We recently shared the story of a Tasmanian school that has adopted a K-10 model based on shared and distributed leadership. So, what is distributed leadership? What does the evidence say? And, can it work for your school? Teacher asked Professor Alma Harris.
If we think about leadership as being confined to only those in positions of authority then we are wilfully ignoring the leadership talent and capability of many others. If leadership is fundamentally about influence, then within any school there are many sources of influence, both formal and informal.
Distributed leadership is primarily concerned with the practice of leadership rather than specific leadership roles or responsibilities. It equates with shared, collective and extended leadership practice that builds the capacity for change and improvement.
Distributed leadership means mobilising leadership expertise at all levels in the school in order to generate more opportunities for change and to build the capacity for improvement. The emphasis is upon interdependent interaction and practice rather than individual and independent actions associated with those with formal leadership roles or responsibilities.
In summary, it is ‘leadership by expertise’ rather than leadership by role or years of experience. Genuine distributed leadership requires high levels of trust, transparency and mutual respect.
In very practical terms, to be most effective, distributed leadership has to be carefully planned and deliberately orchestrated. It won’t just happen and if it does, there is no guarantee that it will have any positive impact. Letting a thousand flowers bloom is not distributed leadership.
The implication for those in formal leadership roles is that they have a key role to play in creating the conditions for distributed leadership to occur. They have to create the opportunities for others to lead.
Why distributed leadership?
The evidential base about its impact and effect has been summarised in numerous books and articles (Leithwood et al., 2009; Harris, 2013). The evidence increasingly points towards a positive relationship between distributed leadership, organisational improvement and student achievement (Hallinger & Heck, 2009; Leithwood & Mascall, 2008). Many of these studies have identified the importance of distributed leadership as a potential contributor to positive change and school improvement.
While the idea of distributed leadership is not without its critics, the contemporary literature continues to show a positive relationship between shared forms of leadership and improved organisational performance. It shows, for example, that the differences between high performing and low performing schools can be attributed to different degrees of leadership distribution. High performing schools widely and wisely distribute leadership (Leithwood et al., 2009).
In summary, the available evidence shows that distributed leadership is an important component of, and contributor to, improved organisational outcomes. While there are inevitably differences in the nature, quality and extent of distributed leadership from one school to another, it is still within the amalgam of factors contributing to high performance. The research evidence also indicates that certain forms of distributed leadership have a modest but significant indirect effect on student achievement (Leithwood & Mascall, 2008:546).
What are the challenges?
If you think about your school, I can guarantee that you experience a constant tension between doing what is important for the future versus managing the pressures of the present.
So often I hear, the comment ‘I agree with distributed leadership but how can it be fitted into our existing system? It’s simply not going work with the structures that we have.’
Usually I don’t respond directly to the question, not because I don’t have an answer but because it is the wrong question. It’s like asking how to fit a Porsche engine into a tractor. The real question should be ‘What type of leadership do we need in this school to secure the best outcomes for young people and how do we change our structures to make this happen?’
If our existing leadership approaches do not secure the best outcomes for learners, then why do we want to keep them? The common answer is that it will be difficult, disruptive, debilitating to change, plus there is no guarantee of success. True. But, keeping things the way they are isn’t any guarantee of success either.
So, let me be clear. Distributed leadership is not the antidote to ‘command and control’ leadership or a much misunderstood, misaligned and misrepresented alternative to it. It is not a panacea or some esoteric approach to leadership. It does not mean that everyone leads and it is certainly not without its challenges. For example, there are the challenges of organisational trust, individual threat and the fear of giving others real, authentic responsibility. With distributed leadership comes distributed accountability, it is not some open-ended approach to leadership, in fact the converse is true.
When distributed leadership works well, individuals are accountable and responsible for their leadership actions; new leadership roles created, collaborative teamwork is the modus operandi and inter-dependent working is a cultural norm. Distributed leadership is about collective influence - it is not just some accidental by-product of high performing organisations but, as highlighted earlier, is a contributor to school success and improved performance (Hargreaves & Harris, 2010; Hargreaves, Boyle & Harris, 2014).
How do you make it happen?
First, there is no blueprint and if there were I would not be advocating it. Rarely does prescription lead to the right outcomes. Schools are not the same and should not be treated as such.
Second, while there are no neat formulas or easy ring binder solutions that can help address this question there are certain things that can be practically done to make distributed leadership authentic. One practical way forward is to create strong collaborative teams or professional learning communities where leadership is naturally and authentically distributed. The evidence about group learning is clear: purposeful and focused collaboration is a skill that has to be acquired, repeated and practiced in context.
If distributed leadership is to be authentic then the skills of professional collaboration are critically important. How can you share leadership if teachers cannot work together? Professional collaboration is the foundation for distributed leadership but this has to be purposeful and disciplined. It is not good enough to have working groups - teams or even professional learning communities - that cooperate rather than collaborate. Cooperation depends upon loose social connections and is a weak basis for improvement. Conversely, focused and disciplined professional collaboration has been shown to secure better learner outcomes (Jones & Harris, 2013).
Exceptional organisational performance is not a random event; instead, exceptional performance is achieved through careful planning, design and ‘discipline’ (Collins & Hansen, 2011). It requires organisational alignment, mutual understanding and flexibility, rather than rigidity, prescription or coercion.
For principals seeking improved school performance and better outcomes, the challenge is to create the conditions where professional knowledge and skills are enhanced, where effective leadership exists, at all levels, and where the entire school is working interdependently in the collective pursuit of better learner outcomes.
Collins, J., & Hansen, M. (2011) Great By Choice. Harper Business Press.
Hallinger P., & Heck, R. Distributed Leadership in Schools: Does System Policy Make a Difference? in Harris, A. (2009) Distributed Leadership: Different Perspectives. Netherlands Springer Press.
Hargreaves, A., Harris, A., Boyle, A., Ghent, K., Goodall, J. Gurn, A. McEwen, L. ... Stone Johnson, C. (2010). Performance Beyond Expectations. London: National College for Leadership and Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.
Hargreaves, A., Boyle, A., & Harris, A. (2014) Uplifting Leadership. Jossey Bass.
Harris, A. (2013) Distributed Leadership Matters. Corwin Press.
Jones, M., & Harris, A. (2013) Disciplined Collaboration: Professional Learning with Impact. Professional Development Today, 15(4), pp. 13-23
Leithwood, K., & Mascall, B. (2008) Collective Leadership Effects on Student Achievement. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(4), pp. 529-561
Leithwood, K., Mascall, B., & Strauss, T. (2009) Distributed Leadership According to the Evidence. London, Routledge.
Have you recently incorporated distributed leadership in your school?
What were the results of making the change?
Has there been an improvement in learner outcomes?