Distributed leadership is a management approach that empowers individuals across an organisation to take ownership of leadership responsibilities and share decision-making authority.
It aims to create a collaborative and inclusive work environment, where multiple individuals contribute to drive the organisation forward. It can be a powerful tool to adapt to change, promote innovation, and engage employees.
We cover all kinds of leadership styles in our management training, but in this essential guide we’ll explore the benefits and challenges of distributed leadership in more detail, and provide some practical tips for implementing this approach in your own organisation.
Let’s start by answering the most important question: “What is distributed leadership?”
As the name suggests, distributed leadership involves a distribution of power. Many people — who all share goals and are committed to the same mission — share responsibility and contribute to the decision-making process.
The distributed leadership model often appears in schools and higher education institutions. However, many businesses have also begun adopting it in an attempt to create more collaborative work environments.
One of the most well-known proponents of distributed leadership, Spillane (a professor at Northwestern University), has also said that for this tactic to be effective, “multiple individuals, with or without leadership positions, should take up leadership responsibilities.”
Several theories serve as the basis for distributed leadership, including distributed cognition and activity theory.
Distributed cognition combines psychology, sociology, and neuroscience. It posits that knowledge and thinking apply across various situations and contexts.
Anthropologist Edwin Hutchins is often credited with developing this theory in the 1990s. When studying naval aircraft navigation, he found that cognition is “socially distributed” and influenced by people, tools, and situations rather than coming from one individual.
Activity theory approaches human behaviour as being contextualised in different situations. It strives to understand the individual through the broader system in which they participate.
Activity theory scholar Barbara Rogoff argued that this approach does not separate the individual from the interdependent system. They must also be understood on three distinct levels: interpersonal, cultural/community, and institutional/cultural.
It’s not enough to understand what distributed leadership is. You must also understand the theoretical framework on which it’s built. What is distributed leadership theory?
Distributed leadership theory centres around three main ideas:
The distributed approach shares some commonalities with other popular leadership models, such as democratic, participative, and shared leadership. It is unique, though, because it views leadership as something fluid and ever-changing. Responsibility is distributed based on expertise, and participants take various factors into account, including diversity, maturity, and cultural values.
Eight distinct principles govern distributed leadership and differentiate it from other leadership styles. The principles are as follows:
One of the first tenets of distributed leadership is the idea that leadership results from many individuals’ behaviours rather than a single person’s actions or decisions. This leadership theory posits that a mix of leadership styles and a diverse group of participants can yield better results and help teams achieve their goals.
Similarly, the distributed model believes that power and authority should be shared rather than limited to one individual.
Instead of one person making decisions for the entire organisation, the group should focus on making sure everyone feels empowered to participate and contribute to the dialogue. This mindset helps to promote cooperation across the organisation and can lead to better morale, as well as better decisions.
Synergy is the idea that interaction or cooperation between two or more entities produces a more substantial effect than either entity could make alone. In other words, the sum is greater than its parts.
The concept of synergy is critical to distributed leadership. This theory of leadership falls apart without a belief that several people working together and contributing can do more and produce better outcomes than one person carrying all the decision-making power.
Those who support the distributed leadership approach believe that an organisation’s leadership capacity is determined by the collective knowledge of its members or employees. The entire organisation benefits when everyone develops new skills and expands their knowledge.
In a distributed leadership-focused organisation, individuals are also expected to contribute to the group’s leadership capacity rather than take a passive role. Individuals are also nurtured for their leadership potential and given opportunities to demonstrate their abilities.
In a collectively managed, distributed organisation, knowledge should be developed, shared, and applied in the same way.
In addition to taking ownership of their problems, team members are encouraged to develop a shared set of values and beliefs. They should also collaborate to assist with knowledge sharing and move the organisation in the right direction.
When properly practiced, distributed leadership can contribute to a more ethical and equitable organisation. In such an organisation, a diverse range of people participates in the decision-making process.
When a larger group of people play a role, there is less of a risk of poorly thought out or potentially unethical decisions. There is also less of a chance of people not being heard or valued. After all, the entire leadership framework is built around the idea that everyone should participate and share their viewpoints.
A company or organisation’s culture describes what its members do and why they do it. Distributed leadership naturally lends itself to a more democratic culture where everyone gets a say and has a chance to provide insight.
The distributed approach also creates a more investigative culture in the workplace. Because all members are expected to take responsibility for their goals and share their knowledge, they may be more interested in developing new skills or learning new information that can help them enhance their contributions to the whole.
Those who support the distributed leadership model also acknowledge it’s impossible to control all aspects of a complex environment. That’s why those who practice this approach don’t try to do that. Instead, proponents of distributed leadership focus on individual interconnectedness and exchange/reciprocity among communities.
