What is Distributed Leadership?

What is Distributed Leadership?

In this module we will look at a phenomenon called Distributed Leadership. As the name would suggest this is all about how leadership is distributed throughout an organisation. Distributing leadership mainly refers to the PRACTICE of leadership SKILLS, rather than the specific ROLES within an organisation. It is all about individuals being able to exhibit leadership skills when required to do so, either informally or formally. By increasing the capacity of individuals to exercise leadership skills, regardless of whether they hold a leadership role or not, the school sets itself up to be adaptable, dynamic and versatile; all characteristics exhibited by the best organisations.  

It is important to understand that this is not the same as ‘Delegated’ Leadership. Delegated leadership is perhaps something that we are MORE familiar with. Delegated Leadership is when the Headteacher, or other senior leader, delegates some of his / her tasks to others further down the organogram, handing over responsibility for some element of development, but not necessarily facilitating the true leadership of that element. Where Delegated Leadership relies on leadership HIERARCHY, Distributed Leadership relies on leadership SKILL.  

Contemporary research has shown that organisations with a higher level of distributed leadership, perform better than organisations that don’t. The reason for this is that by distributing their leadership they increase their CAPACITY for change and as a result they are able to adapt more easily to changing circumstances that apply to any prevailing situation. 

So this is about how well organisations can cope with change but how does it translate to student outcomes? Well, there is also a further correlation that would suggest that schools with higher levels of distributed leadership, have better student outcomes. And this, of course, is our primary purpose as schools.

There is also a third metric which is very important and that is staff wellbeing. In my experience, distributing leadership effectively within an organisation has a significantly positive impact on staff wellbeing. In short, if staff feel they have the opportunity to lead, regardless of their position in the organisation, and that their opinions matter from a leadership perspective, they feel more valued and as a consequence are generally happier at work. 

So these are some of the advantages to a distributed leadership model but how do we go about ‘distributing leadership’ in a school? In the subsequent module we will look into this in more detail but the important starting point is the adjustment of the organisational mindset. This model of leadership is more about an ATTITUDE towards leadership. As I mentioned before, it differs from other leadership models in that it focuses on the development of leadership skills throughout an organisation, regardless of official titles and positions, but far more on the understanding that a person doesn’t need to have a title to be a leader. Shifting an organisational mindset to bring about an understanding of this concept, and embracing it, is key to developing in this direction. And therefore, this should be the focus for leaders in any organisation wishing to embark on the development of a distributed leadership model.

It should not be ignored that there are clearly still named leadership roles within an organisation, and these are unlikely to change. Nor should they particularly because this is not the purpose of distributing leadership. The purpose is far more aligned to increasing capacity for growth by optimising use of the ‘talent pool’ within an organisation. Named leaders who understand this, allow for the growth of these skills within their organisation, and need to, themselves, learn how to empower and release control over certain elements of their organisation, in order to make space for growth, both of the institution, and of the individuals within it. 

To illustrate what I mean I am going to use the example of a school wanting to develop their communications strategy. For the sake of our example, in this school, the Deputy Head is responsible for sending out communications to parents. However, he has been in post for a long time and is mostly experienced in the use of paper-based communication systems and not at all familiar with modern electronic software tools that are available. Because of this he may be inclined to develop a strategy which over relies on paper-based communication.  

However, there is a younger member of staff who is very familiar with the use of social media platforms, and is far more in tune with how the general parent body prefers to communicate. After a particular staff meeting where the team had discussed communications, the young staff member approached the Deputy Head to volunteer to lead the development of a new, more modern communication strategy. Because our example school was already embracing the idea of a distributed leadership model, the Deputy Head was very grateful for this opportunity to hand over this task to the younger member of staff, who was also grateful to have the chance to take on a little leadership challenge.

This is a small, simple example of distributed leadership but the principle of allowing anyone to lead on any relevant projects can be extrapolated widely to incorporate many aspects of school life, including curriculum, PTA events, Health & Safety and so on. 

The question is, “Can a school ever say that their leadership is fully distributed?” Once a school gets to the point that they have people at all levels, leading different initiatives, they can, I suppose, say that their leadership is effectively distributed. However, as the idea of distributed leadership is about skill development, it is unlikely that it really has an end point per se. Distributing leadership is something that requires continual attention and should be a focus for the senior leaders; failure to do so will probably lead to the leadership model slipping back to more traditional leadership models, that people are more familiar with. It takes a progressively minded senior leader to fully understand how to distribute leadership, and to embrace the concept and make use of its full power within an organisation. 

In the second half of this module we will look at ways of building distributed leadership within your team or organisation, and explore how these relate back to trust and empowerment, our two major themes throughout these modules. 

Point of Reflection:

In your organisation is there a sense of leadership at all levels? Do you feel that your ideas are well received and encouraged by your senior leaders?

If not, why do you think this is the case? If yes, can you identify particular behaviours that make you feel comfortable in doing so?

Personal Development Activity:

Research (30 mins)

Read this article about the leadership style at Google . In the article they mention various styles of leadership and how these have created the prevailing leadership style at Google. In your leadership journal write your considerations on the following points:

  1. The possible impact of Distributed leadership at your organisation.
  2. The prevailing leadership styles that you experience at your organisation?
  3. How far away from a Distributed Leadership model your organisation is.