What Is Distributed Leadership? Distributed Leadership In A Nutshell

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:

  1. Leadership is the product of an interacting group or network of individuals. It is not based on the actions of a single person.
  2. Expertise should be distributed across an organization and not concentrated in the hands of select individuals.
  3. 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 strategy has seen significant uptake in educational institutions but is also used to create optimal leadership and organizational structure across multiple industries.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Shared power and authority – power or authority should be segmented with a new focus on participation, empowerment, dialogue, and cooperation.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

Key takeaways:

  • 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.


Micromanagement is about tightly controlling or observing employees’ work. Although in some cases, this management style might be understood, especially for small-scale projects, generally speaking, micromanagement has a negative connotation mainly because it shows a lack of trust and freedom in the workplace, which leads to adverse outcomes.

Delegative Leadership

Developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. For this reason, it is also called laissez-faire leadership. In some cases, this type of leadership can lead to increases in work quality and decision-making. In a few other cases, this type of leadership needs to be balanced out to prevent a lack of direction and cohesiveness of the team.

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Active Listening

Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone speaks and displaying understanding through verbal and non-verbal techniques. Active listening is a fundamental part of good communication, fostering a positive connection and building trust between individuals.

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is a model used by leaders to help individuals adapt to complex or rapidly changing environments. Adaptive leadership is defined by three core components (precious or expendable, experimentation and smart risks, disciplined assessment). Growth occurs when an organization discards ineffective ways of operating. Then, active leaders implement new initiatives and monitor their impact.

RASCI Matrix

A RASCI matrix is used to assign and then display the various roles and responsibilities in a project, service, or process. It is sometimes called a RASCI Responsibility Matrix. The RASCI matrix is essentially a project management tool that provides important clarification for organizations involved in complex projects.

Flat Organizational Structure

In a flat organizational structure, there is little to no middle management between employees and executives. Therefore it reduces the space between employees and executives to enable an effective communication flow within the organization, thus being faster and leaner.

Tactical Management

Tactical management involves choosing an appropriate course of action to achieve a strategic plan or objective. Therefore, tactical management comprises the set of daily operations that support long strategy delivery. It may involve risk management, regular meetings, conflict resolution, and problem-solving.

High-Performance Management

High-performance management involves the implementation of HR practices that are internally consistent and aligned with organizational strategy. Importantly, high-performance management is a continual process where several different but integrated activities create a performance management cycle. It is not a process that should be performed once a year and then hidden in a filing cabinet.

Scientific Management

Scientific Management Theory was created by Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911 as a means of encouraging industrial companies to switch to mass production. With a background in mechanical engineering, he applied engineering principles to workplace productivity on the factory floor. Scientific Management Theory seeks to find the most efficient way of performing a job in the workplace.

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