This leadership approach is quickly growing in popularity throughout the world. The following are some of the most significant benefits organisations can experience when they adopt it:
A distributed style of leadership allows for better knowledge distribution among employees, including customer-facing employees. When these employees have easier access to knowledge and don’t have to wait for it to flow down from a senior leader at the top of the chain of command, they can provide better customer service. Better customer service, in turn, contributes to a more satisfied audience.
Shared knowledge also allows for a better understanding of the industry and an organisation’s target market. Better understanding helps all employees, regardless of their position, to make more informed decisions. More informed decisions, in turn, contribute to better performance and longevity.
Employees and team members who are part of an organisation that practices distributed leadership may have higher levels of job satisfaction compared to those who are led by more autocratic or authoritarian leaders.
When everyone feels that their voice and insights matter, they may be more inclined to stick with their employer long-term. Furthermore, they may be more innovative and willing to present new ideas since they know they will be heard and considered.
One of the fundamental principles of distributed leadership is an equitable and ethical climate. Increased equity and a greater focus on ethics help to reduce the risk of corporate malfeasance.
When everyone shares knowledge and a sense of responsibility (rather than one or a limited number of people holding all the power), there is more transparency throughout the organisation. Increased transparency helps to protect the organisation from potential bad press.
Furthermore, the shared nature of distributed leadership also reduces the risk of valuable information leaving the company when one employee moves on to a different position.
Imagine if one person held all the power and information at an organisation. If that person were to quit their job or be removed from their position, much of that information would leave with them.
When it’s properly implemented and practised, distributed leadership creates more opportunities for potential leaders to demonstrate their abilities.
If everyone has the opportunity to share new ideas or contribute to decision-making processes, that means there are no limits on who can speak up. New team members are just as welcome to participate as senior employees.
In some organisations, it’s hard for junior employees to feel confident sharing their input. In fact, they might be actively discouraged from doing so. The opposite is true in organisations that value distributed leadership.
In an organisation that values sharing (of knowledge, opinions, etc.), the communication typically improves.
It’s not hard to see why this happens. After all, if everyone is invited to share their ideas and offer insight into specific problems — and if their contributions are genuinely heard, respected, and appreciated — they have more motivation to speak up.
Employees in these situations may also be more inclined to take ownership of their ideas and their role in the company.
Take a look at our Communication Skills Training, designed to enable you to hone the necessary skills for establishing robust relationships. This program will also enhance your ability to communicate effectively and influence others.
In some cases, distributed leadership can eliminate unnecessary and outdated office politics.
Because everyone has access to the same information, understands the market, and is aware of the specific issues the organisation it’s facing, it’s easier for employees to make decisions without waiting for approval from the head.
When people can make decisions faster, the organisation’s overall efficiency and productivity improve.
Of course, this isn’t to say that individuals can do what they want without regard for anyone else’s opinions or insight. However, when everyone is working with the same information, it’s generally easier to make plans and choices that benefit the entire organisation and align with its mission and goals.
The adoption of a distributed leadership style doesn’t have to mean the complete obliteration of the traditional chain of command. An organisation can still have a CEO, head of sales, marketing manager, etc. Employees can still have a specific person to whom they report and a clear idea of their role within the company.
The difference with the distributed style of leadership is that more leaders have opportunities to make decisions.
For example, the head of marketing can make decisions for their team without having to wait for approval and feedback from several other leaders. With this approach, members of the marketing team also have more freedom to speak up, share their ideas, and offer feedback based on their unique experiences.
When leadership is distributed across the organisations and employees have more opportunities to be creative and contribute to the decision-making process, they tend to take more ownership of their work.
Since employees are executing their own ideas instead of simply following orders from someone else, they tend to be more committed to the task and want to produce higher-quality work. They’re more engaged in the process and perform at a higher level as a result.
In a workplace that practises distributed leadership, everyone is encouraged to share their knowledge in the name of synergy and collaboration. This style of leadership naturally promotes mutual learning and pushes everyone to expand their existing skills, develop new skills, and gain new insights.
Mutual learning also creates room for employees to find common ground and develop stronger bonds. When everyone improves together, the entire organisation benefits.
Like other leadership models, distributed leadership does come with some disadvantages. The benefits discussed in the previous section are “best-case scenario” benefits.
If distributed leadership is practised properly, if it is implemented in the wrong setting, or if everyone is not on board with it, it could produce specific downsides, including those listed below:
Ideally, in a distributed leadership environment, everyone will take ownership of their ideas and role within the organisation. However, in a large organisation, this might not always happen. As a result, it can be challenging to find out who is accountable when something goes wrong.
