Nonprofit Radio: Shared Leadership Options

I’ll be on Nonprofit Radio this Friday at 10:30 am PT / 1:30 pm ET talking with host Tony Martignetti about shared leadership models. Catch us live on Talking Alternative or a few days later on iTunes.

We’ll no doubt be talking about some pros and cons associated with several models of shared leadership, including Co-CEOs, distributed leadership among c-suite officers, and distributed leadership among program employees (e.g., holacracy).


  • is empowering to a larger group of workers
  • allows those who implement policies to have a voice in shaping policy (can result in better decision-making)
  • demands internal communication and collaboration
  • results in cross-training and leadership training, allowing for greater ease in succession


  • delays decision-making and implementation
  • results in inefficiencies and lost opportunities due to such delays
  • creates confusion and difficult accountability issues
  • increases the risk of open conflict which can harm the organization’s culture

Implementation Issues:

  • relies on a shared vision and common values, making an organization vulnerable if these have yet to be established
  • will require an investment of time, money, and other resources, and the benefits may not reveal themselves for a long time


Why? CEO role requires multiple skills and responsibilities – one person may not have all, resulting in focus on deficiencies, burnout, and high turnover. Issues: How will authority be allocated? Who has final say? If they decide matters jointly, what happens when they can’t agree?

CEO and COO (President and Vice President):

More traditional hierarchical structure. But the level of autonomy of the COO (chief operating officer) may vary. Issues: How much autonomy is ideal? How much overlap in authority is appropriate while not becoming inefficient?

CEO and Board:

More common in an all-volunteer organization where the Board is active in management. In such cases, the volunteer president or chair of the board may be considered the CEO. Issues: How much individual authority should the CEO have? How much authority should the Board have? Because Boards can only act at meetings or by written consent, how much authority is being given to individual Board members and is such delegation properly recorded in Board resolutions? Is such delegation of authority being made with due care (e.g., does the individual Board member have the right skills and background to take on such authority)?

Program Autonomy:

Probably the hottest topic in shared leadership, where small groups of employees are each empowered to manage a particular program or segment of the organization. The CEO may have no authority to overrule the decision of any group, and the board may also avoid interfering so long as the groups are all operating within the scope of their delegated authority consistent with any policies and plans set forth by the board. The groups or subgroups may each have a designated leader. And an employee may participate in multiple groups and in multiple roles – sometimes as a leader and other times as a follower. Examples: distributed leadership and holacracy.

Background Resources

Shared Leadership: A Lawyer’s Perspective (Nonprofit Quarterly)

How Shared Leadership Changes Our Relationships at Work (Harvard Business Review)

Doing More with More: Putting Shared Leadership into Practice (Nonprofit Quarterly)

Five Insights from Directors Sharing Power (Nonprofit Quarterly)

From Enterprise Risk Management to Shared Leadership: A Different Look at Succession Planning (Nonprofit Quarterly)

Is CEO a Two-Person Job? (Harvard Business Review, 2020)

Can A Co-CEO Structure Work? (Associations Now)

Holacracy: How It Works (HolacracyOne)

Beyond the Holacracy Hype (Harvard Business Review)