Distributed leadership


From what you have read so far, you can see that the landscape of schools in this country has changed greatly over the last decade. Many headteachers are working beyond their own school, taking on responsibility for leading more than one school or providing support for failing schools. This obviously has implications for you as a senior leader.

You may find yourself in the position of running the school on a day-to-day basis (fulfilling the role of a headteacher). You will not be able to fulfil all the responsibilities of your senior leadership role on your own and will need to rely increasingly on the support of colleagues from within your own school, as well as on colleagues from across the partnership or network of schools or other organisations with which you work. In effect, this is distributed leadership.

Man explaining to colleague

In a distributed leadership model, leadership responsibilities and accountability are shared by those with relevant skills and expertise, rather than resting with an individual. In schools, distributed leadership models should focus on developing many learning-centred leaders with the ultimate aim of improving the quality of teaching, learning and pupil outcomes.

Distributed leadership is not a new concept. Sometimes known as 'delegated' or 'shared' leadership, it is based on three key ideas:

  • the belief in leadership teams where belief in the power of one gives way to belief in the power of everyone
  • increased demand for leaders as schools become more complex places to manage and lead
  • creating pools of talent from which we can grow tomorrow’s leaders

Through distributed leadership, organisational improvement and change become a collective rather than an individual responsibility.

Bennett et al (2003) undertook a literature review on distributed leadership for the National College. They suggest that distributed leadership has three distinguishing features:

  1. Leadership is the product of an interacting group or network of individuals, rather than the act of a single person.
  2. It opens up the boundaries of leadership to those who would previously have been excluded from leadership activities.
  3. It embodies the belief that expertise should be distributed across the organisation, rather than being concentrated in the hands of a few people.

Dean (2007) assimilated the work of leading theorists into the following eight ‘hallmarks’ of distributed leadership.

Dean's eight hallmarks of distributed leadership

Shared responsibility whereby leadership is viewed in terms of the collective behaviour of many individuals rather than a designated role
Shared power and authority whereas traditional notions of leadership focus on command and control, distributed leadership is more concerned with empowerment, participation and co-operation
Synergy where under distributed leadership, decision-making is decentralised, with individuals engaging in collaborative activities and willingly sharing or overlapping roles with others whose skills and knowledge complement their own
Leadership capacity in that organisations with distributed leadership benefit from the collective knowledge and skills of their leadership participants, giving them greater leadership capacity than traditionally led organisations
Organisational learning in that according to Senge (1996), where leadership and decision-making are distributed throughout an organisation, senior leaders have a responsibility to contribute to the quality of thinking throughout the organisation. How they work with their own teams serves as an example of how this can be replicated throughout the organisation
An equitable and ethical climate where distributed leadership tends to involve a wider range of stakeholders in the decision-making process, thereby reducing the likelihood that ill-considered or unethical decisions are made
A democratic and investigative culture as the cumulative result of shared responsibility, shared power and authority, and an ethical and organisational learning culture
Macro-community engagement in that many organisations that practise distributed leadership appreciate that part of their leadership capacity lies in their ability to understand and contribute to an increasingly complex internal and external environment, over which they can have little real leadership control

The potential benefits of distributed leadership

As organisations become increasingly complex, it is impossible for one person to have the requisite time, knowledge and skills to lead every aspect of the organisation. By distributing leadership throughout the organisation, this may:

  • increase employee engagement and commitment, due to a sense of collective responsibility for the organisation’s success
  • encourage sharing of ideas and help generate new solutions to old problems
  • encourage more effective and responsive decision-making
  • help to develop a greater sense of openness and trust in the organisation
  • assist succession planning as it can help organisations to spot and nurture leadership potential in individuals from an early stage
  • encourage better teamwork at all levels of the organisation
  • give people a more flexible and adaptable approach to work
  • improve knowledge-sharing and learning inside and across departments as different groups of people work together

The potential downsides of distributed leadership

Some of the potential drawbacks of distributed leadership are:

  • slower decision-making, as different views have to be taken into account
  • the emergence of silos, if communication between groups is poor
  • a lack of overall strategic direction if different departments perceive themselves as being in competition with each other

The presence of more leaders enables increased peer leadership among teachers, learning assistants and support staff. If these leaders are empowered, schools can become more influential learning organisations for all, where staff are encouraged to reflect on their professional experience and act on it to improve the quality of their teaching. Evidence suggests that learning-centred approaches to leadership benefit pupils, staff and the whole school community (Southworth, 2003; Stoll, Fink & Earl, 2003).

