In This Article Distributed Leadership

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical and Conceptual Work
  • Literature Reviews and Epistemological and Methodological Challenges
  • Empirical Work on Distributed Leadership in Primary and Elementary School
  • Empirical Work on Distributed Leadership in Secondary School, School Districts, and Higher Education
  • Research on Relations Between Distributed Leadership, School Organizational Conditions, and Outcomes
  • Distributed Leadership for Practitioners and Policymakers

Education Distributed Leadership
James P. Spillane, Katie Mertz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0123


Over the first decade of the 21st century, a modest but expanding body of work has emerged on what is commonly referred to in the literature as distributed leadership. The idea has also garnered considerable attention from policymakers, practitioners, and philanthropists in several countries and international organizations such as OECD, though there is no shortage of scholarship on school leadership and management in particular and organizational leadership and management in general. Still, the appeal of a distributed perspective appears to lie in part in that it offered an alternative to dissatisfaction with the great person approach to theorizing about organizational leadership and management, what Gary Yukl terms the “heroics of leadership paradigm” (Gary Yukl, “An Evaluation of Conceptual Weaknesses in Transformational and Charismatic Leadership Theories,” The Leadership Quarterly 10.2 [1999]: 285–305, p. 292). At least two ideas are central in writing about and research on distributed leadership. The first is an acknowledgement that leading and managing schools (and other organizations) involve multiple individuals, not just the school principal, including other formally designated leaders and individuals without such designations (e.g., teachers with no formal leadership position, parents, or even students who influenced an organization’s core work). In this way, a distributed perspective called for attention to both the formal and informal organization and how these two aspects of the organization worked in interaction with one another (James P. Spillane, Distributed Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006); Spillane and Diamond 2007, cited under Empirical Work on Distributed Leadership in Primary and Elementary School). Still, writings about distributed leadership often focus rather narrowly on the array of individuals that take responsibility for leadership and management work. The second idea is that the practice of leading and managing needs to be a central concern in research and development work on organizational leadership (Gronn 2000 and Spillane, et al. 2001, both cited under Theoretical and Conceptual Work). Rather than narrowly conceptualizing practice in terms of the actions or behaviors of an individual leader, from a distributed perspective practice is framed in terms of the interactions among organizational members as enabled and constrained by aspects of their situation. Studying the practice of leading and managing necessitates examining how the practice is stretched over school leaders, followers, and aspects of their situation. Thus, careful attention to interactions, rather than fixating exclusively on the actions of an individual leader, is necessary when taking a distributed perspective to school leadership and management.

Theoretical and Conceptual Work

In the first several years of the 21st century, several papers and books were published that theorized and conceptualized organizational leadership and management, especially in schools, from a distributed perspective. This work involved conceptualizing and theorizing about school leadership and management using theoretical work from various disciplinary traditions including distributed cognition, sociocultural activity theory, situated cognition and micro-sociological theory. Consistent with the theory building tradition, scholars also drew on their own empirical observations of school leadership and management to theorize about leadership and management from a distributed perspective. The author of Gronn 2000, working in Australia, used work in sociocultural activity theory to theorize distributed leadership. At the same time, the authors of Spillane, et al. 2004, working in North America, used both sociocultural activity theory and work in distributed cognition to theorize a distributed perspective on school leadership and management. Additionally, work in situated and social cognition has been especially influential in this earlier theorizing about distributed leadership, as in Spillane, et al. 2001. More recently still, work in sociology has also been employed in Spillane, et al. 2003. A key aspect of this conceptualizing and theorizing work centered on the role of the situation in leadership and management practice. Specifically, scholars theorized that the situation, including the materials that people interacted with and the organizational structures that enabled and constrained their daily interactions with one another, did not simply affect the actions of individual leaders from the outside in but rather were constitutive of their practice. Aspects of the situation contributed to defining practice, just like people do, by framing and focusing interactions among organizational members. For example, organizational routines, such as teacher hiring routines or staff meetings, define leading and managing practice. In this way, the material situation does not simply affect what school leaders do, it is constitutive of their practices, as shown in Spillane, et al. 2001 and Spillane, et al. 2004.

