Distributed leadership through the looking glass

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 21 March 2008


Harris, A. (2008), "Distributed leadership through the looking glass", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 46 No. 2. https://doi.org/10.1108/jea.2008.07446baa.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Distributed leadership through the looking glass

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Journal of Educational Administration, Volume 46, Issue 2.

Distributed leadership through the looking glass

Distributed leadership is a concept that is both popular and controversial. It has caught the imagination of those in the leadership field and, like all new ideas, it has its proponents and its critics. Whatever one feels about its popularity, its credibility, or legitimacy it is unquestionable that its impact on the leadership field in has been dramatic. Certainly, the idea that leadership is more than the preserve of an individual is not particularly new. But distributed leadership theory offers an original perspective on this view of leadership and puts leadership practice centre stage. The work of James Spillane and his colleagues (Spillane et al., 2001, 2004) in particular, has provided a much needed theoretical framework for thinking about the practice of leadership. This work has been a major catalyst within the leadership field and has prompted much challenge, debate and empirical enquiry focused on leadership as practice (Spillane and Diamond, 2007).

It is evident that distributed leadership is quickly filling the vacuum left by countless leadership texts reiterating the same tired orthodoxies about school leadership. Most importantly, it has given a renewed prominence to considerations of alternative conceptualisations of leadership such as teacher leadership; student leadership and community leadership that have so often been dismissed, devalued and discounted in favour of more traditional leadership forms (Murphy, 2005). It is becoming increasingly clear that the leadership models of the past are simply inadequate for the challenges of the future (Senge et al., 2005). As Gronn (2003) notes there “is a powerful interaction taking place between scholarship and the climate which is fuelling the demand for alternative models of leadership”. It is certainly the case that the field would benefit from “alternative” models of leadership but it is important that these are empirically sound and theoretically grounded (Harris, 2007). So does distributed leadership pass the theoretical and empirical test?

The special edition puts distributed leadership in the spotlight. It focuses on its origins and development of distributed leadership; it raises concerns and questions its legitimacy; it poses methodological and epistemological challenges; reviews existing and new research evidence and considers the foci for future empirical enquiry.

The central aim of the special edition is to provide competing perspectives, views and positions on distributed leadership. Its prime purpose is to not to reach a cosy consensus or to elevate or endorse distributed leadership but to deliberately push, challenge and extend what is currently known and understood about this form of leadership practice.

The first article in this special edition by Peter Gronn, explores the theoretical lineage, heritage and origins of distributed leadership. This article reviews the work of early generation leadership theorists and also focuses on more recent distributed leadership research findings. The article highlights a number of unresolved issues and problems concerned with the status of distributed leadership. It highlights that despite some potential benefits, it is unclear where distributed leadership or indeed leadership more generally, goes next.

This particular end point is also the starting point for the article by Gabriele Lakomski. Her writing challenges the premise that leadership is a natural entity or essence within the organisation, proposing instead that leadership is a distraction from exploring the real workings of organisational practice. She calls into question whether our “taken for granted understanding of leadership … squares with how leaders and organisations really work given what we know about human cognition and information processing” (Lakomski, 2005). In her article she argues that leadership, including distributed leadership, is a concept of folk psychology and is more productively viewed as an emergent self-organising property of complex systems. She argues that claims to (distributed) leadership outrun the theoretical and empirical resources distributed and other leadership theorists can offer to support them. Her work reiterates that distributed leadership is just a label applied to organisational behaviour that could just as easily be labelled as something else. She concludes that distributed leadership, like all leadership approaches, is massively disconnected from any causality.

While causality is not the core focus of the article by Harris, it does explore the evidence base concerning the relationship between distributed leadership and organisational outcomes. It draws upon a wide range of literature and empirical studies to consider whether distributed forms of leadership influence development and change in schools. The article examines the research base relating to distributed leadership and organisational outcomes. It reinforces how different patterns or configurations of distributed leadership contribute to organisational development. The article concludes by highlighting some of the main findings from contemporary studies of distributed leadership and points to issues requiring future empirical investigation.

One such contemporary study of distributed leadership is that currently being undertaken by Ken Leithwood and his colleagues in Canada (Leithwood et al., 2006). This work illuminates the way in which different patterns of distribution affect organisational outcomes. The findings from this research study signal that we need to know much more about the impact and effects on distributed leadership on organisational change and development. Drawing on empirical evidence gathered as part of this large scale project, the article by Mascall et al. examines the relationship between distributed leadership and teachers’ academic optimism. The article outlines four patterns of distributed leadership that reflect the extent to which the performance of leadership functions is consciously aligned across the sources of leadership and the degree to which the approach is either planned or spontaneous.

