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No More Heroes: Distributed Leadership

by Terri Kelly on April 8, 2010


terri-kelly's picture

No More Heroes: Distributed Leadership

The model of the single powerful leader who operates through command and control is attractive in its simplicity. This model of leadership often gets reinforced in the media, as well as by demanding shareholders. In reality, it is impractical to expect the single leader to have all the answers, and history has shown that relying upon rigid control mechanisms will not prevent catastrophic outcomes.

It’s far better to rely upon a broad base of individuals and leaders who share a common set of values and feel personal ownership for the overall success of the organization. These responsible and empowered individuals will serve as much better watchdogs than any single, dominant leader or bureaucratic structure.

And as organizations grow in size and complexity, it becomes even more critical to distribute the leadership load. Conventional structures that rely upon concentrated leadership to drive decisions towards the center run the risk of becoming constrained by their own organization. They also lose the opportunity to empower a much broader base of competent leaders. The capacity of the organization increases when it distributes the leadership load to competent leaders on the ground who can make the best knowledge-based decisions.

For many decades, individuals tolerated work environments that showed little value for their contributions and failed to empower them to make a difference. Many believed they had little choice if they wanted to live securely, and they felt helpless in their ability to change things.

New talent entering the workforce is unwilling to live with these trade-offs. They are not wedded to any single organization or intimidated by the idea of picking up and moving to a new opportunity. They recognize they have choices, and that there are better work environments that value their opinions and will tap into their unique capabilities. Organizations that hold onto conventional leadership models will find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain top talent.

So why don’t more organizations move to a more distributed leadership model? Many times the answer lies at the top. Who wants to give up their position and power after working so hard to achieve it? Who wants to disappoint key stakeholders who expect strong and powerful leadership at the top? Why unleash chaos in the organization when things are tightly under control? These serve as powerful forces that hold conventional leadership structures in place.

To shift to a distributed leadership model, it will require strong conviction from senior leaders and a willingness to make fundamental changes within their organizations. It will require re-visiting the embedded values that have been reinforced within the organization, and the values of the current leaders. What is rewarded within the organization? How are leaders selected? What consequences are there for leaders who don’t live up to the desired values? This journey will not be an easy one, and there will be many forces that will fight the change.

It will require a shift within the organization from valuing a key few to valuing the unique contributions of many. Individuals will need to feel they have a voice and can be heard. Leaders will need to recognize that their primary role is to empower others versus build their own power. They will no longer stand behind a title with assumed authority to tell people what to do.

Leaders’ focus will shift to creating the right environment and instilling the right values that can enable capable leaders to emerge. They will recognize that they are only leaders if they have willing followers, and that this needs to be earned every day. Ultimately their contributions will be judged by the people they lead.

Most rewards systems depend upon higher-level management to assess the effectiveness of the leader. This view can be somewhat limited and biased by the fact the managers were often the ones who put the leader in the role in the first place. Those who know their leaders best are typically the individuals they lead. If you want individuals to have a voice in the organization, they must also have a voice in selecting and evaluating their leaders.

In our company, we have found it very useful to adopt a peer ranking system. All associates get the opportunity to rank members of their team, including their leaders. They are asked to create a contribution list in rank order based on who they believe is making the greatest contribution to the success of the enterprise. This approach serves as an excellent form of “checks and balances” when it comes to who is truly recognized for their contributions as well as for overall leadership.

Creating and sustaining an empowered organization does not come easy, and requires constant attention from leadership. As organizations grow, there is a natural tendency to put more controls in place and adopt more bureaucratic structures. A critical role of leaders is to instill the right values and just enough structure to enable the entire organization to flourish.

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carlos-largacha-martinez's picture
It is clear that not only management has to be reinvented, leadership too! The mainstream idea is that the leader is a Hero, as you stated, but it is also linked to top-management positions. Sharing power within enthusiastic people will make the difference. 
Thanks Terri for your time in sharing this. I will use your case with my students of the 'Leadership' course :)
ellen-weber's picture

Yes! “It will require a shift within the organization from valuing a key few to valuing the unique contributions of many.” It also requires assessment criteria that are well stated, and very up front so that all can see. These should be aligned to whatever innovation is being ranked. It also requires unique facilitation skills that engage all as leaders and move entire groups forward! It can happen! Count me in – I am seeing it happen daily in one newly designed MBA leadership class. It’s creating a buzz because students love the freedom to lead together! Many arrive at class one hour early for the 3-hour sessions! Quality work is off the charts!

