Co-leadership and leadership: Forget about leadership and focus on management!

"First we need to look at the role of managers and employees and partially redefine them and agree on what responsibilities they have, what they should co-create and what effect it will have in the organisation."

"One effect of co-leadership is job satisfaction. Professionals of all kinds want to work independently in close co-operation with others within an agreed framework."

Is it time to bury leadership/management as an ideal and instead focus on management and management processes? This is a question I'm pondering, inspired by a rather old book on co-leadership.

Bengt Hjalmarson, experienced organisational consultant and father of the concept of co-leadership.


Suddenly it happens! More than two years ago I wrote a post about "the importance of co-leadership". Some time later the phone rang and it was Bengt. Right there and then Bengt was unknown to me, but after we talked for a while I realised that I was talking to the "father" of the word co-leadership. Bengt Hjalmarson, organisation consultant for 30 years and now retired, wrote the book "Co-leadership - creating job satisfaction through shared responsibility" in 2003 and was perhaps 20 years ahead of his time. The subject is highly topical today and in my everyday life I meet many organisations that want to introduce it, preferably together with trust-based leadership. It seems easy, but how do we achieve it in reality?

The origin of Bengt's book came from his working life, when he saw how various systems and controls had undermined personal responsibility in organisations, and how the hierarchy no longer worked as intended (and that this is also a general development in society as a whole). People were less likely to do what they were told or what the instructions say, management effectiveness decreased, and traditional management training often became a waste of time. In his book he talks about cultures of hierarchy, anarchy and interaction, and what characterises them. "Nothing is right or wrong, but if we want a workplace culture based on trust and co-leadership, we need to look at and understand how a collaborative culture works and define some concepts.


- what is it and what do organisations need in order to implement it properly? First, we need to look at the roles of manager and employee and partially redefine them and agree on what responsibilities they have, what they should co-create and what effect it has in the organisation. Compare the roles of manager - employee with roles such as client - subcontractor, client - consultant. As a co-leader, I work on the assignment that I agree with a coordinator/coordinator. This provides a framework that concretely defines my responsibility for work results, resources, collaboration with others and for learning/development. Interaction and co-leadership require jointly developed rules of the game between all concerned. Goals are built up through agreements and follow-up/ reconciliation becomes a central concern for both parties.

The coordinator/manager (who is also a co-leader in terms of his/her own mission) is relieved of management tasks, while increasing management effectiveness. The coordinator does not need to be a role model or curator any more than others. Instead, the task is to ensure that the co-leaders have the support and resources they need.

When I put into practice what Bengt writes in his book and what we talk about in the interview, it becomes clear to me that in one of the assignments I'm working in right now, the management would like to have a culture of interaction, but they are deeply rooted in hierarchy as a model of thinking and sometimes there are also departments/people who drive anarchy - no wonder it gets messy.

One effect of co-leadership is job satisfaction. Professionals of all kinds want to work independently in close co-operation with others within an agreed framework. My absolute conviction is that people want to use all their skills, be able to influence and be effective at their jobs, regardless of where they are in the organisation or hierarchy. Anarchy, and hierarchy, usually leaks energy while interaction creates it. A clear sign of hierarchy, which I see in many organisations, is that few people dare to ask or make comments before the "boss" has stated his position.

If we take a closer look at the word leadership, there are many books written about it and various styles to promote certain types of behaviour, but what does it mean? Wikipedia says: "From an organisational perspective, leadership is a specific behaviour used to influence the thinking, attitude and behaviour of others. Leadership can be described as a social process in which a person engages others in accomplishing a common task."

I would think that there are as many other definitions of the word as there are leaders, but no matter how you look at it, it has an authoritarian ring to it. Same with leader and follower. The word hides what is important - leadership.

Management aims to:

  1. Achieving results

  2. Saving resources

  3. Adapt, develop, learn, decommission

Involving everyone in management processes increases management effectiveness.

Example: As teleworking became more common during the pandemic, work performance and motivation improved in many organisations as employees took greater responsibility for when, where and how they worked. Qualified employees in projects, for example, take a relatively large amount of responsibility for the content and results of their work - they cannot be controlled by hierarchical patterns. It looks like it is high time for co-leadership and management in interaction.

When I asked Bengt what he thinks is important in a corporate culture context? What do you need to be really good at as a leader? "Forget the word leader, use the word coordinator instead. It says more about what the person has to do and that everyone is involved in the management". I need hardly say that Bengt is clear, direct, razor-sharp and has a really big sense of humour.

Last but not least, I want to touch on 'trust-based leadership', which can be a paradox in itself, because trust cannot be commanded. Trust is a feeling and an effect of having healthy relationships in the workplace that work, a clear direction, clear responsibilities, constructive dialogue and doing what we have agreed upon. Trust is fostered by co-leadership and interaction. But trust needs to be in moderation, too little trust promotes suspicion and anarchy, too much underdog behaviour and naivety. Power and conflict can often be prevented with trust but not always managed and resolved.

Bengt has inspired me to think further about leadership and management. Are you also curious? Do we need the concept of leadership, should it be redefined - or is it time for a funeral? Feel free to get in touch.

@Bengt Hjalmarson - thank you for giving me the opportunity to interview you and making this text much more substantial, your wise input and experience and I look forward to more wise moments of reflection together!