Within traditional hierarchical models, authority and control is held exclusively by leaders on the top. Until Gronn pointed out leadership actually can be “shared amongst a number of people”, rather than “is focused in one organisational role or at one level, or is monopolised by one individual” which “allows for the possibility that all members become leaders from time to time” (Gronn, 2002). He conceptualized a new concept of “distributed leadership”. The interesting part of distributed leadership is that the leaders could be captive as the followers due to the situation and the pressure. This form of leadership will really make the transition of management from “command and control” from the top, to “engagement and participation” across the organisation.
In order to apply distributed leadership within an organisation, there are some elements must be in place. The following section will discuss three of the important elements.
1. Distributed leadership need a common vision and goal
Distributed leadership will not be possible and feasible without a common vision and goal. People may get confused about where to follow as anyone without a formal appointment might emerge as a leader at a certain time.
Please let me do a small experiment. MBA students are required to finish a group assignment. No one is appointed as the group leader by the lecturer. It is common that every member within a group balances each other’s skills, the degree of influences, the level of trust, and the extent of comfort, and so on. People can sense that how much each person is able to contribute towards the accomplishment of the assignment. Then, a perceived leader can be seen in members’ eyes relying on their intuitions. Consequently, that person without a formal appointment is able to lead the team with others following, dissenting, and contributing in order to complete the shared task. With the progress of the task, the leadership role may move amongst different members when their perceptions of others (skills, influences, trust and comfort) have been changed. However, having a clear goal in mind (completing the assignment), the members will always follow the person who can contribute the most to the task.
This is a small experiment within a few people in a flat structural environment. For an organisation, there must have a clear vision, guiding principles and mechanisms in place so that people have the basic understanding what they are doing, why they are doing, and how they are doing. As a result, they know whom they should follow without a perceived need for authoritative controls.
2. Distributed leadership as the means of empowerment
Empowerment can really play magic. I can still recall some stories happed in my primary school. There were some unruly kids in my class. They always misbehaved. And the teacher tried every classroom management technique but nothing worked. Until one day, the teacher created many teams and deducted or rewarded behaviours points to a team’s score everyday. Those naughty kids were assigned to one team and the naughtiest one was appointed as the leader of that team. Shortly afterwards, those naughty kids stopped from misbehaving.
I use this example to explain that people all have the basic human desire for respect, autonomy, and power. They will be motivated to better perform if their desires are fulfilled. Within the business context, a democratic environment will make employees feel valued, freedom and also provide them an opportunity to have control over their working life. As a result, satisfied employees will contribute more towards the betterment and success of the whole company.
To implement distributed leadership, it is necessary to move away from the traditional bureaucratic model of command and control from the top and step towards empowering talents across the organisation.
One way of empowering employees through distributed leadership is by encouraging people to voice their views more openly. Probably actions are the best way to deliver the message. People in the lower position are allowed to initiate the change with other following, dissenting, and altering in various ways. Eventually, when the top adopts and implements the initiatives across the organisation, this becomes the message to endorse and reward the people' performance.
Another way of empowering employees is allow people to have the genuine control over their daily jobs. People will have strong sense of ownership if they can make small decision responding to the changing situation without following the procedure and seeking the approval from the top.
3. Identify and develop the talent through distributed leadership
Gibb said that “leadership is probably best conceived as a group quality, as a set of functions which must be carried out by the group” (Gibb 1954, cited in Gronn 2002). Wise leaders do not do everything themselves but are good at managing the human resource. They have the great insight to identify talents and develop them appropriately in order to get the best from those people so that the organisation is able to operate through the leaders’ absence. Therefore, an important function of the leadership is to produce more leaders. While we encourage the organisation to establish the culture to distribute the leadership across the organisation, we must ensure there are enough talents to enable us to empower.
Distributed leadership is able to create opportunities to identify and groom future leaders for the organisation. It allows the talents practice the leadership and build their own networks and make smaller decisions so that they are prepared to face the critical big ones in the future.
- Improve employees’ job satisfaction and sense of ownership.
- Improve organisation effectiveness and better organisation performance.
- Open doors for the two-ways communications (top-down & down-top), especially down to top.
- Provide an opportunity to identify and groom future leaders for organisation.
- Talk to the people within the organisation about distributed leadership and see what they think. Especially the people in the current leader position.
- Do an experiment within a department and get someone oversee the programme.
- Get feedback from the people involving the experiment.
- Design a customised model of distributed leadership for your organisation.
- Massey University, New Zealand: Leadership & People
- Dr B. Frey