Distributed Leadership As Described In The Scholarly Literature

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Traditionally, leadership within the education sector was primarily based upon a leader-centric 'heroic' model, of which there was a leader (school principle) and followers who were in charge of their own specialty areas of teaching (teaching staff) and the administration team. As education requirements have become more complex, as has the school system (Angelle, 2010; Copland, 2003; Timperley, 2005), rendering the leader-centric model limited in many cases (Mehra, Smith, Dixon, & Robertson, 2006). Advances in technology, access to information and a wider array of careers are now at the forefront of developing young adults with the right life skills as well as educational requirements, in order to succeed (Davies, 2006). As it is essential for school programs to offer diverse options to students, so it is essential to provide specialist leaders in these fields. Similarly and equally important is a well structured and diverse sports program. This article examines the current theoretical concepts of distributed leadership (DL), the characteristics of distributed leaders in the school context and the congruence of literature and practice reality of DL in relation to the successful implementation of a secondary school sports program in Gisborne, Australia as experienced by former secondary school principle and sports coordinator, Desma Cook.

Sport and athlete development are a recognised as important components of the education system, instilling positive values and equipping pupils with life skills, transferable across many domains. In order to meet demands of the increasing complexity of sports programs, the traditional "PE teacher" has had to diversify skill sets and engage specialist services, the altered leadership structure of which has been associated with improved team and program performance (Mehra, et al., 2006). Recently, the concept of DL has been at the forefront of literature. Woods et al.(2004), describes DL as a concept which requires a set of functions or qualities to be shared across the broader community, encompassing administrators, teachers and other specialists (Woods, Bennett, Harvey, & Wise, 2004) such as teachers or coaches. DL has been defined as "the distribution of leadership work across the school organisation" (Mayrowetz, 2008), and "comprises dynamic interactions between multiple leaders and followers" (Copland, 2003). The perspective of DL recognises that multiple leaders (Spillane, 2004) share a variety of leadership responsibilities while working towards a collective outcome and recognises the involvement of all individuals who contribute to leadership practice (Harris, 2007). However there is some uncertainty surrounding the meaning of DL, as Mayrowetz et al (2008) states there is limited evidence between educational leadership goals and distributed leadership efficacy (Mayrowetz, 2008). Empirical studies on the topic of DL, determining the efficacy and success of such leadership within the school and specifically the school sports sector are scarce. For that reason, understanding the reality of this concept in practice is important for future analysis of the success of a DL model. In a review based on organisational perspective of DL, Woods et al., (2004) conceptualised a theoretical framework. Three domains emerged from this review.

Firstly emergent property, in context of secondary college sports program, relates to the dynamic of integrated activity among leaders, whereby the leadership 'team' pool their expertise and enterprise towards the programs intended outcomes (Woods, et al., 2004). Conceptually, this resembles the ideal situation of conjoint leadership, skill integration and task management within the sports program enabling the development, growth and expertise of a broad range of programs within the sports sector.

In practice however concepts such as this require time, patience and commitment to come to fruition. Cook mentions the difference between knowledge and understanding whereby leaders acknowledged the resources available to them however the understanding and resultant integration of resources and responsibilities was lacking. Interestingly the vision of the school was an integral component to internal staff philosophies already, thus the pooling of skills within these people was seamless. It was noted also, the initial lack of integration between newly introduced resources was partially a product of their focus being solely within the realms of their expertise. Cook confirms that this was predominantly due to the sole purpose in the infancy stages of the program being to expand the resources available to students; and partially due to the initial lack of construct underpinning the implementation of the DL model. Cook also discusses her role directly during this initial phase, as shifting from a clear leadership role into a convergent leader/manager role. Cook described the divergent role as being a systems and procedures based, 'task doing' management role, combined with the behavioural driven and 'being' leadership role. Supported well by the quote from Kotter (1990) "Good leadership is about coping with complexity, effective leadership produces useful change"(Kotter, 1990). "In my case, management involves structures, organisational planning and staffing. Conversely, leadership is about integrating staff, implementing visions and developing the team to work towards the desired program outcome"

The second concept Woods et al., (2004) describes is the 'Openness of Boundaries'. The implementation of DL practice is accompanied by the necessity to broaden the network of leaders who are to work within the program, then raising the issue of which groups, organisations and/or individuals are to be included as leaders or contributors to the leadership team. Questions then arise to the breadth and depth of these boundaries, to what extent are the boundaries open, and at what level does the DL team cease being in a leadership position and begin being in a contributor or followers position.

