Distributed leadership in schools is not delegated. So, what is it?

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The term distributed leadership gets used a lot in education circles. Unfortunately, in my experience the term is grossly misunderstood and used incorrectly. All too often, when I hear some school leaders talk about distributed leadership they are confusing it with delegation, and delegation it certainly is not.

The rise of the distributed leadership movement comes in response to the problems that arise when school’s rely on ‘Hero Leaders’, Many schools have leaders who do everything, so much so that when they leave, vast amounts of knowledge and skill upon which the school depends departs with them. The void that they leave behind is difficult to fill and the school struggles to maintain any legacy from the departed Hero Leader and the period of transition with new leadership can be very turbulent indeed.

Distributed leadership, therefore, was born out of the idea that if leadership of the school and its activities are distributed across many leaders, both formal and informal, the school can continue to grow and flourish as leaders come and go. The focus is shifted from organisational structures and hierarchies being key to a school’s long-term success more towards an investment in professional capital that is able to successfully renew itself, as skills and knowledge are retained in the school.

A paper from Helen Timperley in 2005, Distributed leadership: developing theory from practice, states clearly that researchers on distributed leadership largely agree on one thing, which is that “distributed leadership is not the same as dividing task responsibilities among individuals who perform defined and separate organizational roles.” In other words it is not about spreading the load by delegating specific tasks to be performed by certain individuals in the school. If we do this, then we have several leaders in the organization who have different skills and knowledge in conjunction with their position.

So what then is distributed leadership? It occurs when many people in the school have the skills and knowledge and it is not necessarily confined to position or level in the hierarchy. For example, teacher growth and development can be led by many people in a school and should not be confined to just a few. So, long as the school has a strong philosophy and defined method to how it wishes to lead its professional learning for staff, then many teachers across the school can become involved in leading it, regardless of whether they are in a position of formal leadership or not.

The essential aim, therefore, with distributed leadership is to build organisational capacity through developing professional capital. Through an investment in distributed leadership in the long-term, a school should be able to develop a high performance culture that can outlast individual leaders.

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