Need to move faster and smarter? Level up with distributed leadership

June 22, 2021 - 16 min read

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What is distributed leadership?

What are the principles of distributed leadership?

Why is the distributed leadership style so popular in school organizations?

Benefits of distributed leadership

5 tips for implementing the distributed leadership style

Is distributed leadership right for your company?

Distributed leadership is a form of shared leadership. In a rapidly changing environment, distributing leadership effectively helps organizations move faster and smarter.

Though distributed leadership is typically used in academia, it’s now being adopted for corporate settings.

This raises several questions:

  • What is distributed leadership?
  • Why is distributed leadership an effective management style?
  • Is there room for this leadership practice outside of the professional learning community?
  • If so, how can organizations adopt this style of distributed leadership?

We’ll answer each of these questions by providing a definition and the key principles of distributed leadership. Then, we’ll discuss some helpful tips for actioning this leadership style.

What is distributed leadership?

In order to grasp the concepts of distributed leadership, it’s best to understand the environments that spawned this new approach. 

Unlike corporate managers, school principals have very flat organizations

The management of dozens of direct reports becomes unwieldy and ineffective. So, traditional hierarchical management structures can fall apart. This happens when authority and decision-making rest in a single individual.

In contrast, distributed leadership pushes leadership and accountability down and across an organization. Many people share responsibility in the decision-making process.

Driven by a common mission to educate and shape students, empowered educators can:

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  • Make effective decisions 
  • Move in sync 
  • Drive toward iterative improvements to their institutions

Within the distributed leadership model, schools become more effective over time. Leadership gravitates to those with appropriate skills and knowledge within an organization. 

The result is a dynamic institution. It can move quickly with deeper and more agile decision-making.

What are the principles of distributed leadership?

Distributed leadership follows a handful of core principles:

One mission, many leaders

Distributed leadership recognizes that authority doesn’t rest with one key individual.

Distributed authority leverages collective skill sets. It also creates a breeding ground for new leaders

It focuses on empowerment of the individual and dedication to a shared mission and values. This effectively binds each leader across a complex horizontal structure.

For school leaders, this involves giving faculty members more autonomy. More specifically, the autonomy to make decisions about their specific curriculum. After all, they are the ones best positioned to make those decisions.

You can adopt a similar approach in the corporate structure by giving department managers more autonomy and authority.

Leadership culture

Schools and companies can foster a deeper culture of leadership. This is because a single individual does not hold all the power.

Without a central command holding all the power, distributed leadership encourages: 

  • Cooperation 
  • Shared values 
  • Cross-department communication

Anyone in a leadership role can cooperate directly with another. This is opposed to having to seek the approval of someone higher in the organizational structure.

Enhanced leadership scope

You enhance an organization's leadership scope when following a distributed leadership model. 

When you call on all members to lead, an organization benefits by leveraging:

  • Pooled skills 
  • Knowledge 
  • Leadership of an entire organization 

The resulting leadership impact grows when compared to a centralized leadership model.

The shared leadership practice also improves the development of the individual leader.

For example, a middle manager or teacher can try different leadership approaches. This means they can learn from experience. In the traditional model, they’d have to take direction from their CEO or principal.

Focus on learning

Decentralizing management control makes individuals more likely to collaborate with each other. This fills any gaps in a company’s leadership collective. 

This willingness to share builds a strong culture of learning. It makes a company stronger with a larger group of leaders. 

The group of leaders grows as you delegate more leadership activities.

Imagine that you give frontline managers more autonomy and responsibility. They can then delegate specific tasks to their team members.

They can use this as an opportunity for professional and leadership development.

Why is the distributed leadership style so popular in school organizations?

The shared leadership practice is often used in educational leadership environments. This is because it decentralizes power.

Where leadership is not distributed, the principal handles all leadership decisions.

This has two negative impacts.

The first is that this person becomes a bottleneck for decisions.

Everyone else in the school community is reliant on this leader to make important decisions about:

  • Student learning 
  • School improvement 
  • Budget allocations 

And more.

A distributed leadership team approach ensures that decision-making responsibilities are shared. This allows staff to operate at a pace without being reliant on a single person.

The second negative impact is that the vision for educational development becomes too narrow.

A distributed school leadership structure encourages all teacher leaders to collaborate. This brings a distributed perspective to decision-making. In turn, it enhances the shared vision of the school.

This has a positive impact on student outcomes. Aspects such as curriculum studies are developed by a team of assistant principals. They are no longer decided by a single leader.

 Benefits of distributed leadership

Distributed leadership is not just a theory. It’s supported by hard facts and results. 

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So what are some of the direct benefits of a flat leadership structure? More specifically, why is distributed leadership good for corporate environments?

