Distributed Leadership - what’s the state of play?


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Author: Maggie Preedy, Open University

Distributed leadership (DL) - what’s the current state of play? How does this concept help us to understand educational leadership in practice? We thought we’d ask a number of leading scholars in the field for their views on where DL stands in 2016. You’ll find their responses in Management in Education’s Special Issue on Distributed Leadership, October 2016 (Vol 30, no 4). All of them have played major roles in the theoretical and empirical development of DL over many years. 

Since the idea first came to prominence in the early 2000s, there has been a great deal of literature on DL, and the notion has been taken up widely by policy makers as a vehicle for school and college improvement. DL is now seen by many as the preferred model for educational leadership.

However, the concept has been interpreted in a range of different ways. For some, DL has been seen in normative terms, as a means for the more equitable distribution of tasks and decision-making, and for promoting organisational change and development, including building leadership capacity, and improving student outcomes. Other accounts have used DL as a lens for analysing leadership as it happens in practice, as a relational and dynamic process that takes place in interactions between organisational members.

In looking at the rationale for DL, some have pointed to moral imperatives for the wider distribution of authority and the move to more democratic forms of leadership. Others have suggested more pragmatic reasons – the work of leading a school or college is now much too complex for one individual, and problems of headship succession, with many staff reluctant to apply for headteacher roles. DL, it is argued, can make headship both more attractive and effective, enabling the load to be shared, and drawing on multiple sources of expertise.    

On the other hand, critics have suggested a number of problems with the concept. It has been suggested that, given existing structures of hierarchical authority and accountability, formal leaders are legally responsible for running their organisations. Therefore, DL is arguably merely delegation, as it is within the control of formal leaders to give or withhold. A number of commentators have suggested that accounts of DL neglect issues of differential power. Critical theorists have argued that the rhetoric of DL merely serves to maintain and reinforce existing state and managerial structures and processes of power.

The special issue focuses on some of the multiple strands of thinking in the literature on DL.

Beginning with broadly positive views of the concept, Alma Harris and John Deflaminis explore the impact of DL, drawing on evidence from a large-scale US project to build DL capacity in schools. The project provided ‘a powerful and important example of effective and lasting school level change’ (p 143). They go on to examine some common misconceptions about DL, making the important point that DL is not inherently either good or bad; the context, and how it is conceived and enacted are crucial factors. The authors also call for more practitioner evidence on how DL is playing out in their own settings.

Taking stock of recent empirical research on DL in practice, John Diamond and Jim Spillane identify three main themes: how leadership practice is ‘stretched over’ people; how school subjects help to shape leadership practice; and the impact of the policy and organisational environments. Looking forward, the authors propose some fruitful areas for future study: the development of measures and instruments for exploring leadership practice in depth; examining the context in terms of educational infrastructure; and studying the implications of status differentials in social characteristics – such as race, class and gender – for leadership practice.

In the next piece, Phil Woods addresses the important, and sometimes neglected, issue of power in the practice of DL. Building on Weber’s classic typology of authority, he identifies five main types of authority, each associated with different forms of power. Social authority, he argues, is not fixed, but constantly evolving, negotiated in the interactions between organisational members. Recognising the complexities of social authority helps us to understand more clearly how DL is operating in different contexts, to evaluate the distribution of authority, and to explore critically the relationships between power, authority and DL.

The final two pieces take a different more critical perspective. Jacky Lumby argues that DL is theoretically weak and unclear. Its widespread diffusion has drawn not just on logical arguments, but on emotional and moral ones too. Thus it can best be seen not so much as a rational choice, but rather as what Jacky calls a fashion or fad. She suggests that DL serves psychological needs by promising ‘the dream of the demise of hierarchy’, and adapts its form in response to criticism.  It has thus become a displacement activity that distracts attention away from the major issues facing educational leaders: system inequities and social justice.

Peter Gronn argues that DL gives only part of the story of what happens in educational organisations, where leadership is neither exclusively individual nor collective – both forms coexist. We therefore need a new unit of analysis for exploring this hybrid leadership. Peter suggests that we can see leadership as ‘configured’, recognising patterns that include different degrees of individual and collective leadership, as well as variations in structure, membership and timescale. Contemporary and historical examples of leadership hybridity are presented to support the argument.

So, as these diverse views suggest, the debate on DL continues. Clearly it’s unrealistic to expect the emergence of a single agreed definition. It is also important to avoid a simplistic binary divide – either individual or collective leadership – when, as Peter Gronn points out, the two forms have co-existed since ancient times.

On the one hand, we need to acknowledge the problems of DL, such as: the bandwagon effect, based upon naïve, idealised views that see it as a panacea; tendency to neglect power issues; and disparate uses of the term, both prescriptive and descriptive. 

At the same time, perspectives on leadership as practice can bring important insights, reflecting the realities of organisational life, where leadership does emerge from many different places in many different ways. These lenses can give a more nuanced and fine-grained picture than traditional views of leadership, highlighting the influence of context, and seeing leadership as collective and socially-constructed, as a fluid and evolving process of building shared meanings.

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