April 13, 2024

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What Is Distributed Leadership? Distributed Leadership In A Nutshell

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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.

Aspect Explanation
Concept Overview Distributed Leadership is a leadership approach that challenges the traditional top-down model of leadership and instead emphasizes the collective leadership capacity within an organization. In this model, leadership is not limited to a single individual or a small group of top executives; rather, it is distributed across various levels and functions of the organization. Distributed leadership recognizes that individuals throughout the organization can contribute their expertise, insights, and leadership skills to drive positive change and innovation. It encourages collaboration, shared decision-making, and the empowerment of team members. This approach is particularly valuable in complex and dynamic environments where agility and adaptability are essential.
Key Elements – Distributed Leadership comprises several key elements: – Shared Leadership Responsibility: Leadership responsibilities are shared among multiple individuals rather than concentrated at the top. – Collaboration: It emphasizes collaboration and teamwork to leverage diverse perspectives and skills. – Empowerment: Team members are empowered to make decisions and take ownership of their areas of expertise. – Decentralization: Decision-making authority is decentralized, allowing for quicker responses to challenges and opportunities. – Adaptive Leadership: Distributed leadership is adaptive and responsive to changing circumstances. – Trust and Accountability: Trust and accountability are critical components, as team members rely on each other’s leadership contributions.
Applications – Distributed Leadership can be applied in various settings, including: – Corporate and Business: Organizations can adopt distributed leadership to improve agility and adaptability in rapidly changing markets. – Education: Educational institutions utilize this approach to engage teachers, students, and administrators in shared leadership for improved learning outcomes. – Healthcare: Healthcare organizations implement distributed leadership to enhance patient care, reduce errors, and promote innovation. – Nonprofits and NGOs: Nonprofit organizations benefit from the collective leadership capacity of staff and volunteers. – Government: Government agencies embrace distributed leadership to enhance public services and responsiveness.
Benefits – Embracing Distributed Leadership offers several benefits: – Increased Innovation: Diverse perspectives and collaboration foster innovation and creative problem-solving. – Enhanced Adaptability: Organizations become more adaptable to change and better equipped to respond to emerging challenges. – Empowerment: Team members feel empowered and motivated to contribute their leadership skills. – Resilience: Distributed leadership enhances organizational resilience by spreading leadership responsibility. – Employee Engagement: Employees are more engaged and committed when they have a say in decision-making. – Faster Decision-Making: Decentralized decision-making leads to quicker responses to issues and opportunities.
Challenges – Challenges associated with Distributed Leadership may include: – Coordination: Ensuring effective coordination and communication among distributed leaders can be challenging. – Role Ambiguity: Team members may face role ambiguity when multiple leaders are involved. – Resistance to Change: Shifting from a traditional hierarchical model to distributed leadership may encounter resistance. – Accountability: Clearly defining and enforcing accountability can be complex when leadership is distributed. – Cultural Change: Changing the organizational culture to embrace distributed leadership may require time and effort. – Consistency: Maintaining consistency in decision-making and leadership approaches across the organization can be a challenge.
Prevention and Mitigation – To address challenges associated with Distributed Leadership, organizations can: – Communication: Establish effective communication channels to ensure coordination and information sharing among distributed leaders. – Role Clarity: Clearly define roles and responsibilities for team members to mitigate role ambiguity. – Change Management: Implement change management strategies to address resistance to the shift to distributed leadership. – Accountability Framework: Develop a robust accountability framework to track and measure leadership contributions. – Cultural Transformation: Invest in cultural change initiatives to foster a culture that embraces distributed leadership. – Training and Development: Provide training and development opportunities for leaders at all levels to enhance their leadership skills.

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.

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:

  1. 70% of an employee’s time is spent on Google’s core businesses of search and advertising.
  2. 20% of an employee’s time is spent on projects related to core businesses such as Google Earth some aspects of Google Maps, and
  3. 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.

5 – Performance reviews should be conducted by someone the employee respects for their objectivity and unbiasedness

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.

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.

Key Highlights

  • Distributed Leadership Overview:
    • Distributed leadership involves sharing leadership responsibilities and accountability among individuals with relevant skills.
    • It leads to a fluid and emergent leadership property, avoiding centralized control.
    • Eight hallmarks/principles define distributed leadership.
  • Understanding Distributed Leadership:
    • Leadership is a result of interactions within a group or network.
    • Expertise should be distributed, not concentrated in a few.
    • Leadership opportunities should be accessible to previously excluded individuals.
  • Diverse Leadership Concept:
    • Distributed leadership intersects with democratic, participative, collaborative, and shared leadership models.
    • It emphasizes fluidity, avoids leader-follower dynamics, and distributes responsibility based on expertise.
  • Eight Hallmarks of Distributed Leadership:
    • Shared responsibility emphasizes achieving goals through diverse styles and participants.
    • Shared power promotes participation, empowerment, dialogue, and cooperation.
    • Synergy through shared decision-making fosters relationships and skills utilization.
    • Leadership capacity values collective knowledge and nurtures leadership potential.
    • Organizational learning involves sharing and applying knowledge collectively.
    • Equitable and ethical climate results from diverse stakeholder involvement.
    • Democratic and investigative culture based on shared values and learning.
    • Macro-community engagement considers interconnectedness and reciprocity.
  • Google’s Example of Distributed Leadership:
    • Google’s culture fosters distributed leadership by hiring top talent and granting autonomy.
    • The 70-20-10 rule allocates time for core tasks, related projects, and passion projects.
    • Encouraging innovation retains employees and leads to diverse product development.
  • Eric Schmidt’s Distributed Leadership Principles:
    • Schmidt’s leadership aligned well with Google’s distributed culture.
    • Getting to know employees personally and professionally.
    • Rewarding and promoting high performers with innovative initiatives.
    • Allowing employees to own and solve problems.
    • Enabling employees to function outside the traditional hierarchy.
    • Conducting performance reviews involving peer feedback for objectivity.