 Wow – Terri – you have made my day. My MBA leaders love to feel they have a voice and can be heard. They help to lead every class in ways that are significant to me and to them.  They will no longer stand behind a title with assumed authority to tell people what to do.

Thanks Terri – what a hopeful setting you paint here. Recently I started an exciting MBA leadership course to Lead Innovation with the Brain in Mind, and students find their innovative contributions are being judged well at work by people they lead, because they differ deeply from the broken systems that hold us back.

I agree with your estimation of how we judge one another – by a peer ranking system. In fact I’d love to hear more about how the criteria used to “rank people works as a benefit to all.” Would you agree that evaluation criteria can be negotiated – as can shared values that enable the entire organization to flourish. I have shared all these negotiations with MBA leaders and it’s working well so far.

How refreshing here, Terri, to see your leap forward, by modeling an approach unbound by systems that chase great innovative thinkers away! Thanks for taking the risks to make it happen.

grant-robertson's picture
Thanks Terri for a most interesting post, and to others who have also added useful insights through thoughtful comments.

As you have noted, a system of distributed leadership represents a radical shift in the status quo. At this point in time, while many doubtless practice it everyday, they do so without realising it. Instead, most mental models of leadership are, as you point out Terri, firmly cemented to concepts of hero leadership.

I completed doctoral research into "How followers exercise leadership?" around a year ago, having started on the journey when I noticed there was more than one leader in teams - wow, that notion was against every scrap of formal leadership development I had ever done!! Everything tells us there can only be one leader, the leader, in a team!

As part of the research process, I noticed some key hurdles to dissemination of the ideas of distributing leadership and would like to share a couple here as my contribution. Further ideas about distributed leadeship and distributing team leadership can be found at - check out the newsletter archives section. There are ideas around 8 influencing behaviours that form the basis of the distributed leadership I found, as well as ideas on how leadership actually changes from person to person in teams.

The first major hurdle is the entrenchment of the sole leader ideas - particularly in the research, and also in practise. Research, it seems, has been extremely blinkered, which may explain why there is great dissatisfaction with explanations of leadership after more than a century of scientific research and thousands of years of interest in the topic.

A second significant challenge is the unwillingness of most commentators to separate the concepts of leadership and management. While it may be true that individuals often have to do leading and managing, they are very different (but inextricably linked) and require acknowledgement of this to be able to see clearly. For example, our circulatory system transports both oxygen and nutrients, in a virtually inextricable manner. But, we do need to recognise that each of these functions of the bloodstream are different to be able to study each more deeply and accurately. We can't just say it's too hard! Thank goodness the medical world hasn't adopted the same approach to the circulatory system as many scholars and practitioners have about leading and managing.

Some researchers have usefully pointed out that most leadership studies are actually studies of appointmentship - he's the leader (yes, mostly male!) and you're the followers.  I found that a profound and highly useful observation. Our problem is that the so-called leadership research is actually more about managers and subordinates. In a leader-follower relationship it's the followers who attribute leadership - so one can't say, "You are a follower", no let's research leadership. Rather, we need to have "I choose to follow you (and when I don't you're no longer a leader). Not many of the latter studies have been done in 100 years of research!

Those at the top of companies cling to this power because they are acting as appointed managers, which they are! That is the source of their legitimacy. Of course, this doesn't mean that they can't exercise leadership also, including that which is more distributed in nature. To progess we absolutey need to separate the notions of leading and managing (and of following and being a subordinate for that matter). 

You might detect a passion for the topic similar to yours Terri, so instead of making this post way too long I'll leave it there for now. Look forward to following the thread and other similar posts.

Grant Robertson
UGM Consulting

raj-kumar's picture
Hello Terri,

Excellent creation of a vista.

To get from here to there your essay identifies the need for Feedback and immense energy among personnel and leaders.

MIX must seek to answer how to ensure constructive Feedback and energy.


