Distributed leadership is based on the premise that leadership responsibilities and accountability are shared by those with the relevant skills or expertise so that the shared responsibility and accountability of multiple individuals within a workplace, bulds up as a fluid and emergent property (not controlled or held by one individual). Distributed leadership is based on eight hallmarks, or principles: shared responsibility, shared power, synergy, leadership capacity, organizational learning, equitable and ethical climate, democratic and investigative culture, and macro-community engagement.
Understanding distributed leadership
Distributed leadership is based on three key ideas:
- Leadership is the product of an interacting group or network of individuals. It is not based on the actions of a single person.
- Expertise should be distributed across an organization and not concentrated in the hands of select individuals.
- The possibility of leadership should be made open to those who might have been previously excluded.
Distributed leadership is a diverse and broad concept and shares some overlap with democratic, participative, collaborative, and shared leadership. However, it promotes leadership as a fluid and emergent property, avoids the typical leader-follower dynamic, and distributes responsibility based on expertise. The model also acknowledges the diversity, maturity, and interdependence of individuals and how deep cultural values influence democratic governance.
The eight hallmarks of distributed leadership
Diane R. Dean, Associate Professor at Illinois State University, created the following eight hallmarks to synthesize the various theories of what constitutes distributed leadership:
- Shared responsibility – distributed leadership regards leadership as the sum total of the behavior of many individuals. Organizational goals are best achieved through a mix of styles and participants.
- Shared power and authority – power or authority should be segmented with a new focus on participation, empowerment, dialogue, and cooperation.
- Synergy – when shared decision-making occurs, participants develop strong relationships based on mutual understanding. Since the performance of the group is assessed, team members leverage their skills and knowledge to help others compensate for deficiencies.
- Leadership capacity – the leadership capacity of an organization is based on the collective knowledge of its employees. Individuals are encouraged to take responsibility for their own goal setting, with passiveness discouraged. Importantly, individuals are nurtured for their leadership potential.
- Organizational learning – collectively managed organizations must also create, share, and apply knowledge in a similar fashion. Team members take ownership of their problems, share common values, hold mutual beliefs, and collaboratively derive meaning for the benefit of the whole.
- Equitable and ethical climate – by its very nature, distributed leadership involves a diverse range of stakeholders in decision-making. This significantly reduces the risk of ill-considered or unethical decisions.
- Democratic and investigative culture – culture defines what people do and why they do it. Distributed leadership creates a democratic culture based on shared identities and definitions of what is important. On the other hand, a focus on leadership capacity through learning creates an investigative culture.
- Macro-community engagement – lastly, the distributed leadership model acknowledges that increasingly complex internal and external environments are impossible to control. Instead, the model focuses on the interconnectedness of individuals and views the environment as a network of exchange and reciprocity.
- Distributed leadership is a leadership model favoring the shared responsibility and accountability of multiple individuals within a workplace.
- Distributed leadership promotes leadership as a fluid and emergent property that is not controlled or held by one individual. In this way, the traditional leader-follower dynamic is avoided.
- Distributed leadership is based on eight hallmarks, or principles: shared responsibility, shared power, synergy, leadership capacity, organizational learning, equitable and ethical climate, democratic and investigative culture, and macro-community engagement.
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