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Distributing Leadership


This week, I’d like to examine a fourth of the five structures that NNSTOY has identified as missing from the teaching profession, distributed leadership.  The concept of distributed leadership has been in play in the industrial workplace for decades, in various forms.  In a distributed leadership model, decision-making is shared amongst leadership teams rather than being a strictly top-down approach.

One simple description of distributed leadership comes from Alma Harris and James Spillane who state that “distributed leadership perspective recognises that there are multiple leaders (Spillane et al., 2004) and that leadership activities are widely shared within and between organisations (Harris, 2007) and that leadership focuses on interactions rather than actions of leaders.”


However, more businesses are recognizing that the concept of a single leader who has all the answers and provides a single-focused direction for a company in unproductive and fails to take advantage of talent.  In 1996, authors Bruce Pasternak and Albert Viscio noted the rise of more horizontally structured leadership models, taking advantage of leadership teams to better utilize talent within a company.  http://www.strategy-business.com/article/14974?gko=9ee07 We talked about this briefly in the message I sent out on continuums, with businesses in 2010s moving away from career ladders (top-down movement) to career lattices.  (Benko and Weisberg, Mass Career Customization.)

Pasternak and Viscio studied hundreds of companies’ leadership structures, as well as the research base, and noted that business was moving away from models of businesses built around assets to businesses built to leverage and develop assets – people – for leadership roles.

In the April 8, 2010 edition of the e-zine MIX (Management Innovation eXchange), author Terri Kelly states that, “It’s far better to rely upon a broad base of individuals and leaders who share a common set of values and feel personal ownership for the overall success of the organization. These responsible and empowered individuals will serve as much better watchdogs than any single, dominant leader or bureaucratic structure.”

Kelly goes on to point out that organizations that rely upon a single-leader model fail to capitalize on the capacity within their organizations; and ultimately, lose talent.  It seems that Generation Y teachers are not the only millenials who want leadership opportunities early and often.  She also talks about the corporate shift from valuing the contributions of a few, to valuing the contirbutions of many.  Most significantly, I thought, Kelly speaks to the role of the leader as that of empowering his/her staff to lead.   http://www.managementexchange.com/blog/no-more-heroes

If you choose to view this article, be sure to scroll down through the comments section; there are some good thoughts there.

In reading some of the research around this topic,  it appears that the benefits of distributed leadership in industry appear to be increased opportunity for career advancement, improved retention of promising staff, opportunity to shape leaders within the company rather than hiring without, increased collaboration, improved corporate culture, and more innovation.  If you are interested in reading more, another article that I found helpful was:

http://www.ipr.northwestern.edu/publications/papers/Spillane_DistribLead.pdf along with the Deloitte article http://www.deloitte.com/view/en_US/us/Insights/Browse-by-Content-Type/deloitte-review/35912ee3fad33210VgnVCM100000ba42f00aRCRD.htm

There are a number of papers on the concept of distributed leadership in schools as well.  The notion of implementing distributed leadership models in schools has been slower to catch on.  This is puzzling, given that the role of the school administrator is enormously demanding and it would seem that being able to rely on leadership teams to accomplish some of the work would be attractive.  Part of the issue is likely the daily school schedule, which allows typically for little time for collaboration or team meetings.

The report from the second International Summit on the Teaching Profession, released recently and shared with you in my November 16th message, notes that:  “for the teaching profession to succeed, teachers need to see themselves as autonomous not just subjects of management.  The report goes on to share that Canada, Singapore, and Finland are actively working to develop leadership talent within schools, and that programs now encourage distributed leadership models.


In their paper on distributed leadership in schools, authors x and x warn of some concerns in implementing such models.  These concerns include how leadership is distributed and to whom.  How are members of leadership  teams selected?  What are their qualifications?

A second concern is what is the charge of those teams brought together?  What will they actually do and how impactful are the decisions that they will make?

The authors conclude by noting that the way of getting under the skin of leadership practice, of seeing leadership practice differently and illuminating the possibilities for organisational transformation” and noting that it is worth the risks to enact such models.  http://www.distributedleadership.org/DLS/Publications_files/PUBLISHED%20Harris,%20Spillane.%20Distributed%20Leadership%20through%20the%20Looking%20Glass.pdf

I am not an expert in this topic and am committed to keeping these to two pages, so I will stop here by noting two additional pieces of research that focus on distributed leadership in schools that I have found useful.




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