Monday, June 20, 2011

How Distributed Leadership Works?

I. Introduction

In the last few years, the idea of distributed leadership, firstly coined by Gibb in 1954, has re emerged and challenged the existing leadership paradigm which is generally hierarchic, bureaucratic and led by a single heroic-like leader. It suggests a leadership pattern dispersing responsibilities and roles among the various school’s members and stakeholders that is rarely performed in the past organisational practices (Copland, 2003; Spillane, 2006). Today, in some educational institutions the principals are no longer perceived as the only transforming agent instead they are working together with other school members including teachers, staff and parents to develop planning, perform actions as well as seeking solution for the emerging challenges and improving practices for better students’ learning outcomes. The overwhelming optimism and numerous advantages of espousing distributed leadership approach offered in literature and academic conversations may become the main rational for this growing enthusiasm (Harris, 2004; Leithwood, et al., 2009).

As an evolving leadership perspective, most of the available research on distributed leadership is regulatory, not radical and the evidence which it has generated falls broadly within the paradigm of interpretivism (Hartley, 2010). Accordingly, it is not surprisingly thatthe positive impacts of distributed leadership particularly to student and school’s improvement are still widely debated and contested among academia and practitioners. Some researchers such as Timperly (2005) and Bennett et al., (2003) are questioning the genuine contribution and direct link of distributed leadership to students’ learning outcomes while many other leadership experts contend that effective implementation of distributed leadership can results in a number of anticipated benefits both for the students’ learning outcomes and schools’ improvement in particular.

In light of this controversy, this paper will briefly discuss and explore how distributed leadership as an emerging leadership approach may lead to improved students’ learning and enhanced organisational practices. To do so, it will focus on and examine the four most common positive outcomes of applying this leadership approach that include; 1) enhancing opportunities for the organization to gain advantages from the capacities of more of its members or organisational effectiveness, 2) permitting members to capitalize on the range of their individual strengths or people’s capacity building, 3) developing among organizational members a fuller appreciation of interdependence or sense of collaboration and 4) leading to greater commitment to the achievement of organisational goals (Leithwood, et al., 2009, p.2). To provide a comprehensive discussion, foremost the conceptual definition of distributed leadership will be briefly outlined and as conclusion a summary of discussion will be given at the end of the paper.

II. Conceptual Definitions of Distributed Leadership

Although the concept of distributed leadership has increasingly gained a wider empirical support from a number of studies, there is still discrepancy of the clear-cut interpretation of distributed leadership (Harris, 2004). Bennett, et al., (2003) describe distributed leadership as a way of thinking of leadership rather than a different model or strategies. It is not something done by an individual to others rather it is an emergent property of a group or network of individuals in which group members pool their expertise. Harris (2008), meanwhile, elucidates that distributed leadership focuses on how leadership is distributed in both formal and informal leadership that is grounded in activity rather than position or role. Spillane (2006) develops these ideas that distributed leadership describes the ways that leadership activities are stretched across different people and positions within organizations, and where the result is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Copland (2003) succinctly summarizes the conceptual definition of distributed leadership into three dimensions: 1) engage in collective activities and focus on collective goals, 2) involve the spanning of tasks, responsibility, and power and 3) rest on a base of expertise rather than hierarchical authority. In distributed perspective,the duty of those in formal leadership positions is primarily to hold the pieces of the organization together in a productive relationship (Harris, 2004).

III. Distributed Leadership for Organisational Effectiveness

Organisational effectiveness, according to Hrivnak and Halfhill (2007) can be simply defined as the organisation’s capability to produce or bring about a desired outcome or results. The term effectiveness itself is frequently used interchangeably with terms productivity and efficiency with a little difference. In analysing the organisational effectiveness, a number of approaches or perspectives are suggested. One way is by categorising the effectiveness criteria into three basic domains: the resource domain, the process domain and the goal domain. In this context of discussion, the resource domain may focus on the organisation and development of school resources including teachers’ capability, learning resource centre and facilities. The process area may centre on the efficient application or work of resources including job distribution of the school members, while the goal category accentuates the desired outputs and effects of the organization's activities which largely refers to students’ learning outcomes.

Considering the contribution of distributed leadership on organisational effectiveness, a number of studies have confidently suggested that distributed leadership gives significant positive impacts on organisational effectiveness and both direct and indirect contribution to students’ learning outcomes (Harris, 2008; Leithwood and Mascall, 2008; Woods and Gronn, 2009; Heck and Hallinger 2010). If we consider the nature and conceptual framework of distributed leadership and organisational effectiveness criteria described above, there will be clear evidence that distributed leadership may offer greater opportunities for the organisational effectiveness.