Raj Kumar

eric-schillinger's picture

Hi Terri:

I listened to your 3 minute youtube spot--very informative.  Let's take your vision of distributed leadership and expand it out to encompass an information-gathering, knowledge-building system.  How, in your view, can government, private industry, unions, non-profits, and academia interface effectively to solve pressing problems, such as job creation?  Can you provide me with specific examples?  Thanks, Eric Schillinger

elad-sherf's picture

I love this kind of thinking. And as you say, the more people at the top (like you) will start behaving accordingly, the more will see great results and people who actually enjoy their work. The future of business lies in creating partnerships and by enabling people to use their comparative advantage to the good of the company (and society). We live in a world that is to complex to be handled with a top down approach. As I write in a blog post I wrote about this subject ( "The world does not need superheroes. The world needs more cooperation that leads to synergy."

Thanks for sharing your ideas!

aruni-rajakarier's picture

Hi Terri

I love this concept.  Particularly the call to leaders to leaders to recognise that their main role is to empower others versus building their own power.  Unfortunately very few managers are secure enough in their positions to buy in to this ideaology.  I hope more awareness is created about distributed leadership and more management consultants make it their mission to bring this in to the board rooms of their clients so we can look at a better balance of power in our business  models.

mark-talaba's picture


I completely agree that organizations need to move in the direction you describe, and that people at the top are more often at the root of the problem than they are a part of the solution. But also, there are people at the middle and even at the lower levels of the organization who are a drag on business innovation and forward momentum.  

Why is it that, even in an organization as progressive as yours, people who 'look good on paper', interview well, look the part, and have seemingly impeccable credentials keep getting hired, and then turn out to be big disappointments (or worse). 

You may be interested to know about the work of The Gabriel Institute, which has created a completely new way to predict how a person will behave when working with others to benefit their group, overcome a challenge, or achieve a common goal. 

Personality tests were designed (in the 1940's & 50's) to measure individual characteristics or traits, and they are very well documented. But personality factors do not predict how people will actually behave on a team. 

In contrast, TGI Role-Based Assessment (RBA), was designed from its very beginnings to measure 'teaming characteristics'.  It is used for hiring & promoting, works extremely well in matching people to the functional mission of their team, and is also effective in analyzing and solving team performance problems.

TGI's mission is 'making the workplace a better place to work'.  Seems like a fit.


kimon-paxinos's picture

Distributed Capital?

I think distributed leadership is distributed capital! A lot of the problems started in the industrial revolution when capital [K] was divorced from increasingly specialized labor. Productivity leaped forward. Now we are way beyond any marginal benefit in this paradigm and into diminishing returns.



The popular answer to the agency problem has been to align management and shareholder interests through rewarding successful managers with equity ex post facto. Mine is an off-the-scale hack: make it mandatory for all employees to buy into a company and to have to sell when they leave. This creates a true market for the sustained profitability of the enterprise. No vesting periods. The need for buy-in self-selects the right kind of employees willing to buy-in and share capital risk upfront. Leaving the company means selling the shares and incurring a profit or loss. Do this and I am very sure you will have a 100% different attitude to innovation, enthusiasm, discipline, etc. It returns some of the natural incentives from work practices before the revolution and makes management the husbanding of a naturally balancing system. It means not investing escalating energy in protecting the interests of one portion of the system.  



Far-fetched? A friend of mine is a top chef and had to buy his way into employment at a local restaurant. I am happy to buy any doubters lunch at this restaurant when you are next in my neck of the  woods! Professional services companies have done it where the main capital has been intellectual capital. Extending the concept would simply require internalising the other positive and negative externalities of other capitals like social and environmental capital. Employees wealth was dis-intermediated by savings institutions precipitating an agency problem for employees. Perhaps it is time for radical reintegration of capital and labour as the foundation for radical management innovation? 

matt-shlosberg's picture

Hi Terri,

You have lots of great points. If CEOs of other companies thought the way you do, they would be better positioned to deal with things like financial failure due to the real estate bubble.

I've been preaching the exact recipe you are describing here to my clients (I am a management consultant specializing in organizational and leadership development), and they usually look at me as if I fell from the moon. Other than being scared of losing control, CEOs are usually obsessed with leadership and other frameworks they learned in business school. These frameworks act as mental blocks. When humans are unable to invent anything new or make independent decisions, they refer to these mental blocks. In order to make themselves feel better, CEOs found a name for these mental blocks - "industry best practices."

Most CEOs are unable to question these mental blocks (aka status quo). They use status quo as an excuse for poor performance.

I am currently in the process of launching a Center for High Impact Leadership, a customer sponsored research organization that will study and help implement leadership models that have a much higher impact than status quo. Hopefully I'll be able to use organizations like W.L. Gore as role models and more CEOs will become open minded.