Distributed Leadership: The Definition and Theory Behind This New Leadership Approach

Distributed LeadershipMany companies are moving away from old structures that involve top-down leadership in favor of a newer approach called distributed leadership. Adding elements of distributed leadership to your organization’s way of getting things done will revolutionize the way your company functions.

Distributed leadership can help spread decision-making ability throughout a team, particularly to those on the front lines of the operation. Encouraging initiative and collaboration, this technique allows those closest to the action to make the decisions that will most affect their success.

Although it’s common for people to view a single person as the leader of an organization, such as a CEO or President, this isn’t really in line with reality. These people rarely lead organizations single-handedly; real leadership involves many individuals at all levels, especially in today’s complex work environment that often involves small, independently functioning teams.

Defining distributed leadership

So what is distributed leadership? As Professor James Spillane of Northwestern puts it, distributed leadership is an “emerging set of ideas” that merely describes an alternative to the classic top-down structure businesses have had for decades. In other words, there isn’t one set roadmap or playbook for distributed leadership just yet, but as more companies experiment with the concept, successes and failures point us in the right direction.

Essentially, distributed leadership boils down to allowing small teams or individuals to decide how they want to accomplish their objectives, as opposed to simply executing the commands of a single superior.

Constructive feedback: the foundation of distributed leadership

Proper communication and respect between team members is absolutely essential for distributed leadership to work well.

As the team goes about deciding how to operate for themselves, everyone must be ready and willing to give feedback that helps guide the team in the right direction. They must also be willing to take feedback well, and respond appropriately to the input of others.

While giving and receiving feedback is important in any organization, in a small team working from a distributed leadership model, it’s a prerequisite for success.

Getting the team environment right

Aside from feedback, there are a few elements that need to be cultivated in the work environment for distributed leadership to flourish:

Shared purpose: Taking the time to make sure everyone in your organization understands the company values and goals will help orient each individual towards the final destination. Much of distributed leadership is about innovating the method, not the end goal- you want your team(s) to have some leeway in deciding how to achieve the main goal, not what the main goal is- if everyone is chasing after different ends, things will fall apart.

Social Support: Team members need to be willing and able to provide emotional and psychological support to one another. In a hostile work environment, people will be afraid to take risks by suggesting new ideas, especially if they don’t have support from other team members. Make sure to encourage suggestions, even when the group rejects them. Also make sure to acknowledge the contributions that each team member makes, so they will be likely to keep trying.

Voice: Everyone needs a voice. The point of distributed leadership is to allow everyone on the team input into the decision-making process. If someone is overshadowing the rest, or one person is being left out, the collective intelligence of the team will suffer. This doesn’t mean that everyone always has to participate all of the time. It’s more about making sure that all team members feel they have a voice, so they’ll be encouraged to speak up when they have something worth saying.

Why choose distributed leadership?

Distributed leadership is best attempted among small teams. Try it out- give one of your small teams the end goal, and let them collectively decide how best to achieve it. The main advantage of this approach is that they will truly believe in their action because they’re the ones that get to decide what it is.

You might be surprised at the results- oftentimes those “in the trenches” have learned, from experience, the best way to get things done.

AAI Staff
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One comment on “Distributed Leadership: The Definition and Theory Behind This New Leadership Approach
  1. Ben Bitok says:

    Good job! I find it quite informative.

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