In the preceding section, it has been noted that the main characteristics of distributed leadership may include collective activity and focus on collective goals; the spanning of task, responsibility, and power and; the emphasis on expertise rather than hierarchical authority (Copland, 2003). If we take account of these descriptions intensely, we will find that distributed leadership will readily meet the criterion of three categories for organisational effectiveness outlined above. A simple explanation is that the resource domain of effectiveness can be directly linked to teachers’ capacity building or expertise, while the process category can be directed to the distribution and sharing of task and responsibilities and collaboration in the job distribution within the organisation. In relation to the third criteria, goal domain, the effectiveness of distributed leadership can be traced by investigating the positive effects of the distributed leadership approach on the students’ learning outcomes as the primary objective of education.

Regarding the resource criteria for organisational effectiveness, Woods (as cited in Woods and Gronn, 2009) indicates that distributed leadership enhance organisational capacity through improving teachers’ creativity and skills and motivation. It also fosters teachers’ engagement in professional learning and maintains focus on innovation in teaching and learning. Other evidence is offered by Copland (2003) who suggests that distributed leadership can promote an inquiry practice among teachers and staff which is centrally important to building their personal capacity for school improvement. Hallinger and Heck (2010) also conclude that the distributive leadership develops and broadens teachers’ instructional expertise that are likely unable to achieved by hierarchical leadership.

In terms of the process criteria for organisational effectiveness, Harris and Chapman (as cited in Woods and Gronn, 2009) inform that distributed leadership enhances collaboration among teachers and improves their persistence in facing challenges and complexity. Ruddock and Flutter (2004) also maintain that distributed leadership offers opportunities for teachers-students’ consultation which has a direct significant impact on students’ active involvement. Other evidence is offered by Leithwood and Mascall (2008) who confidently argue that distributed leadership gives positive impacts on teachers’ work settings which are more likely collaborative and distributed. In relation to the goal attainment, a number of studies have affirmed both the direct and indirect positive contribution of distributed leadership to students’ learning outcomes (Harris, 2008; Leithwood & Mascall, 2008; Woods & Gronn, 2009; Heck & Hallinger, 2010).

IV. Distributed Leadership as People Capacity Building

One of the basic ideas of distributed leadership is that teachers develop expertise by working collaboratively (Harris, 2004). The collaborative and shared working setting as the main feature of this leadership approach inevitably promotes high level of collective inquiry and information exchange among the members. In this working setting, teachers will be exposed to and comply with various different ideas and information from other members. Gronn (2000) maintains that distributed leadership is an emergent property of a group or a network of individuals where group members pool their expertise. Moreover, Katz et al., (2009) indicate that the practice of distributed leadership in learning networks influences the building of personal capacity in an active and reflective construction of knowledge. It develops interpersonal capacity through collective practice and builds organizational capacity by creating and maintaining sustainable organizational processes.

The second idea of people capacity building within distributed leadership is that the involvement of wider stakeholders in school leadership resulting in wider distribution of roles and responsibility among the members inevitably calls for higher degree of expertise, skills and knowledge to accomplish the given tasks. Mayrowetz (2008) indicates that ‘the one of the underlaying usage of distributed leadership is that by having multiple people engaged in leadership, these individuals will all learn more about themselves and the issues facing the school’ (p.431). Greater responsibilities motivate teachers and staff to improve their individual expertise and skills by being more actively engaged in professional learning discussion. Hallinger and Heck (2010) have asserted that acknowledging and developing the broader leadership capacity in schools may hold the key to unlocking the store of leadership potential grounded in instructional expertise that single principals are often unable to provide.

V. Distributed Leadership for Greater Sense of Collaboration

As the structure of school moves from a role-based, hierarchical one to a flatter organization, opportunities for collaboration are nurtured and new norms of working together develop (Leithwood et al., 2007). The participative decision making, team working and collaborative dialogues embroiled in distributed leadership lead the members of organisation to be mutually engaged in dependent activities. Spillane (as cited in Hulpia & Delvos 2010) states that distributed leadership is where the roles and power are stretched over a number of individuals and the tasks are accomplished through the interaction of multiple leaders. It is these reciprocal interdependencies that involve individuals “playing off one another” with the action of one directly enabling the action of the other (Spillane, 2006, p.61). In this way, the interacting practices are more than the sum of the actions of the individual leaders.

Another dimension fostering collaboration is that the distribution of task and responsibilities among members should be based on high levels of mutual trust (Smylie et al., 2007; Leithwood et al., 2009) whereas reciprocal trust is the most influential variable in building collaboration (Moran, 2001). Collaboration and trust are reciprocal process and they foster one another. Mattessich and Monsey (1992) assert that collaboration within an organisation requires energy and times as well as involving the sharing of responsibility and reward and this is difficult to achieve without trust. Likewise, in distributed leadership perspective, trust is seen as the foundation of interpersonal relationship and an important element in participative decision making which at the same time develops positive collaborations in the organisation.

VI. Distributed Leadership for Grater Commitment to Organisation

A recent investigation of the relation of between distributed leadership and teachers’ organisational commitment is carried out by Hulpia and Delvos in 2009. Using a comparative analysis and interviewing approach, they discover that teachers are reported being more strongly committed to the school if the leadership is highly accessible, empowers teachers to participate, collaborates and frequently monitors teachers’ daily practices which clearly reflect the main dispositions of distributed leadership. Similarly, MacBeath and Mitchell & Sackney (as cited in Harris, 2008) reveal clear evidence of the positive effect of distributed leadership on teachers’ self-efficacy and levels of morale which is closely associated with teacher’s motivation and commitment.

