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Published by the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation

Distributed leadership model provides so much more than just a label

Posted: 06/01/17 9:00am CST

As a leadership model, distributed leadership has a lot going for it. Distributed leadership harnesses the energy and strengths of multiple staff members. Distributed leadership invites and supports collegial and collaborative interactions. Distributed leadership disperses leadership tasks and builds leadership capacity. Some say that distributed leadership is the “glue” that binds and supports interdependent efforts of a staff (Harris, 2014).

Finally, there is growing evidence of the relationship between distributed leadership and high-performing schools as evidenced by school systems in Finland, Shanghai and Canada.

A close colleague argues that distributed leadership is nothing more than a “theory under construction.”

Although academics have yet to agree on a single conceptualization of the term, recent studies in the United Kingdom and the United States point to the potential of distributed leadership to make a positive difference in our schools.

Regardless of its capacity to support school improvement, understandings of distributed leadership vary widely due to the fact that distributed leadership can look different from one school to another. As a start, let’s review what distributed leadership is not.

Distributed leadership is not participative or consultative leadership where formal leaders routinely seek out opinions from staff. Distributed leadership is not another name for bureaucracy, nor is it a subtle way of adding to the existing workload of teachers and staff. Distributed leadership is not a substitute for, or abdication of, formal leadership within a school.

Some common and more familiar references to distributed leadership are: shared leadership, team leadership or democratic leadership. More recently, frameworks for distributed leadership are seen to include purposeful professional collaboration and networking (Harris, 2009). James Spillane’s (2005, 2009) explanation is perhaps the most relevant. Distributed leadership is about leadership practice “stretched” over the school community.

Essentially, distributed leadership is the result of interactions amongst the leader, the members in the school community and the school context.

Years ago, David Perkins proposed that the capacity of the group is greater than the sum of the individual contributions due to the interdependent nature of relationships within the group. The inclusive nature of distributed leadership harnesses individual and collective imagination and creative capacities of the group.

The complexities and challenges confronting schools today often require different and innovative leadership approaches. Alma Harris, a leader in education research, sees distributed leadership as an effective and efficient way of mobilizing creative solutions and generating new understandings

and knowledge within a diverse and interdependent group. Similarly, Michael Fullan (2010) believes that “the power of collective capacity is that it enables ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

Distributed leadership that is done well is founded on a climate of trust and well-established relationships amongst the staff. Research tells us that the dynamics

of interactions is an important element of distributed leadership in that leaders carefully plan and organize for ongoing professional dialogue for the creation of new knowledge about teaching and learning in the school.

When ascribing to a distributive leadership model, the formal leader assumes a key role as influencer within his or her unique school context. How school-based administrators communicate and interact with individuals and groups within their school community significantly influences professional motivation and participation.

Case studies of successful distributed leadership in action document a marked increase in teachers’ morale, satisfaction and sense of efficacy as a result of their participation and involvement.

In one situation, the principal reorganized staff meetings to give teachers the time and opportunity to engage in authentic and professional collaboration for the purpose of creating new knowledge about teaching and learning in their school.

School improvement for student success is not a result of chance like winning a lottery. Rather, school improvement is a deliberate choice and the school-based leader either opens or closes the door for positive change.

When principals reflect on the kind of leadership interactions that might best promote and support student success, the answer is typically “distributed leadership.”

Whatever you want to call it, leadership practices that are purposeful and genuinely invite others to engage in new knowledge creation, and understanding for school and student improvement is a model worth constructing.

Look for more information and ideas about how school-based administrators can create the conditions and processes for distributed leadership in their schools on the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation website at www.stf.sk.ca.

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