  • Gronn, Peter. 2000. Distributed properties: A new architecture for leadership. Educational Management Administration Leadership 28.3: 317–338.

    DOI: 10.1177/0263211X000283006E-mail Citation »

    Gronn argues for a reconceptualized stream of leadership that still values leadership as essential for organizational success but alters the form to fit better with the flow of influence in organizations. He focuses on the activity system model, which bridges leadership or organizational structures and the actions that occur through the agents of the organization.

  • Gronn, Peter. 2002. Distributed leadership as a unit of analysis. The Leadership Quarterly 13.4: 423–451.

    DOI: 10.1016/S1048-9843(02)00120-0E-mail Citation »

    This conceptual piece argues for the adoption of a distributed leadership framework, given the dichotomy between traditional leadership paradigms and the division of leadership practice in reality. Gronn reviews different forms of distributed leadership, offers his own taxonomy of distributed leadership, and reviews the literature on the subject.

  • Spillane, James P., John B. Diamond, and Loyiso Jita. 2003. Leading instruction: The distribution of leadership for instruction. Journal of Curriculum Studies 35.5: 533–543.

    DOI: 10.1080/0022027021000041972E-mail Citation »

    This paper takes a closer look at the notion of leadership as a distributed practice, focusing attention chiefly on the social distribution of leadership practice; that is, the ways in which leadership practice in schools is stretched over both formal and informal leaders for analytical purposes. The authors identify categories or levels of distribution: co-enacted practice and independently enacted coordinated practice.

  • Spillane, James P., Richard Halverson, and John B. Diamond. 2001. Investigating school leadership practice: A distributed perspective. Educational Researcher 30.3: 23–28.

    DOI: 10.3102/0013189X030003023E-mail Citation »

    Spillane and colleagues sketch a distributed framework for research on school leadership and management, grounded in activity theory and distributed cognition. The framework suggests that leadership and management practice is not simply a function of an individual leader’s ability, skill, charisma, and cognition but also those of others in the situation as well as aspects of the situation that contribute to defining these interactions.

  • Spillane, James P., Richard Halverson, and John B. Diamond. 2004. Towards a theory of leadership practice: A distributed perspective. Journal of Curriculum Studies 36.1: 3–34.

    DOI: 10.1080/0022027032000106726E-mail Citation »

    Arguing for the centrality of the study of leadership and management practice in scholarship on leadership and management, the authors develop a distributed framework for such work using activity theory and distributed cognition theory. Their distributed framework focuses on interactions among actors, rather than the actions of individual leaders, and affords the situation a central role in leadership and management practice.

  • Thornton, Kate. 2010. The nature of distributed leadership and its development in online environments. In Leadership in the digital enterprise: Issues and challenges. Edited by Pak Yoong, 1–14. Hershey, PA: IG Global.

    DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-958-8E-mail Citation »

    This chapter looks at how leadership can be distributed in online environments, specifically, in online communities of practice, virtual teams, and online action learning groups. Based on a review of the literature, Thornton finds that leadership actions in the initial stages of such environments are critical for the development of distributed leadership, as are the technologies used.

  • Walker, A., and G. Riordan. 2010. Leading collective capacity in culturally diverse schools. School Leadership & Management 30.1: 51–63.

    DOI: 10.1080/13632430903509766E-mail Citation »

    This article looks at collective capacity building in schools with culturally diverse staff bodies. Through a review of selected literature, the authors find that in order to build collective capacity in diverse environments school leaders need to have a firm understanding of the school’s various cultures, support formal structures that foster intercultural relationship building, and understand how cultural values may influence expectations.

  • Woods, Philip A. 2004. Democratic leadership: Drawing distinctions with distributed leadership. International Journal of Leadership in Education 7.1: 3–26.

    DOI: 10.1080/1360312032000154522E-mail Citation »

    This report covers the philosophical framework for democratic leadership and the ways in which it is similar to distributed leadership. These similarities include an emergent, cooperative property and an analytical approach. The concept is differentiated from distributed leadership on the grounds that the latter does not include a moral component.

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