Distributed Leadership

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Harvey Jones, and Ryland Lefoe:

“Distributed Leadership for learning and teaching is a leadership approach in which collaborative working is undertaken between individuals who trust and respect each other’s contribution. It occurs as a result of an open culture within and across an institution. It is an approach in which reflective practice is an integral part enabling actions to be critiqued, challenged and developed through cycles of planning, action, reflection and assessment and replanning. It happens most effectively when people at all levels engage in action, accepting leadership in their particular areas of expertise. It requires resources that support and enable collaborative environments together with a flexible approach to space, time and finance which occur as a result of diverse contextual settings in an institution. Through shared and active engagement, distributed leadership can result in the development of leadership capacity to sustain improvements in teaching and learning.” (https://emedia.rmit.edu.au/distributedleadership/?q=node%2F10)


  • that the engagement of many people contributes to a more shared, collaborative approach to leadership.
  • the four dimensions of distributed leadership of context, culture, change and relationships are enabling  factors in its introduction

people, processes, support and systems as criteria needed to enact distributed leadership.

  • the activities to encourage distributed leadership include the provision of professional development, facilitation, mentoring, collective decision making, communities of practice (CoPs), networking, finance, space and time and recognition and reward.
  • the means to evaluate distributed leadership focus on engagement, collaboration, building leadership capacity.
  • the characteristic of distributed leadership is a process that involves continual change that is based on reflection on past actions and is reflected as an emergent element of distributed leadership. “



“The tenets of distributed leadership

The 6E conceptual model of distributed leadership consists of six underpinning tenets.

Tenet 1: Engage with—distributed leadership gains carriage through an activity or series of activities that engage a broad range of leaders in positions of institutional authority (termed formal leaders), employees respected for their leadership but not in positions of institutional authority (termed informal leaders), experts in learning and teaching, and formal and informal leaders and experts from various functions, disciplines, groups and levels across the institution who contribute to learning and teaching.

Tenet 2: Enable through—the contextual and cultural dimension of respect for and trust in individual contributions to effect change through the nurturing of collaborative relationships.

Tenet 3: Enact via—the importance of a holistic process in which processes, support and systems are designed to encourage the involvement of people.

Tenet 4: Encourage with—the plethora of activities required to raise awareness and scaffold learning about a distributed leadership approach through professional development, mentoring, facilitation of networks, communities of practice, time, space and finance for collaboration, and recognition of, and reward for, contribution.

Tenet 5: Evaluate by—a suitable process needs to be designed to provide evidence of increased engagement in learning and teaching, collaboration, and growth in leadership capacity.

Tenet 6: Emergent through—distributed leadership engages people in a sustainable ongoing process through cycles of action research built on a participative action research methodology.” (https://emedia.rmit.edu.au/distributedleadership/?q=node/149)


“Dimensions of Distributed Leadership

There are four dimensions of distributed leadership:

* A Context of trust

Distributed leadership is based in trust in the expertise of individuals rather than reliant on regulation that has been the traditional source of managerial authority. While distributed leadership does not preclude regulation or formal positional leadership, this is tempered by broader engagement of many people. Distributed leadership is thus a means to build institutional leadership capacity.

* A Culture of autonomy.

Distributed leadership is based in a culture of autonomy rather than control. Individuals are respected for their knowledge that is the source of new approaches to ambiguity.  

* Acceptance of that Change.

Distributed leadership accepts the need for change in the process of decision-making and implementation that enables top-down, bottom up and middle-out decision making and implementation. Distributed leadership is thus a more participative approach to change in which individuals feel safe and facilitated.

* Collaborative relationship

Distributed leadership places a central focus on the development of collaborative relationships that encourage, nurture and develop leadership capabilities in many people. culture for  the introduction of distributed leadership.  

* Cycles of Activity 

Distributed leadership assumes activity and reflection through cycles of planning, acting, observing and reflecting. Distributed leadership is developed by encouraging reflection on previous action aimed to identify critical success factors and lessons learnt from previous action. “



The example of the conductor-less Orpheus Orchestra, by Harvey Seifter:

"In most orchestras, the conductor directly supervises each musician; the conductor not only decides what music will be played but how it will be played as well. There is little room for the opinions or suggestions of the musicians themselves; such input is rarely solicited and even less often welcomed. Like workers reporting to an autocratic manager, orchestral musicians are expected to unquestioningly follow the direction of the conductor -- anything less invites humiliation before one's colleagues and may be grounds for immediate dismissal.

As a result, orchestral musicians are a notoriously unhappy class of employees. Paul Judy reports that when Harvard Business School professor J. Richard Hackman studied job attitudes among people working in 13 different job groups, he discovered that symphony orchestra musicians ranked below prison guards in job satisfaction. Further, when asked about their satisfaction with opportunities for career growth, symphony orchestra musicians fared even worse, ranking 9th out of the 13 surveyed job categories. Clearly, although the results of an orchestral performance can be exceptionally uplifting, the means of attaining these results are often anything but uplifting to those whose job it is to achieve them.

In place of the traditional fixed leadership position of conductor, Orpheus has developed a unique system of collaborative leadership that invites every member of the orchestra to participate in leadership positions, either leading the group in rehearsal and performance as concertmaster, or by leading one of the orchestra's many different formal or informal teams. This system is extremely flexible -- musicians freely move in and out of positions of leadership -- and it can be used to quickly adapt to changing conditions in the marketplace or within the group itself.

