The 5 Levers of Reciprocal Leadership

By Francis Eberle

How difficult is it to cross silos, departments or even organizations to accomplish a goal? I think I know your answer.

What if you were able to foresee how using expertise from another person, department or organization could create a product that was 50 times better than if you did it alone? Would you do it?

I am not a gambling person, but I did have an opportunity to do just this. Without going into the details, the result was indeed 50 times better than if my organization had pursued it alone.

This type of success happens through what is called reciprocal leadership. The skills needed include creating vision, building relationships and influencing others. These will help you move from the methods (extrinsic) to strategy and beliefs (the intrinsic). You will then garner commitment to ideas before tasks.

When working with others who are not in your normal sphere, there are five practical aspects to keep in mind to be successful. They are ownership, time, resources, personnel and credit. They are critical levers to address and monitor.

Ownership. You want commitment. Having a clear goal and responsibilities mapped out is crucial to ownership. The results of the project have to be in the interest of everyone. They have to see what they will get for it. Beware of “convenience” commitment. That is, people who say yes, but really have no intention of participating to the level that is needed. Clearly identify the roles and how long they will last. Written agreements are also useful if collaboration is across companies or teams.

Ownership also represents the leadership of the project. The leadership model with a single leader is easiest to put in place, but also the most fraught with potential pitfalls, such as blame and accountability to a single person.

Two other models share leadership. They are “co-leads” or “changing leads”. With co-leads or shared leadership, two or more people have the oversight. This works well if communication is open and frank, and the total number of leaders is three or less. With changing leadership, the leader is only in charge of particular parts of the project. The leadership corresponds with the expertise needed for the problem, and each leader is responsible to the others. People who can check their ego at the door can manage this type of leadership more successfully. These models require trust and integrity.

Time. This might be the easiest consideration, but it is also very critical. You must answer how long each player will work, how long the lead lasts, and the overall timeline for the project.

Resources. This can be tricky and determining what is needed before beginning is ideal, as once the project is started it is hard to go back. The benefit of doing this right can reduce the overall costs to any one entity as the work is spread out. Resources includes both time and dollars, depending on the circumstances. You must spell out the investment for everyone. And how resulting revenue will be divided, if any.

Personnel. The lead must be willing to give the positional power away for some tasks, but not the influence. At the same time, the giving of authority increases the leader’s power of character, helping them be more influential. To help staff a team, look for cultural brokers: those people everyone knows and who create and develop new relationships. (This concept is described in Harvard Business Review’s Cross-Silo Leadership by Casciaro. T., Edmondson, A. & Jang. S., 2019). Team members must commit to and carry out their roles.

The monitoring of a project includes managing the lead and the participants. It requires regular meetings and calls to ensure there are clear expectations, communications and success. Adjustments are needed as with any project. Here accountability is both personal and to the others or organization. As Ron Price and Randy Lisk say in The Complete Leader, “Personal accountability is the willingness and ability to take personal responsibility for processes, decisions, actions and results created by you.” People must be committed to the goal and their organization, but sometimes the goal will create greater value than they could in their organization.

Credit. This goes a long way to fostering new collaborative projects. Each win should be celebrated, and the players should be recognized. This should occur throughout the project, as the teams may not interact with others, so they may only have awareness of how the project is going for their part and not the whole. Include plenty of recognition, particularly if you want to do more of this type of work.

To summarize, reciprocal leadership is successful even if you simply want to add expertise; you do not necessarily have to solve a problem. Often to do that, a nontraditional model of leadership is needed. The posture is being like some CEOs, and utilizing others’ strengths for the purpose of achieving a goal.

Laszlo Bock, Google’s former Senior Vice President of People Operations, says that humble people are better at bringing others together to solve tough problems. In a fast-changing business environment, humility is simply a strength, or “It really is a complex, challenging world out there; if we don’t work together, we don’t stand a chance.” Sometimes you need to both lead and follow.

To learn more about Reciprocal Leadership, contact Dr. Eberle at