Leithwood et al (2006) found that leadership has a greater influence on schools and pupils when it is widely distributed. Their evidence suggests that the combined leadership of a team of leaders is far more influential than the efforts of any one individual. They went on to say that leadership needs to be co-ordinated as well as distributed: clarity about roles and good structures of communication are critical.

Distributed leadership can also be used across schools and organisations working in partnership, providing opportunities for senior leaders and other staff to take responsibility for leading on different aspects of work across the partnership. It may also provide more opportunities for staff to learn from one another by sharing effective practice.

Hargreaves and Fink (2006) suggest that distributed leadership is not an end in itself, and that the way in which leadership is distributed and the rationale for such distribution will determine the success of the practice. They describe a continuum of distributed leadership and outline the advantages and disadvantages of each category (see the diagram 'A continuum of distributed leadership' below). According to the authors, each pattern of distribution has strengths and weaknesses depending on the school context.

Hargreaves's continuum of distributed leadership
questions & activities

Personal reflection

Think about your experience of distributed leadership to date, considering the following questions.


  • 01.
    What has been your experience of distributed leadership, both as a senior leader and as a teacher?
  • 02.
    Where would your current experience of distributed leadership fit on this continuum?
  • 03.
    What were the positive aspects of this way of working for you? For others?
  • 04.
    What were the negative aspects of this way of working?
  • 05.
    How could you use distributed leadership through partnership working in your current role as senior leader to impact positively on outcomes for pupils?

Learning-centred leadership

All leaders in a school, but especially senior ones, need to have a sense of direction and purpose, high aspirations for the school, and relentlessly focus on pupils' achievements and progress.

Learning-centred leaders influence in three ways:

  • directly, where leaders' actions directly influence school outcomes
  • indirectly, where leaders affect outcomes indirectly through other variables
  • reciprocally, when the leader or leaders affect teachers and teachers affect the leaders

Hallinger & Heck, 1999, pp4–5

Female teacher and pupils in a classroom
Pupils in class with their hands raised

Leithwood and Riehl (2003) conclude that it is the indirect effects that are the largest and most common because leaders work through others. Leaders are reliant on other colleagues to put into practice agreed ways of working. So how can you work directly on your indirect influence?

Leithwood and Riehl (2003) suggest that effective leaders do this by using three interrelated strategies:

  • modelling
  • monitoring
  • dialogue


Leaders know that setting an example is powerful, because everyone watches leaders closely.

Teachers want to see whether your actions are consistent over time and reflect what you say – do you walk the talk? You will want to set a good example because colleagues will follow you, using you as an example of how to behave. You will be listened to very closely so you will need to choose your words carefully and always try to respond respectfully to others.

Colleagues will also pay attention to the things that you pay attention to: how often do you visit classrooms? Do you encourage colleagues to talk about their teaching successes and challenges and how individual children are progressing? Do you work alongside colleagues to use data to analyse the school's performance?

This is particularly relevant when you work in partnerships outside your own school as you are likely to be watched with even greater scrutiny.


This includes analysing and acting on pupil progress and outcome data, including parental opinion surveys, pupil attendance data, and pupil interview or survey information, as well as assessment and test scores and school performance trends.

Monitoring will also include visiting classrooms, observing colleagues and providing them with constructive feedback, preferably posing questions for them to consider in order to identify ways of improving the learning for pupils.

Spending time in classrooms will also enable you to build up a picture of the strengths and developmental needs of the staff. This will provide you with information about which staff can play a part in supporting colleagues, thus forming internal partnerships.

This can be perceived as very challenging when working across schools. You will need to work closely with the senior leaders in partner schools.


Create opportunities for teachers to talk with their colleagues about learning and teaching.

Effective leaders create opportunities to meet with colleagues to discuss pedagogy and pupil learning. How do you facilitate this within your partnerships?

Describing to a colleague what you did and analysing what happened often requires us to state what we think, thus clarifying our own knowledge and understanding, making tacit knowledge explicit.

Once this knowledge has been released it can be discussed, in turn creating professional learning.

Pupils looking at hamsters
questions & activities

Personal reflection

Thinking about your current situation and school, consider the following questions.


  • 01.
    How could you use modelling, monitoring and dialogue to develop partnerships within your school, for example with other senior leaders and middle leaders?
  • 02.
    Would these strategies work equally well with partners who are external to the school, particularly when you may not have regular face-to-face contact? How would you manage each of these techniques?