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What is Distributed Leadership?

Distributed leadership is primarily concerned with mobilizing leadership at all levels in the organisation not just relying on leadership from the top. It is about engaging the many rather than the few in leadership activity within the school and actively distributing leadership practice. The emphasis here is about leadership practice and not leadership functions. A distributed model of leadership is one premised upon the interactions between many leaders rather than the actions of an individual leader. If leadership is primarily about influence and direction then in a sense all leadership is distributed. In any organisation leadership practice  [1]  is fluid and emergent rather than fixed’. So if distributed leadership simply describes the scope and direction of all leadership practice, why the interest?

 

There are two answers to this question. Firstly, there is increasing evidence to support a strong relationship between distributed patterns of leadership and improved student outcomes [2] . In short, the degree of distribution of leadership matters to student achievement. Secondly, as schools and school configurations (i.e. networks or extended schools) become more structurally complex different forms and patterns of distributed leadership will inevitably emerge.

 

So what do we know about distributed leadership  [3] ?

 

Distributed leadership is not delegation

Distributed leadership is an organisational condition

Distributed leadership is promoted not mandated

Distributed leadership is inclusive

Distributed leadership does not mean everybody leads

Distributed leadership has many organisational configurations

 

Taking the first of these points, it is important to distinguish between distribution and delegation. A common misunderstanding is to assume that distributed leadership means delegating certain tasks. Not so. Distribution is not meant here in its functional sense. Rather it describes a process where distributed leadership is the by product of shared activity, discussion or dialogue rather than the routine handing out of tasks. Distributed leadership is concerned with two things:

 

1. The process of leadership - how leadership occurs within the organisation

2. Leadership activity - how leadership is enhanced and developed

 

This takes us to the second point about distributed leadership. It is an organisational condition rather than a set of personal qualities. Taking a distributed perspective on leadership means that it is grounded in activity (i.e. mutual enquiry, dialogue, partnership) rather than in position or role.  [4] Where ‘leadership and organizational growth collide it is, by definition, dispersed or distributed’. In very practical terms it will require the creation of the internal conditions where it can thrive. It will necessitate the creation of time, space and opportunity for groups to meet, plan and reflect.

 

Engaging the many rather than the few in leadership activity is at the heart of distributed leadership. By moving beyond a pre-occupation with those in leadership positions, a distributed perspective urges us to look view leadership as a lateral form of agency.

 

Consider the following questions:

 

What needs to happen at your school for leadership to be a more collective, shared and distributed activity?

What challenges might distributed leadership pose and how might these be overcome?

 

Distributed leadership is a communication system and process by which the organisation learns and develops. It cannot be forced onto a network or mandated.  [5]  It can be disturbed but not controlled. However distributed leadership is not necessarily or intrinsically good thing. It depends. It is possible for distributed leadership to be counter-productive, particularly if it is equated with the simplistic notion of everyone leading. While distributed leadership implies that everyone within the organisation has leadership capability and capacity, in practice leadership will evolve in line with the needs of the organisation. Not everyone will be leading at the same time. It will depend on context, need and capability. Also some members may engage in leadership activities more than others. Clearly, it can be engineered by offering new opportunities to lead, by generating broad based leadership and by providing the creative spaces for dialogue and discussion within the network. Inevitably distributed leadership will look different in different contexts. It will reflect the inherent diversity and variability of activity within and across networks.

 

Reflection

So where does this take us? For some, it takes distributed leadership into the realm of the abstract and away from the practical realities of schooling. For others, it offers the real possibility of looking at leadership through a new and alternative lens that challenges some strongly held views about the nature of leadership. Taking a distributed perspective breaks down the barriers between leaders and followers. It implies that leadership can be broad based, stretched and extended to meet the requirements of the network or networks it serves.

 

We undoubtedly, need new forms of leadership as we step into the dynamic but un-chartered territory of network learning. We need new ways of understanding, analyzing and making sense of change. We need alternative perspectives on leadership activity. Distributed leadership offers one such perspective. It certainly isn’t a panacea or blueprint for change but unlike other theories emanating from the rather tired world of leadership research, it has an immediate resonance with practice.

 

Distributed leadership is already happening in schools. What we need to know is different patterns of distribution make to organisational development and change. This is the focus of my research activity.

 


 



[1] Spillane, J., Halverson, R. and Diamond, J. (2001) “Towards a Theory of Leadership Practice: A Distributed Perspective” Northwestern University, Institute for Policy Research Working Article.

 

[2] Hargreaves, A. and Fink, D. (2006) Sustainable Leadership, Jossey Bass, San Francisco. p 99

 

[3] Harris, A (2005) Crossing boundaries and breaking barriers: Distributing leadership in schools Pamphlet published by the Specialist Schools Trust www.sst-inet.net

 

[4] Hopkins, D. and Jackson, D. (2003) ‘Building the Capacity for Leading and Learning’ in Harris, A. Day,C. Hadfield,M. Hopkins,D.Hargreaves, A. and Chapman, C. (2002) Effective Leadership for School Improvement London, Routledge

 

[5] Hargreaves, A. and Fink, D. (2006) Sustainable Leadership, Jossey Bass, San Francisco.

 

 

 

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