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
- The eight hallmarks of distributed leadership
- Google’s Distributed leadership example
- Eric Schmidt’s distributed leadership principles
- 1 – Get to know your employees.
- 2 – Establish new ways to reward and then promote high performers
- 3 – If there are problems that need to be solved, let employees own them
- 4 – Ensure employees can function outside of Google’s hierarchy
- 5 – Performance reviews should be conducted by someone the employee respects for their objectivity and unbiasedness
- Eric Schmidt’s distributed leadership principles
- Key takeaways:
- Connected Leadership Concepts And Frameworks
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.
Google’s Distributed leadership example
Google’s distributed leadership culture may hark back to Larry Page and Sergey Brin who, before they founded the company, were academics with a penchant for independent research and thinking.
Google is known to hire the finest talent and affords them the autonomy to exercise their creativity and maximize their talents.
While certainly not its own invention, evidence of distributed leadership can be seen in the way Google utilizes the 70-20-10 rule. In other words:
- 70% of an employee’s time is spent on Google’s core businesses of search and advertising.
- 20% of an employee’s time is spent on projects related to core businesses such as Google Earth some aspects of Google Maps, and
- The remaining 10% can be devoted to employee passion projects based on ideas that may seem crazy or transformational.
While many employees no doubt consider 10% of the workday to be free time, Google sees it as an investment in its own future.
With all staff encouraged to be innovators, there is less chance they leave the company and develop their ideas elsewhere.
This approach to innovation also means that Page and Brin do not dictate that only certain types of products and services can be developed.
Google Glass, Google News, and AdSense are some of the more notable products that started as employee ideas.
Eric Schmidt’s distributed leadership principles
When Eric Schmidt was appointed CEO of Google in 2001, there were fears that his corporate background would not gel with the distributed leadership ideals possessed by Page and Brin.
However, over his 20-year tenure at Google, Schmidt demonstrated that he had much in common with the distributed leadership culture.
In fact, Schmidt led the company to reach $1 billion in revenue in just six years (a full decade faster than Microsoft).
Schmidt’s distributed leadership best practices can be summarised in the following points.
1 – Get to know your employees.
Schmidt made a list of his best employees and made a point to interact with them personally and professionally. He also insulated them from any distractions that could set them off course.
2 – Establish new ways to reward and then promote high performers
Some of the initiatives Schmidt introduced were dinner with the CEO and a video called The Factory Tour where employees were invited to explain their ideas to the company.
3 – If there are problems that need to be solved, let employees own them
To facilitate ownership, Schmidt would provide an extremely broad overview of a company objective and leave employees to arrive at their own conclusions.
However, he still made the objective relatable.
For instance, Google’s vision to organize the world’s information to benefit customers and societies is something every employee can get behind.
There are also many potential innovations that align with this purpose.
4 – Ensure employees can function outside of Google’s hierarchy
This was best exemplified by the 70/20/10 rule which we explained earlier.
During Schmidt’s rein, peer involvement was one aspect of biannual employee performance reviews. The employee in question was required to select 3 to 8 of their peers who were best qualified to comment on their contributions, strengths, and areas for improvement.
- 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.
Connected Leadership Concepts And Frameworks