Let’s take a look at five of the benefits that come from distributed leadership:

1. Distributed leadership focuses on customer and market 

This leadership style also means a distributed knowledge base of customer-facing individuals.

This ensures the ability to better and faster understand changes in the marketplace.

For companies, this means that information doesn’t have to flow all the way to a senior leader at the top. This improves the pace at which leaders can make important decisions.

2. Distributed leadership drives innovation and satisfaction

Even within the largest corporation, distributed leadership can foster an entrepreneurial spirit, leading to more innovative ideas

Distributed leaders feel more motivated and in charge of their own destiny. This leads to higher levels of employee satisfaction and a higher level of employee retention.

In turn, employee tenures are longer, and hiring costs are reduced.

3. Distributed leadership reduces corporate exposure

The chance for corporate or financial malfeasance is lowered. This is a result of shared responsibility. Since you are sharing the knowledge, all activities become transparent.

It also protects your company against knowledge leaving when employees move on.

When the most senior leader holds the most power and information, the company is at great risk. If this person were to leave, the information would leave with them.

4. Distributed leadership discovers and cultivates leaders

The structure of distributed leadership allows for the early identification of emerging leaders.

Everyone in the organization can lead and come up with new ideas. So, even the newest team members can step up. This allows them to grow their leadership skills

For example, a newly hired sales representative might wish to put in place a new process. Maybe it's one that they’ve used in a previous company.

Under the distributed leadership practice, this would be welcomed. The rep would be given the opportunity to exercise their leadership skills.

5. Distributed leadership improves communication

With shared power comes shared communication. As a result, opportunities for innovation arise. This helps to address old problems with new solutions. 

The players in a distributed leadership network are more inclined to:

  • Communicate 
  • Take ownership 
  • Put forth new ideas 

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 5 tips for implementing the distributed leadership style

Implementing distributed leadership requires courage and the ability to evolve. 

If your organization adheres to a command and control model, it will take time to shift the culture. Here are five steps you can take to ease this transition:

1. Let go and trust

Distributed leadership represents a fundamental shift in the way an organization does business. 

Those in leadership positions need to shift from a command and control methodology. They need to start sharing decision-making with a wider group. 

This can be challenging at first. It requires letting go of responsibilities. Also, you'll need to trust that others in the organization will pick up where you left off.

The best way to achieve this is to make clear to your team the desired outcomes. This is so that when decisions are made, they contribute toward the shared company vision.

It’s also important to realize that not everyone will make decisions the same way you, as the leader, would. In many cases, it's okay for others to get things wrong. 

This is part of their individual learning process. The distributed leadership model seeks to encourage this.

2. Leverage a team hiring approach

Use a team hiring approach when incorporating a new co-worker. Make sure the prospective hire is committed to the company’s shared mission. They'll need to be willing to lead when appropriate. 

Fostering a team-based approach to hiring may be one of the most essential steps to success.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that many new hires won’t be accustomed to this way of working.

Therefore, it’s important to develop a strong onboarding and training process. The process should educate newly hired team members on how distributed leadership works.

3. Allow others to lead

In a centralized management environment, it’s natural for senior leaders to step up and lead. But within a distributed leadership model, the opposite is true.

You should seek to create new opportunities for others to gain critical leadership skills

For example, that could mean letting more junior workers drive meetings. This will allow them to feel the authority and responsibility of leadership.

This can be challenging if your company is shifting from a traditional model.

Keep in mind that the first few times others drive these meetings, they might not flow as smoothly as you expect.

Try not to let this discourage you. Change can be difficult, but it can also prove beneficial.

4. Be a coach

You may not be leading every meeting. However, it’s important to provide regular coaching in a distributed model. 

Leaders need recurring feedback to hone their skills. This will ensure alignment with an organization’s mission. Developing leaders, in particular, need the hands-on direction that only coaching can provide.

Remember, coaching and managing are different processes. You’ll also need to learn how to coach others in the distributed leadership model.

5. Don’t delegate or micromanage

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Though delegation is important, distributed leadership is not only about delegating tasks. It’s about empowering others to act as true leaders. 

It might feel natural to only delegate tasks. However, it’s important to trust others to take on responsibilities. 

In addition, refrain from micromanaging and allow others to step up and lead.

Is distributed leadership right for your company?

If it’s not apparent already, trust serves as the backbone of distributed leadership. 

With trust in place, an organization can:

  • Move quickly 
  • Drive innovation 
  • Better leverage leaders at all levels of an organization 

Knowledge is shared equally in this model. This means behaviors can easily be aligned to support the corporate mission.

Of course, it can be challenging to retain the principles of distributed leadership.

If you feel like you could use some support, why not talk to the team at BetterUp? We help build better leaders for a thriving workforce. 

Check out how we can help.

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Published June 22, 2021

Robert Carroll

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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