulship, quaestorship, and so on….”


* This is a clip [1:26] of the original movie scene, courtesy of the Monty Python Official YouTube Channel. Or, if you prefer, there’s the “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us” musical scene [2:08] from the comic-oratorio version of Life of Brian that features Eric Idle, full orchestra, and classical soloists.

** The tie-in of the Life of Brian scene to the “shared leadership” concept courtesy of Sabre Team Building and its “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” program.

— Linda J. Rosenthal, J.D., FPLG Information & Research Director



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