Determining accountability isn’t necessarily about identifying who needs to be punished or fired for their mistake. However, if nobody knows where communication or understanding broke down, they won’t know whom to talk to about changing their approach so that similar mistakes don’t happen in the future.
To avoid a lack of accountability, it’s critical that clear roles and responsibilities are still defined. Everyone should be tasked with carrying out specific tasks to prevent confusion and improve communication.
In some ways, distributed leadership can increase efficiency and productivity. Because everyone is working with the same knowledge and industry information, they can make decisions without waiting for buy-in from higher-ups.
At the same time, though, when too many people are contributing and working together to make a decision, the process can slow down. Imagine a team of 200 people where everyone is vying to have their opinion heard. In such a situation, even a simple problem could take hours, days, or weeks to resolve.
For certain organisations, particularly large ones or ones where snap decisions are frequently required, distributed leadership might work better if it’s combined with another leadership strategy.
Along with slowing the decision-making process, distributed leadership could also create more room for uncertainty — especially in large organisations where clear communication channels haven’t been implemented.
When used properly, distributed leadership can improve communication. For this to happen, though, everyone needs to use the same tools or protocols for sharing information. Otherwise, knowledge gaps and confusion may appear.
One of the primary goals of distributed leadership is for team members to find common ground through their shared experiences and common vision. If they don’t share the same vision, though, disharmony may result among team members, especially when big decisions need to be made.
In environments that rely on distributed leadership, it’s typical for everyone to reach an agreement before moving forward with a decision. If one person is the “hold out” and has a different view, their team members may start to see them as the “enemy,” especially if they’re trying to make a decision and move forward with a project quickly.
Those who are intrigued by the advantages of distributed leadership may still have questions about how to incorporate this strategy into their organisation. Here are some practical steps team members can start taking today:
Distributed leadership requires higher-ups to loosen the reins and relinquish specific responsibilities. They must open up their circle of trust and invite others into the fold. They must also trust that others are capable of making wise decisions and contributing to the organisation’s success.
It’s often easier for leaders to let go and trust if they know that everyone is working toward the same goals and shares the same vision. Making sure everyone is on the same page with these things can increase the leader’s confidence and help them feel more comfortable moving forward.
Hiring in a distributed leadership environment is a group effort. One person doesn’t get to decide who joins their team unilaterally.
The hiring team should work together to vet each candidate and find someone who is committed to the shared vision and mission of the organisation. The candidate should also have promising leadership and communication skills — as well as a desire to learn.
If you’re in a leadership position and want to experiment with distributed leadership, you have to let others lead. You must resist the urge to jump in and take over in a crisis. Instead, you should leave room for others to share their ideas, offer suggestions, and work together to find a resolution.
Of course, it’s not only in crises when you should let others lead. You should also create lower-stakes opportunities. For example, you could give junior employees chances to conduct meetings or head smaller projects. With practice, they’ll soon be prepared to jump in and make wise decisions when larger problems arise.
It can be helpful for distributed leaders to think of themselves as coaches rather than leaders in a traditional sense.
Coaches provide feedback and hands-on direction. However, they also are willing to let those they’re coaching experiment and try new things.
When you take a coaching approach, you can still offer insight and ensure team members are making decisions that align with the organisation’s mission. However, you’re taking a more collaborative approach rather than always steering the ship.
Eager to understand the unique contrasts between Coaching and Mentoring as a leader? Discover the differences in our guide on Coaching and Mentoring!
Distributed leadership isn’t about delegating tasks to others. That still puts you in a traditional leadership role. Instead, strive to empower others to step up and take responsibility without being asked. You must trust others to do their jobs and get things done.
It’s also important to avoid micromanaging. You must give people the freedom to use their knowledge, make informed decisions, and grow within their roles.
Distributed leadership can work very well in some companies. It allows for more people to be involved in leadership and decision-making, allowing for increased creativity, diversity, and employee empowerment.
At the same time, though, it can interfere with speed, confidence, and accountability, especially in larger organisations or ones that carry out complex tasks that require a great deal of precision.
Ultimately, it’s up to the employees at a company or the members of an organisation to decide if the distributed approach is a good fit for them. If they do decide to move forward with it, though, they should follow the implementation steps listed above to produce the greatest benefits and minimise potential roadblocks.
Distributed leadership is a powerful approach that can work well for many businesses and organisations — especially new and modern organisations that aren’t afraid to alter the traditional professional hierarchy.
Do you want to learn more about distributed leadership (or other leadership styles)? If so, we offer several training courses to help you develop the tools, skills and behaviours to lead more effectively. Take a look at our Management Skills Training and Management Development Programmes today.
Updated on: 7 September, 2023
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