This paper aims to assess the empirical utility and conceptual significance of distributed leadership.
Three main sources of evidence are drawn on. The paper reviews some neglected commentary of an early generation of distributed leadership theorists. It also discusses a strand of social science writings on emergent small number management formations. An alternative interpretation of the findings of three recent empirical studies of distributed leadership is provided. Some unresolved issues are considered.
Distributed leadership arose in reaction to understandings of leadership that emphasised heroic‐like individual behaviour. It has achieved a high level of theoretical and practical uptake. This paper, however, argues for reconsideration. Distributed leadership is shown to be largely unremarkable, especially in light of the continuity between current writings and those of early generation scholars. This claim is also reinforced by the inability of most current scholars to develop the emergent potential of a tradition of writings on the division of labour in small groups (emanating mainly from the work of Georg Simmel). Finally, the paper argues that a more appropriate descriptor for recent leadership analyses may be “hybrid”, rather than “distributed”.
Conceptually and empirically, there is still work to do. First, leadership's distributed status now aligns it with power and influence, each for some time recognised as distributed, although the preference for leadership as a vehicle of analysis ahead of power and influence still lacks sufficient justification. Second, while distributed leadership is sometimes thought of as synonymous with democratic organisational leadership, the latter is shown to be conceptually distinct.
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