Cook responds suggesting this concept was the initial one in which the school board developed its DL plan upon. The idea of which was to expand the resources used within the school to include external sources, as a means of broadening the specialties offered by the college. This resulted in staff not usually involved in sporting programs, engaging in the process by encouraging broad teaching principles and values that intersected both academic and sporting life including perseverance and strong work ethics. This was a product of positive influence rather than set expectations, however the involvement of teaching staff assisted in driving the program forward and improving staff morale throughout the college. Following on from this the school board and sports committee decided the additional need of input and cooperation from students, parents and local sports clubs was required. "Collaborating with the people who influence students in their sports external to the school, was a much simpler concept than it was a practice reality" Cook reports. The main resistance being from local sports organisations however parents proved to be cooperative, two of which were subsequently assigned to the sports committee, our DL team. "The key to their involvement was their (the parents) passion to make a positive difference not only for their children but to the program and the school, they were not interested in remuneration or acclaim, just the opportunity to share their experiences while contributing to change" Cook states, an example of 'authentic leadership'(George, Sims, McLean, & Mayer, 2007).

In a publication by Davies et al., (2006) it was quoted

"Pupil participation, in practice, means opening up opportunities for decision-making with children and young people as partners engaging in dialogue, conflict resolution, negotiation and compromise - all important life skills"(Davies, 2006)

The school and the sports program was recognised within the community as a product of the efficacy of DL teams to include students; however fundamentally this was not the case. As leadership skills are strongly encouraged within the academic structure it progressively carried through to the sports program. This was to a large degree successful at developing leaders within the college on a whole, who displayed maturity, compassion, passion, pride and commitment to their work and their sports. However the extension of the DL team, although sometimes blurred, did not extend to include students. Cook adds, although key students were involved with decision making at lower levels of their sports at times, they mainly contributed to the promotion and exemplification of the school and sports programs philosophies and weren't regarded as an integral component of the DL team (sports committee), understanding the concept of open boundaries however, it seems as though the community perspective was of relevance, at a superficial level, this in itself may cause interpretive confusion.

The third concept arising from the review by Woods et al., (2004) 'Leadership According to Expertise' purposes that a variety of expertise is distributed across leaders within the DL 'team' with individuals contributing diverse but relevant skill sets to the organisation or program and its participants. When combined within the program, other leaders will then adopt these skills to develop the program in a dynamic and constructive way, with the understanding that the program is put before the individual components of who make up the leadership team. Consequently, the distribution of leaders and followers is determined by the task or activity at hand, as opposed to a hierarchical order or level of expertise. Within the sports program concerns raised include determining the correct people for the job and the intended outcome of the program. Furthermore, when individuals within the dynamic leadership team adopt skill sets out side of their trained expertise, disparity in the messages being conveyed and the application of knowledge to the intended audience, may become evident.

As mentioned previously by Cook, the concept of leadership according to expertise initially proved challenging. Trust and communication was imperative at managing cohesion difficulties, standardised processes were required to identify and overcome these issues. Longer term however, with cohort vision and values, and the implementation of management systems, the emergence of a unified philosophy supported by a wide range of skill sets within the DL team became evident.

Three 'organisation pre-conditions' were constructed in a recent study (Angelle, 2010; Gronn, 2002) to encompass trust and positive relationship development, in conjunction with program structure and best leadership practice as mechanisms underpinning a successful DL model (Figure 1). Positive interactions and mutual influences build positive relationships. It is this positive relationship which evolves into confidence, competence and a sense of ownership for the individual, in the successes and failures within the program. With ownership, comes responsibility and accountability. In the study, Angelle (2010) reported these pre-conditions to be the basis for the success of DL within organisations. Teachers describe the 'empowerment' that comes with being set high expectations, given responsibility and autonomy to make collective decisions that are in the best interests for their pupils, with strong organisational structure culture and affiliation the outcomes reported include efficacy, increased trust, job satisfaction and teacher intent to stay (Angelle, 2010). Similarly Cook speaks of the personal and team outcomes which resemble this model. Conversely, the competition which developed between leaders and local schools added another dimension to the outcome measures described in this model. Job security was altered within certain individuals, whereby leaders were aware that they were replaceable if they did not perform, however, they were also aware of the opportunity within the wider community which was a product of the development of the program. This, giving leaders confidence in negotiating packages, salary and benefits also makes way for the issue of commitment and loyalty, often cemented by contractual agreements, while making way for potential problems.

While the theoretical model of DL outlines the characteristics of the leaders within the leadership team, the function of leadership is an important agent as outlined by transformational and instructional leadership models. The underpinning goals of a leadership team are setting a vision, developing people, and supervision. Of the theoretical models described in the literature, setting directions and developing a vision for the school or program is a critical component to leadership, without a unified direction, as with goal setting at the simplest level, it is only by chance that success will be met. Moreover, developing people, the second function of leadership, becomes a more challenging task, is the direction and vision is not there for the program. Finally, supervision as a function of leadership involves supervision of the leadership team including teachers, coaches and advisors, supervision of the program and the performance of both. As such, it is often difficult to distribute the responsibility of supervision as it is primarily a function of designated leaders to supervise (Hulpia, Devos, & Rosseel, 2009).