This free flow of leadership positions within the group encourages all the members of the orchestra to give their personal best performance. Cellist Eric Bartlett says, "When there's an important concert, everybody feels it, and everybody goes into it doing their absolute best work, giving it their utmost concentration, playing off of each other, and making sparks fly. For the most part, in a conducted orchestra, you play a more passive role. Not only is less expected of you, but less is expected from you. You have to play extremely well, but you're not playing off of your colleagues -- you're playing off of that one person in front of the orchestra holding the baton. I don't see that people in regular orchestras are emotionally involved in the same way. Everybody plays well, they do a very good job, but the level of individual emotional involvement isn't there." With no conductor to act as a filter to the what and the why behind the group's decisions, the members of Orpheus are uncommonly energized and responsive to the needs of the organization and to the desires of its leaders. Turnover is extremely low and employee loyalty is extremely high." (http://www.leadertoleader.org/knowledgecenter/journal.aspx?ArticleID=110)


Paul Hartzog

“One of the great mysteries of large distributed systems – from communities and organizations to brains and ecosystems – is how globally coherent activity can emerge in the absence of centralized authority or control”.

“We’re naturally predisposed to think in terms of pacemakers, whether we’re talking about fungi, political systems, or our own bodies…. For millennia we’ve built elaborate pacemaker cells into our social organization, whether they come in the form of kings, dictators, or city councilmembers.

As Steven Johnson describes in “The Myth of the Queen Ant,” humans have traditionally looked for “rulers” in ordered systems, “pacemakers” that are responsible for the maintenance of order. In addition, we look for such primary causers in other systems, from terrorist networks to fads to mass demonstrations to peer-to-peer file-sharing. However, “we know now that systems like ant colonies don’t have real leaders, that the very idea of an ant ‘queen’ is misleading. But the desire to find pacemakers in such systems has always been powerful…". In complex adaptive systems, though, organizers are entirely unnecessary when the structure of the system follows certain parameters. These parameters determine whether a system will self-organize or not, into a state which Per Bak calls “self- organized criticality”. In highly interconnected systems, when conditions permit, order can emerge spontaneously, what Stuart Kauffman calls “‘order for free.’ – self-organization that arises naturally”[8]. Indeed, what Complexity reveals is that sometimes the system itself is the organizer of order. (http://www.panarchy.com/Members/PaulBHartzog/Papers/21st%20Century%20Governance.pdf)

Mark Roest

"Leadership evolved in two or more major threads: small groups, especially small communities and conscious companies, and large organizations, city-states, and nations. There have always been people who understood both Theory X and Theory Y leadership philosophies, because they inherited them or discovered them on their own, before they were named.

But in both cases, leadership was defined by the finite nature of the organization or state, which often lived in hostility with at least some of its near or distant neighbors.

Now it is time to discover what we know about leadership of permeable organizations and states -- entities with permeable membranes, or way beyond that -- organizations that merge and re-merge endlessly. There *is* a way to make sense of this!

When we understand that we as humanity live in 827 eco-regions, with perhaps hundreds of thousands of smaller specific instances of ecosystems, and upwards of 6,000 cultures, yet we are all in the same boat, and we are capable of assimilating (into ourselves so we become it, in part -- NOT digesting and dissolving it into our more powerful cultural identity so it disappears) almost any culture, we can truly understand the mosaic principle -- unity and diversity. Then we can collaborate fully with anyone else who gets it, and partially even with those who don't.

To get there, those who understand it can show the way within their specific eco-region and culture to others who share that basis for differentiated thought and action, but have not yet understood it. That is leadership by pioneering, and by going back and showing. Early adopters wlll follow the pioneer. About half of the mass of people will follow established opinion leaders who move when they decide an idea is proven, and about half will follow the other half when they decide it is 'the standard'. There is a 'long tail' that will adopt late, or never. This is the Chasm Theory of Marketing model, minus the discussion of the chasm between adoption by early adopters, and by established opinion leaders.

Permeating the process I just described, and perhaps usually operating in relatively short time frames, there will be tens or hundreds of millions of groups of people finding their way, and getting progressively more familiar with the nature of nature -- with how we can live in harmony with the world, and by extension, have the emotional space to live in harmony with each other. There is this generalized axis they are moving along, and also the particular process they are figuring out or carrying out. There are opportunities for leadership along both axes, within the longer movement along the axis toward general sustainability and social justice, which has its own opportunities as well.

Leadership is going to include three main aspects:

1. the topic (domain)content being worked with (e.g. renewable energy and conservation),

2. the knowledge of how to work with such content (process and whole systems) (e.g. knowing the scientific method and having access to the literature on ecology), and

3. human process (psycho-social-spiritual context for learning and choosing) (e.g. the content of the Stanford CCARES curriculum or process that teaches people how to understand themselves and each other, so that they can approach others with compassion and altruism every day).

At the meta-meta level, we also need leadership to disseminate the meme that all three of these aspects of behavior and skill are needed, along each axis, and that any combination of those can be picked up and carried at any time by every person, as inspiration motivates. This, when thoroughly assimilated, allows each of us to surrender the perceived need to rule in order to protect our interests. We will finally understand that we are in it together, we are inherently both the same and unique, and we can truly be as supportive of each other as our cells are within us. Believe me, we can do this! I have seen and felt early versions of it many times." (NextNet, May 2011)

More Information

Special issue of "Human Technology" journal: Distributed Leadership for Interconnected Worlds