In another major contemporary research study, Spillane et al. examine multiple operationalisations of core aspects of a distributed perspective for studying school leadership and management, comparing and contrasting what is learned from each operationalisation. The article identifies two dimensions along which to consider the epistemological challenges raised when studying school leadership with a distributed frame, These two dimensions are data source (top down and bottom up) and data focus (the organisation as designed or the organisation as lived). The article considers different ways of studying how the work of managing and leading schools is distributed among people in schools. It also considers some of the methodological and epistemological trade-offs involved research of this kind.

The article by Robinson resonates with the plea made by Spillane et al. that more careful operationalisation of research is required before empirical enquiry is undertaken. This article explores the relationship between distributed leadership and organisational outcomes. It focuses on how alternative conceptions and normative approaches might deliver more insight into the relationship between aspects of distributed leadership and a range of educational outcomes. It highlights how particular conceptions of distributed leadership, and particular types of normative theorising about the concept actually work against learning more about its educational consequences.

The article by Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink looks at distributed leadership within the context of two educational systems, Finland and England. In explores distributed leadership in the form of cross-school networks and professional learning communities, arguing that it is a departure from leadership by performance targets, line management, and delivery systems. It suggests that emerging models of distributed leadership, networks and communities of practice regard organisations more as “living systems” or complex, evolutionary, “networks” that are much less amenable to top-down regulation. The article explores how far distributed leadership models are able to harness the energy, motivation and professional learning of teachers and school leaders to secure sustainable innovation and improvement. The article concludes by reinforcing that the “hardest questions about distributed leadership are moral and democratic ones”. This is certainly true. A main challenge, as Hargreaves and Fink suggest, is to ensure that “distributed leadership is about democracy and not delivery”.


Distributed leadership is undoubtedly an idea of the moment. Like all contemporary ideas, however, its popularity will be time limited unless the emerging empirical evidence shows it worthy of further and deeper consideration. The methodological challenges are substantial, as the article by Spillane et al. shows, but the empirical insights are surely worth the struggle. The evidence we have from articles in this edition suggests that distributed leadership is a powerful form of analysis and a way of interrogating and understanding leadership practice differently. There is evidence that it can positively influence organisational culture and outcomes. There is also evidence that it can promote knowledge creation, sharing and mutual learning through school-to-school networks and the establishment of professional learning communities within and between schools.

To simply dismiss distributed leadership as a fad or fashion or to devalue it without proper empirical consideration, as some have done, is to wilfully remove the potential of knowing more about it. This is not to suggest that we ignore the dissenting voices or alternative viewpoints on distributed leadership but rather to engage them and recognise that they are essential if ideas about distributed leadership are to be properly and seriously developed. This can only occur with further challenge and academic debate along with serious empirical interrogation and theoretical development.

If we jettison distributed leadership because of its various limitations then we discard its potential also. Ironically, if we do so it is more likely that we will be “blinkered to the limitations of distributed leadership” (Timperley, 2005). Popularised, simplistic and misleading notions of distributed leadership already exist and some are influencing practice. Properly informed judgements about the benefits and limitations of this form of leadership can only be made through further investigation and empirical scrutiny. This evidence is emerging but it will take time. Without this body of evidence, the field might as well start looking for the next leadership theory.

Alma HarrisGuest Editor


Gronn, P. (2003), The New Work of Educational Leaders: Changing Leadership Practice in an Era of School Reform, Paul Chapman, London

Harris, A. (2007), “Distributed leadership: conceptual confusion and empirical reticence”, International Journal of Leadership in Education, Vol. 10 No. 3, pp. 111

Lakomski, G. (2005), Managing Without Leadership: Towards a Theory of Organisational Functioning, Elsevier, London

Leithwood, K.M., Strauss, B., Sacks, T., Memon, R.N. and Yashkina, G. (2006), “Distributing leadership to make schools smarter”, Leadership and Policy, Vol. 6 No. 1, pp. 3767

Murphy, J. (2005), Connecting Teacher Leadership and School Improvement, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA

Senge, P., Scharmer, C.O., Jawroski, J. and Flowers, B. (2005), Presence Exploring Profound Change in People, Organisations and Society, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London

Spillane, J. and Diamond, J.B. (2007), Distributed Leadership in Practice, Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York, NY

Spillane, J., Halverson, R. and Diamond, J. (2001), “Towards a theory of leadership practice: a distributed perspective”, working article, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

Spillane, J.P., Halverson, R. and Diamond, J.B. (2004), “Towards a theory of leadership practice: a distributed perspective”, Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol. 36 No. 1, pp. 334

Timperley, H. (2005), “Distributed leadership: developing theory from practice”, Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol. 37 No. 4, pp. 395420