Vickie Cook, Ph.D. Executive Director, Online, Professional, and Engaged Learning and Research Professor of Education, University of Illinois Springfield
Distributed leadership is best defined as participatory leadership across an organization. In an organization which practices distributed leadership, both the responsibility and the accountability of leadership is embraced and shared by those who have the expertise and skills to move the institution forward. This is accomplished not singularly as a positional leader, but through a team of accountable leaders. The membership on the leader-team may change as others who hold the expertise needed to address specific situations occur. While it is unlikely that everyone will embrace the practice of distributed leadership, this should not impede the effort of leader-teams to introduce the practice into their institutions.
What is distributed leadership and why is it effective? Distributed leadership is providing a culture in which leader-teams can generate solutions and initiatives that will be used to improve the organization and position it for future success. Effective educational leadership today depends upon the ability to lead change effectively and build trust to transform higher education organizations. Leader-teams who invest in building distributed leadership skills, practice development of buy-in with constituents across the organization and find inclusive approaches to working with a wide variety of individual will be rewarded by the outcomes.
Distributed leadership is effective because it moves the focus of leadership from an individual who holds a specific positional title to a team of leaders who share the responsibility and accountability of efficacy which builds trust across the institution. Additionally, this approach is an effective way to manage complex organizations, like an institution of higher education, which has multiple needs (which might be in conflict) and priorities emersed in ambiguity. And, finally, this approach ensures that there is mentoring and coaching available to build and sustain tomorrow’s leaders while increasing the capacity of change leadership within the organization.
Tips for Leading in a Distributed Approach
It is critical to be aware of and eliminate barriers for movement forward when employing distributed leadership. The first barrier to address is the positional leader must be willing to employ leader-teams to address complex issues. Leader-teams will be asked to be both responsible and accountable for their distributed leadership work. Leader-teams will also understand that their membership on the leader-team may change as the situation changes and different expertise is needed.
Seven components of distributed leadership can be noted from literature on this leadership approach. Teams who practice the seven components outlined below with skillfulness can lead their institutions and organizations through successful change management and create a positive leadership culture. We will discuss the seven components of distributed leadership and strategies that help with implementation of this approach.
Building a community of trust is a critical component. Many individuals will doubt the authenticity of distributed leadership when it is first introduced. Because this type of leadership is not often practiced in institutions or is practiced in name only, there is little understanding and little trust, at least initially. There will be some individuals who enthusiastically embrace this idea and appreciate being asked to participate. Others will adopt a “wait and see” attitude and question both the process and the outcomes. Finally, there will be those who are in direct opposition and do not believe that distributed leadership will be effective. If a preferred approach or solution is not chosen as the way forward, individuals who supported those options may be vocal in opposition of the practice of distributed leadership rather than the proposed solution for a problem. It is important for those leader-teams who wish to implement distributed leadership to start with building trust through transparency of the process and the problem. Beginning to create a positive culture for distributed leadership should not be underestimated as a first step in the process.
The second step of building strong distributed leadership practices is to build a collaborative approach to address a specific problem, devise solutions, develop initiatives, and move the institution toward positive change. This approach also requires the organizational leader be willing to accept a collaborative approach to solving problems as well as implementing solutions.
This willingness to adopt a collaborative stance requires the leader- team to develop an inclusive approach that will reach multiple stakeholders both internally and externally. The voices of many are important to bring an inclusive understanding to the totality of the problem and to develop strong solutions for the future of the organization, not for a small group.
Many times, very well-meaning solutions can be pushed forward that solve a specific problem. However, when that problem is considered in isolation, the solution actually has a negative impact on other practices and individuals that were not identified in the original problem statement. Adopting an inclusive approach with many voices may significantly reduce the likelihood of unintended consequences occurring.
The third component is to increase the invitation for voices to be heard regarding problems and solutions that are being proposed. While this strategy can add time to the process, it is an important step in providing feedback, as well as in supporting efforts of inclusivity discussed above. As noted above, when a preferred approach or solution is not chosen as the way forward, individuals supportive of the non-chose approach may tend to be vocal in opposition of the practice of distributed leadership rather than the proposed solution for a problem. Increasing invitation for voice allows for some control of this type of situation and encourages peers to indicate that all voices were invited to participate. The invitation may not be accepted, or acted upon during a specific timeframe, yet it has been issued and peers are aware of the invitation. This awareness also supports a positive culture toward distributed leadership practices.
After the invitation has been made, it is imperative that the leader- team listens to and communicates well with stakeholders. All stakeholder voices should be encouraged, heard, and active listening strategies employed. Summaries of feedback received, and various questions and FAQs are strong communication techniques to employ. Demonstrating a 360-degree approach to receiving, ingesting, and sharing back to the stakeholders is the preferable communication strategy to ensure communication channels are open and working. If additional feedback is invited after the communications occur, this can help build a stronger solution that is thoughtful and elegant in its approach.
Distributed leadership practices encourage leader-teams to lean into the ambiguity of a situation. It is evident that today, unlike no time in previous history, higher education is inundated with ambiguity. There are many, many questions and often few solutions proposed as a response to the ambiguity encountered. Distributed leadership allows for those who are moving into the roles on a leader-team to bring their expertise and strong knowledge into discussion related to both identifying the right problem and identifying possible solutions. One important consideration of distributed leadership is to identify the right problem, which is not always the stated problem. By having a robust team of individuals who are assuming responsibility and accountability to unpack the ambiguity surrounding an issue, the right problem or complex set of problems will begin to emerge and can then be addressed.
Finally, it is key to evaluate the processes and outcomes and to adapt to new and changing needs. As with all approaches to solutions or change management, it is critical to continually evaluate the situation. Ongoing evaluation done on multiple levels is an important component of successful distributed leadership. This evaluation includes the leader-team, the understanding of the problem, the dissemination of communication, the proposed solutions, the buy-in by stakeholders, and the implementation. Finally, the evaluation of any unintended consequences that have occurred, either positive or negative, and the success of the overall approach is key. A final evaluation of the leader-team’s interpersonal approaches in the overall success or failure of the change management is also key to improved mentoring, coaching, and sustainability of a distributed leadership model.
This approach relies heavily on accessibility to mentoring and coaching to build and sustain tomorrow’s leader-teams while increasing the capacity of change leadership within the organization. Developing skillsets to lead in an ever-changing environment through strong listening skills, building community, and finding agency in collaborative efforts will assist today’s leaders in moving toward meeting the challenges of tomorrow by using the strategies of distributed leadership. The more these skillsets of distributed leaderships principles and practices are built into the fiber of an organization, the more smoothly organizations will be able to exhibit trust through shared leadership approaches and move toward change management with less fear of ambiguity, less time wasted in missteps, and decreased creation of unintended consequences or the development of incomplete solutions. Hiring and developing individuals who are willing to share both the responsibility and accountability for leadership across the organization is key to developing strong distributed leadership practices and creating positive cultures to move an institution forward.
Bolden, Richard. Distributed Leadership in Organizations: A Review of Theory and Research. International Journal of Management Reviews, Vol. 13, 251–269, 2011.
Gronn, Peter. Distributed leadership as a unit of analysis. The Leadership Quarterly, Vol. 13, 423-451, 2002.
Spillane, James P, and John B. Diamond. Distributed Leadership in Practice. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 2007.
Spillane, James. Distributed Leadership. California: Jossey-Bass. 2006.
Dr. Vickie Cook holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration and an M.S. in Adult Education and teaches in the Master of Arts in Education program at UIS. Previously, she held positions of VP of Technology & Innovation and twice served institutions in the role of Dean. Read Vickie's full bio.