Building your foundations for Distributed Leadership

Build your foundations of Distributed Leadership

In the first half of this module we looked at distributed leadership as a concept and explored what this looks like in a team or organisation. In this second half we will look at some key leadership behaviours that you can utilise that will encourage the growth of a distributed leadership model. 

Distributed leadership can only work effectively in work environments where there are high levels of trust. High levels of trust result in high levels of psychological safety and this allows people to experience three important things:

  1. Firstly, they have the opportunity to share and contribute their ideas. In fact they are INVITED to do so. In good teams the leadership makes sure that they provide channels for ideas to come from all over the organisation. This may, for example, be through idea boxes in the staffroom, open seats in leadership meetings, an open door policy, or thoughtfully constructed team meetings where contributions and discussions are encouraged.
  2. Secondly, people feel they have the support to TRY new ideas and initiatives. In good teams, members are encouraged to take risks. Of course these have to be measured and justifiable, but risk is an important part of growth and those organisations that risk things in order to get better at what they do, are the organisations that change the world. 
  3. And thirdly, people feel safe in failure. This doesn’t mean that people work at a sub standard level, or that failure is an acceptable standard, no, it means that in taking risks and trying out new things there is inevitable trial and error, and consequently a higher likelihood of failure. What is important in good teams is that people feel safe to fail because it means that they have tried in the first place, and they will learn from failed attempts, and therefore grow personally and professionally. 

These three ingredients lay the foundations for effective distribution of leadership. Without them, the responsibility of leadership is too overwhelming for most people and they would rather stick to what they know, what they are paid for, and where they can keep their head below the parapet, because these are things that they can control. 

As the leader of a team, once you know you have generated a high level of psychological safety within your team, and that they will be receptive to the idea of distributing leadership there are further practical things that you can do to start actually building this model from the ground up. I use the acronym ‘GO’ as a guide on how to create this culture. Let’s have a closer look at what this stands for. 

G stands for ‘Give Generously’ and this can be broken down further into four areas. The first is Give generously of your time. If your team needs you, or if a member of your team wants to talk to you, make the time. Resist the temptation to enter into the “Send me an email and I’ll respond” conversation. If you can make the time, do it, it builds trust. 

The second is Give Generously of opportunity. In schools, as in many organisations, opportunities for growth are plentiful. If a member of your team has an idea that will further the organisation or team towards its vision, let them run with it. Give them the opportunity to go for it. This will not only result in the team’s growth, but also personal growth for the individual. 

The third is to give generously of your support. If a team member is trying out a new initiative, or struggling with an element of their role, or indeed having personal troubles that they are finding difficult to bear, give your support, unfettered and wholeheartedly. It builds trust and is simply the human thing to do.

Fourthly, give generously of your trust. This can be a hard one to do. As the leader of a team you will undoubtedly have ideas about the ways things should be done. And to an extent it is your role to have these ideas. But one of the hardest things to do as a leader is to understand that there are many ways of achieving the same goals, and the stark reality of this is that everybody has a unique understanding of how best to achieve an objective. 

If you have given the responsibility of achieving a certain task to a member of your team, give them the support that they seek, when they seek it, but trust that they will achieve the task. They may not do it in the same way as you might have done, and indeed they may even fail in the task but their personal growth is more important in the long run, and if you have the right culture that will support and guide them, they will learn from their mistakes and grow professionally in doing so. And they will always appreciate the fact that you trusted them.

The ‘O’ in ‘GO’ stands for ‘Be Open’. Once again we can break this down further, this time into 3 different areas:

Firstly Communicate openly. Make sure that your team knows what is going on, when it is going on and why it is going on. For the most part this is a good rule of thumb. There will, of course, be occasions when it is not possible or prudent to communicate with your team and this is down to your judgement as a leader. However, leaders who are known to be open with their communications are trusted more by their teams. And importantly, sharing bad news is as important as sharing good news, once again, if it is appropriate. 

Secondly, be open about your vulnerabilities. Not everyone is perfect and you are not expected to be, just because you are leading a team. Be open about where and when you need support from your team, be open about areas in your team’s remit that you find more challenging, and may need advice, and be open with your relationships within your team, so that your team members know where they stand all the time.

And thirdly, be open to ideas. This, of course, is the basis of distributed leadership. If the right culture is created, and people feel free to bring ideas to the table, it requires that you, as leader, are willing to listen to ideas and enact those that you feel will work to the benefit of the team’s vision. In the best teams, ideas are allowed to come forward and then be discussed in the right forums so that they undergo an internal process of rigour before being implemented. We will look at a proper process of implementation in another module. 

In summary, distributing leadership is a mindset shift within your team. Your style of leadership will depend largely on your personality but the concept of distributing leadership should look beyond your personal style and should become embedded in the leadership culture of your team or organisation. Your role as the leader of the team is to nurture the environment in which distributed leadership will grow. And like all mindset shift processes, it is likely to take time to embed and will be difficult to quantifiably reach an endpoint. But start working on it today, and you and your team will start to reap the benefits in due course. 

Point of Reflection:

What are your team meetings like? Do you give time over for discussion of recent initiatives or not? Reflect on why this is the case, and the pros and cons of having this time or not.

Personal Development Activity:

Ideas Box (30 mins)

In a communal area that your team uses, put an ideas box and introduce it to your team. It is your choice whether you wish to make it anonymous or not. Ultimately you may wish to work towards a team that does not desire anonymity, but you may feel that at this stage your team may contribute more ideas if they were allowed to be anonymous.