Connected Leadership Concepts And Frameworks

Leadership Styles

Leadership styles encompass the behavioral qualities of a leader. These qualities are commonly used to direct, motivate, or manage groups of people. Some of the most recognized leadership styles include Autocratic, Democratic, or Laissez-Faire leadership styles.

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. 

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.

Blue Ocean Leadership

Authors and strategy experts Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne developed the idea of blue ocean leadership. In the same way that Kim and Mauborgne’s blue ocean strategy enables companies to create uncontested market space, blue ocean leadership allows companies to benefit from unrealized employee talent and potential.

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.

Distributed Leadership

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.

Ethical Leadership

Ethical leaders adhere to certain values and beliefs irrespective of whether they are in the home or office. In essence, ethical leaders are motivated and guided by the inherent dignity and rights of other people.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is a style of leadership that motivates, encourages, and inspires employees to contribute to company growth. Leadership expert James McGregor Burns first described the concept of transformational leadership in a 1978 book entitled Leadership. Although Burns’ research was focused on political leaders, the term is also applicable for businesses and organizational psychology.

Leading by Example

Those who lead by example let their actions (and not their words) exemplify acceptable forms of behavior or conduct. In a manager-subordinate context, the intention of leading by example is for employees to emulate this behavior or conduct themselves.

Leader vs. Boss

A leader is someone within an organization who possesses the ability to influence and lead others by example. Leaders inspire, support, and encourage those beneath them and work continuously to achieve objectives. A boss is someone within an organization who gives direct orders to subordinates, tends to be autocratic, and prefers to be in control at all times.

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership is based on situational leadership theory. Developed by authors Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in the late 1960s, the theory’s fundamental belief is that there is no single leadership style that is best for every situation. Situational leadership is based on the belief that no single leadership style is best. In other words, the best style depends on the situation at hand.

Succession Planning

Succession planning is a process that involves the identification and development of future leaders across all levels within a company. In essence, succession planning is a way for businesses to prepare for the future. The process ensures that when a key employee decides to leave, the company has someone else in the pipeline to fill their position.

Fiedler’s Contingency Model

Fielder’s contingency model argues no style of leadership is superior to the rest evaluated against three measures of situational control, including leader-member relations, task structure, and leader power level. In Fiedler’s contingency model, task-oriented leaders perform best in highly favorable and unfavorable circumstances. Relationship-oriented leaders perform best in situations that are moderately favorable but can improve their position by using superior interpersonal skills.

Management vs. Leadership


Cultural Models

In the context of an organization, cultural models are frameworks that define, shape, and influence corporate culture. Cultural models also provide some structure to a corporate culture that tends to be fluid and vulnerable to change. Once upon a time, most businesses utilized a hierarchical culture where various levels of management oversaw subordinates below them. Today, however, there exists a greater diversity in models as leaders realize the top-down approach is outdated in many industries and that success can be found elsewhere.

Action-Centered Leadership

Action-centered leadership defines leadership in the context of three interlocking areas of responsibility and concern. This framework is used by leaders in the management of teams, groups, and organizations.
Developed in the 1960s and first published in 1973, action-centered leadership was revolutionary for its time because it believed leaders could learn the skills they needed to manage others effectively.
Adair believed that effective leadership was exemplified by three overlapping circles (responsibilities): achieve the task, build and maintain the team, and develop the individual.

High-Performance Coaching

High-performance coaches work with individuals in personal and professional contexts to enable them to reach their full potential. While these sorts of coaches are commonly associated with sports, it should be noted that the act of coaching is a specific type of behavior that is also useful in business and leadership. 

Forms of Power

When most people are asked to define power, they think about the power a leader possesses as a function of their responsibility for subordinates. Others may think that power comes from the title or position this individual holds. 

Tipping Point Leadership

Tipping Point Leadership is a low-cost means of achieving a strategic shift in an organization by focusing on extremes. Here, the extremes may refer to small groups of people, acts, and activities that exert a disproportionate influence over business performance.

Vroom-Yetton Decision Model

The Vroom-Yetton decision model is a decision-making process based on situational leadership. According to this model, there are five decision-making styles guides group-based decision-making according to the situation at hand and the level of involvement of subordinates: Autocratic Type 1 (AI), Autocratic Type 2 (AII), Consultative Type 1 (CI), Consultative Type 2 (CII), Group-based Type 2 (GII).

Likert’s Management Systems

Likert’s management systems were developed by American social psychologist Rensis Likert. Likert’s management systems are a series of leadership theories based on the study of various organizational dynamics and characteristics. Likert proposed four systems of management, which can also be thought of as leadership styles: Exploitative authoritative, Benevolent authoritative, Consultative, Participative.

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