In small organisations, schools and startups, team members often wear multiple hats and take on leadership, no matter their documented position. In such organisations particularly, this distributed leadership model fosters an atmosphere of innovation and collaboration, agile growth, and where leaders are developed. But distributed leadership isn’t just for startups and schools. In larger organisations where roles and responsibilities are more defined, distributed leadership can empower staff to become part of decision-making processes and allow them the autonomy to be creative.
Delegation is the most basic form of distributed leadership: The person in charge simply assigns tasks to others based on their skills and job responsibilities. Truthfully, delegation is a requirement for effective leaders, especially in organisation with a top-down kind of structure. However, the more flat and democratic the organisational structure, the more leadership is distributed and the more of a voice colleagues have in all aspects of the managing, growth and direction of the organisation.
As always the culture of the organisation determines its structure, but there are examples of how even educational institutions can truly distribute leadership to the entire staff. An example from one school in Greece sees teachers contractually obligated to participate in school administration and the principal is usually a teacher appointed to serve a four year term. The principal cannot, however, make administrative decisions on their own; these decisions are the responsibility of the Teacher Assembly, in which all teachers must participate.
According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development the benefits of this model include:
“Connecting teachers with the goals and values of the school and freeing the principal of the many responsibilities of administration… In the distributed and democratic model, all teachers collectively assume responsibility for the well-being of the school. Teachers don’t simply have a voice in running the school—they actually run it.”
Granted, this is perhaps the fullest version of distributed power and leadership within an organisation. In most cases, distributed leadership probably looks a little like Holacracy, wherein staff members are relatively self-organising and autonomous. Even in Holacracy though, there is someone responsible for making big picture decision that impact the larger organisation, which is exactly what school administrators, company executives and the leaders in nonprofits all should be focused on.
Distributed leadership is not without its challenges, but the biggest challenge is likely to be cultural. If your organisation is mired in traditional top-down thinking, implementing a more democratic and flat structure could require a complete shift in the organisational culture. However, if your culture already favours creative problem solving, collaboration and autonomy, your organisation might just thrive with a flat structure and a strong distributed leadership model.
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