Distributed leadership is widespread. It has become one of the most significant features of leadership policy and practice in recent times and ‘represents one of the most influential ideas to emerge in the field of educational leadership in the past decade’ (Harris, 2010). Most schools are aware of the concept, see it as desirable and aim to practice it. However, whether leadership is genuinely distributed in such schools, and whether there is a clear picture of what this would look like, pose significant issues.
Why distributed leadership?
It is probably no accident that the growth in distributed leadership in different places across the world has taken place during a time of great change in school organisation. As education systems have become more decentralised, with an increasing emphasis on school autonomy, collaboration and participative practice, there has been an accompanying development in participation in school leadership. This is partly due to the drive towards building collaborative cultures but is also a matter of pragmatic necessity to share out the leadership task in a complex and demanding modern school environment:
The most compelling reason why the scholarly community requires a distributed perspective on leadership . . . is that this idea more accurately reflects the division of labour which confronts fieldworkers and is experienced on a daily basis by organisation members.
(Gronn, 2002; page 9)
Leadership is not something separate from teaching – it is inherent in being a teacher. Teachers are leaders responsible for managing learning in the classroom: leadership is an everyday practice for them.
(Robert Hill (2013), The future delivery of education services in Wales)
The other powerful reason for the rise of distributed leadership is the difference it makes to learning and teaching, with clear evidence that leadership has its greater impact on student outcomes when it is progressively shared in line with the needs of the organisation (Day et al, 2009).
What is distributed leadership?
Distributed leadership is associated with this increasing emphasis on building a culture in which the contribution from people throughout the school community is seen as fundamental to its leadership. It encompasses a range of contributions:
A distributed perspective on leadership acknowledges the work of all individuals who contribute to leadership practice, whether or not they are formally designated or defined as leaders.
(Harris and Spillane, 2008; page 31)
The view of the practitioner as a leader is also echoed at a local level by Ann Keane, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education and Training in Wales, in her foreword to the Estyn Annual Report (2011–12). She writes:
. . . there is still much to be done to improve education and training in Wales. It is in the capacity and quality of leadership that the remedy lies. By that I mean the leadership offered not only by headteachers and principals and local authority chief executive officers but in the distributed leadership offered by teachers, learning support assistants, learning coaches and everyone involved in delivering and servicing education and training in Wales. Each one can offer leadership in their actions, their behaviours and their commitment.
Indeed in many instances, the patterns and scale of distributed leadership have altered, and spread beyond the confines of classroom teachers to include non-educationalists in schools, such as school business managers, and on to parents/carers and others in the community.
At the heart of the concept of distributed leadership is the notion and practice of leadership practice beyond those in formal leadership positions. This has the effect of shifting the focus from characteristics associated with individual leaders to considerations about the nature of leadership itself. In particular it places in the spotlight the activities which constitute leadership, the means through which the opportunity to lead is shared, and the processes by which leadership is organised within schools. Distributed leadership is also based on the understanding that the authority to lead can be transferred from a formal position, with the power this entails, to others who can exercise leadership more widely. For instance, this involves recognition that expertise can be a legitimate, alternative basis for influence (Harris, 2008). Finally, the shift in perspective that distributed leadership brings, assumes leadership may be exercised by different people, in different ways and at different times.
The great momentum towards distributed leadership can give the impression that it is implicitly a good thing. However, some writers have signalled caution, saying that while it can have positive impact there are caveats (Spillane, 2006). For instance, it may result in leadership being loosely dispersed and a dilution of focus. An alternative perspective is to think in terms of fostering a density of leadership within the fabric of the school:
. . . ‘density’ denotes a proliferation of leadership which populates all aspects of the school’s life. It also embod¬ies the notion of deepening intensity and concentration of leadership rather than leadership opportunities being cast wide and dispersed.
(Handscomb, 2012; page 13)
How to develop distributed leadership
In considering how to develop distributed leadership it is important to remember that it is really about the nature of leadership and how it can be exercised through the work people do, rather than just handing out leadership activity:
So it is important not to confuse delegation with distributed leadership. Simply assigning tasks, however substantial, to practitioners and then calling them leaders does not make them so. Distributed leadership involves practitioners enacting leadership tasks within their own roles.
(Temperley and Goddard, 2006; page 10)
This entails creating the conditions in which leadership can flourish, and central to this is a culture of trust.
Schools with formal and stratified leadership structures and an ethos which promotes deference to status are less likely to foster distributed leadership than those with a more open, trusting, relaxed culture and an inclusive view of the decision-making process. Therefore, headteachers and senior leaders play a crucial role in both influencing the kind of distributed leadership that will best fit their school and in stimulating the conditions for it to develop. For example, effective headteachers will be:
. . . developing and supporting leaders with a passion and vision who engage and empower others to help them deliver the vision in their school – and contribute to improvement across the wider school system’.
The emphasis on context is critical in the development of effective distribution of leadership. According to Pennlinton et al (2008), it is necessary to examine not only the history of the school and its present structures and systems, but also how these are calibrated with the other factors. These include the:
- stage of development of the school
- stage of development of the headteacher’s leadership
- length of time the headteacher has been in role
- social context of the school.
Watch a US commentator considering all the aspects of distributed leadership (external link) we have covered in this section. Why is the image of dance such a useful one in conveying that distributed leadership is about the nature of leadership, rather than tasks carried out by individuals? Provide another metaphor that can explain the concept of distributed leadership.