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What is Distributed Leadership?

"Great leaders do not create followers, they create more leaders" - Tom Peters

The Concept

The majority of leadership models generally concern themselves with discussing the attributes and behaviours of individual leaders. However, distributed leadership is a relatively recent concept which argues for a more systemic approach to leadership. 

  • In distributed leadership models, leadership is more dissociated from designated organisational roles and instead the actions of all individuals at all levels of responsibility are recognised as integral to the organisation and successful functionality of the group or company. 
  • Spillane (2006) summarises that distributed leadership puts leadership - as a concept '- centre stage' rather than the individual leaders themselves.

In distributed models, leadership is considered a group quality, ignoring binary ideas of leader-follower functionality, where all responsibility lies in the hands of the leader, and all followers are subservient. 

  • It can, therefore, facilitate the distribution of responsibility between individuals within an organisation based on expertise, rather than on experience within a role.

Application of the Distributed Leadership Concept

This model relies on a full-scale reconsideration of power dynamics within organisations. 

  • Distributed leadership relies upon a group approach to overall strategy and goals and encourages pluralistic engagement. It does not equal delegation - delegation is a leader forcing others to complete parts of their work and is not a healthy culture to grow within any community. 
  • It instead relies upon an enhanced dialogue between levels of responsibility, and also upon the idea of shared meaning within the community.

Venn diagram: distributed leadership

This Venn diagram from Solly (2018) can be used to illustrate the applied concept of distributed leadership within an organisation (he, himself was writing about educational structures). 

  • Leaders must be given at least a certain level of autonomy within their field of responsibility. However, this trust must be earned, as ineffective leaders can be a hindrance, or even harm, to progress.
  •  If these "new" leaders have autonomy, they then are understood to have accountability for their actions, and also their results. 
  • Capacity refers to the need for these autonomous leaders - who understand they are accountable for the actions - to be supported with resources to implement their devolved strategy.

Implications of Distributed Leadership

  1. Distributed leadership can have an impact on traditional hierarchical leadership models, and the leaders who lie within. Proponents of distributed leadership argue for less of a 'command and control' approach, and instead, posit 'consultation and consensus'. This can have large impacts, both physically and psychologically, on designated authority figures within organisations.
  2. It also has implications for levels of development and education within organisations. The majority of businesses focus on leader development, i.e. the development of human capital or intrapersonal competence for selected individuals (those in traditional leadership roles).  However, distributed leadership models would seem to encourage greater leadership development, i.e. the development of social capital or interpersonal networks across the organisation and all of its social systems. 
  3. Distributed leadership is now prevalent within educational systems however, it is growing as a concept with regard to large companies and businesses. Apprenticeship programmes such as those offered at Accipio facilitate the growth of competence across all levels of business organisation.

  • Spillane, J.P. (2006). Distributed Leadership, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Bolden, R. (2007). Distributed Leadership. Exeter University. 
  • Solly, B. (2018) Distributed Leadership Explained. SecEd.