According to Ford (as cited in Leithwood and Mascall, 2008, p. 535) “motivational processes are qualities of a person that are oriented toward the future and aimed at helping the person evaluate the need for change or action.” The process includes organisation of personal goal, belief about self (self-efficacy), belief about one’s situation and emotion. Personal goal which directs ones’ attention toward particular target sets the success criteria and encourages persistence of one’s efforts (Rowan, 1996). Belief about self, meanwhile, involves the psychological perception which is dependent upon external feedback (Smylie, 1990). Belief about situation, on the other hand, relates to the situational perception when carrying the task. The interplay of personal goal and these two beliefs will determine the level of one’s commitment in achieving his/her organisational objectives.

VII. Conclusion

As an emerging leadership perspective, distributed leadership has attracted a considerable attention from both academia and practitioners. Despite its conceptual controversy, many modern organisations today strongly believe that distributed or shared leadership will offer a number of anticipated benefits which may not be accomplished by other leadership approaches. A brief and research-based discussion of four most viable outcomes outlined in this paper including improved effectiveness, increased internal organisational capacity, enhanced positive working situation and peoples’ commitment may justify and broaden the perspective offered by each possible results. Finally, in spite of the overwhelming advantages of distributed leadership, the fact that the extant empirical studies on distributed leadership are still almost entirely based on subjective-interpretive perspective (Hartley, 2010), there needs further empirical studies to legitimate its functionality accordingly.


Copland, A.N (2003). Leadership inquiry: Building and sustaining school capacity for school improvement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 25(4), 375-395.

Gronn, P. (2000). Distributed properties: a new architecture for leadership. Educational Management and Administration, 28 (3), 371-338.

Gronn, P. (2008). The future of distributed leadership, Journal of Educational Administration, 46(2): 141-158.

Harris, A. (2008). Distributed leadership: according to the evidence. Journal of Educational Administration. 46(2),172-188.

Harris, A. (2004). Distributed leadership in schools: leading or misleading? Educational Management, Leadership & Administration. 32(1), 11-24.

Hartly, D. (2010). Paradigms: How far does research in distributed leadership stretch?.Educational Management, Administration & Leadership. 38(3), 271-285.

Heck, H.R & Hallinger, P. (2010). Testing longitudinal model of distributed leadership effects on school improvement. The Leadership Quarterly, 21, 867-885.

Hrivnak, G. & Halfhill, T. (2007). Effectiveness. International Encyclopedia of Organization Studies. 2007. SAGE Publications. Retrieved on 19 Jun.>.

Hulpia, H & Devos, G. (2010). How distributed leadership can make a difference teacher’s organisational commitment? A qualitative study. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26, 565-575

Leithwood, K., & Mascall, B. (2008). Collective leadership effects on student achievement.Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(4), 529-561.

Leithwood, K., Mascall, B., & Strauss, T. (Eds.) (2009). Distributed leadership according to the evidence. New York, NY: Routledge

Mascall, B., Leithwood, K., Straus, T., & Sacks, R. (2008). The relationship between distributed leadership and teacher’s academic optimism. Journal of Educational Administration.46(2), 214-228.

Mattessich, P.W and Monsey, B.R (1992) Collaboration: what makes it work? Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, St. Paul,MN.

Mayrowetz, D. (2008). Making sense of distributed leadership: Exploring multiple usages of the concepts in the field. Educational Administration Quarterly. 44(3), 242-435.

Moran, T.M. (2001). Collaboration and the need of trust. Journal of Educational Administration.39(4), 308-331.

Rowan, B. (1996). Standards as incentives for instructional reform. In S. H. Fuhrman & J. J. O’Day (Eds.), Rewards and reform: Creating educational incentives that work (pp. 195-225). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smylie, M. A. (1990). Teacher efficacy at work. In P. Reyes (Ed.), Teachers and their workplace(pp. 48-66). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Smylie, M.A, Mayrowetz, D., Murphy, J., Louis, K.S. (2007). Trust and development of distributed leadership. Journal of School Leadership. 17(4), 469-503.

Spillane, J. P. (2006). Distributed leadership. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco. CA

Spillane, J. P., Halverson, R. and Diamond, J. B. (2004) Towards a theory of leadership practice: a distributed perspective. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 36 (1), 533-543.

Spillane, J.P (2010). A distributed leadership on school leadership and management. In leadership and management-leadership type. Northwestern University, Evanston, IL: USA.

Timperley, H.S. (2005). Distributed leadership: developing theory from practice, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37(4), 395-420.

Woods, P. A. & Gronn, P. (2009) Nurturing democracy: The contribution of distributed leadership to a democratic organizational landscape, Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, 37(4): 430-451.

No comments:

Post a Comment