Considering both functions of leadership and the theoretical framework as discussed by Wood et al.(2004) regarding characteristics of leaders, Hulpia et al (2009) developed a distribute leadership inventory (DLI) as a quantitative tool to assess quality, distribution, description and analysis of DL in secondary schools as shown in table 1 (Hulpia, et al., 2009). This tool has been developed to investigate the effect of DL within a school or school program on organisational and program outcomes as suggested previously by Angelle et al (2010), however further research is required in regards to determining the impact a DL model has on student performance both academically and athletically within school and sports program of which the DL model is used.

The implementation of such a tool during the development and expansion of the sports program may have been useful for Cook, and highlights the necessity of a clear vision and direction for the organisation and sports program. Cook suggests that the process of implementing a DL style leadership model, although now having a framework based upon theoretical analysis, is an ongoing process of trial, error and correction especially with respect to team cohesion and the issues of relationships, trust and commitment. The success of a program must be assessed on performance indicators across varying areas of the program and a large portion of this when dealing with students, is the happiness of those involved, which is difficult to quantify. For the sports program, success was determine as the participation level and retention of students and families, the integration of these students into the broader community upon completion of their school career and the growth of the program and school community over a number of years.

In reflection upon my current position as a distributed leader within a small team of coaching staff within a long term athletic development (LTAD) program, it is the underpinning goals of the program the theoretical pre-conditions shown in Figure.1, which require development. With no clear vision, or integration of skills the development of the program and team cohesion is substandard to the potential it has. Similarly, there is clear the lack of 'buy in' from parents and external sporting bodies in relation to the athletes, potentially due to the arbitrary foundation underpinning LTAD. As a DL within the team, the need for clarity of direction is key in developing the fundamental trust and cohesion among staff, parents and athletes. Personally, accessing resources available to me in relation to my role, inviting means of integrated learning into my role, and actively seeking and sharing skill sets is the next step in my leadership development.

In conclusion, the congruence between theoretical concepts and the practice reality of distributed leadership is evident but not conclusive; the simplification of such a model in reality assumes and ignores many contributing factors to the success of such a model in the context of schools and sports programs. Furthermore, it is important when considering a DL model as the basis of change, to thoroughly assess the definition upon which the theory is founded as research has uncovered a number of conflicting definitions, suggesting DL is not yet a definitive concept. Further development of quantitative and qualitative analysis systems is required to provide evidence of success based upon performance outcomes of organisations and inventories upon which organisations base their DL models upon must also be considered.

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Table 1. Distributed Leadership Inventory



To what amount is (1) the principal, (2) the assistant principal(s), (3) the teacher leader(s) involved in the following statements?


. . . premises a long-term vision

. . . debates the school vision

. . . compliments teachers

. . . helps teachers

. . . explains his/her reason for criticism to teachers

. . . is available after school to help teachers when assistance is needed

. . . looks out for the personal welfare of teachers

. . . encourages me to pursue my own goals for professional learning

. . . encourages me to try new practices consistent with my own interests

. . . provides organizational support for teacher interaction


. . . evaluates the performance of the staff

. . . is involved in summative evaluation of teachers

. . . is involved in formative evaluation of teachers

Coherent leadership

There is a well-functioning leadership team in our school team

The leadership team tries to act as well as possible

The leadership team supports the goals we like to attain with

our school

all members of the leadership team work in the same strain on

the school's core objectives

In our school the right man sits on the right place, taken the

competencies into account

Members of the management team/I divide their time properly

Members of the leadership team/I have clear goals

Members of the leadership team/I know which tasks they/I have

to perform

The leadership team is willing to execute a good idea

It is clear where members of the leadership team are authorized to

(Hulpia, et al., 2009)

(Angelle, 2010)

APA Style References

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Copland, M. A. (2003). Leadership of Inquiry: Building and Sustaining Capacity for School Improvement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 25(4), 375-395.

Davies, L. W., Christopher; Yamashita, Hiromi; Man-hing, Ko, &. (2006). Inspiring schools.

George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A. N., & Mayer, D. (2007). Discovering Your Authentic Leadership [Article]. Harvard Business Review, 85(2), 129-138.

Gronn, P. (2002). Distributed leadership as a unit of analysis. The Leadership Quarterly, 13(4), 423-451.

Harris, A. (2007). Distributed leadership: according to the evidence. Journal of Educational Administration, 46(2), 172 - 188.

Hulpia, H., Devos, G., & Rosseel, Y. (2009). Development and Validation of Scores on the Distributed Leadership Inventory. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 69(6), 1013-1034.

Kotter, J. P. (1990). What Leaders Really Do [Article]. Harvard Business Review, 68(3), 103-111.

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Timperley, H. S. (2005). Distributed leadership: developing theory from practice. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37(4), 395 - 420.

Woods, P. A., Bennett, N., Harvey, J. A., & Wise, C. (2004). Variabilities and Dualities in Distributed Leadership. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 32(4), 439-457.