Distributed leadership explained

Written by: Ben Solly | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Exactly what is distributed leadership? And how can it help to raise standards? School leader Ben Solly explains the three secrets to distributed leadership – autonomy, capacity and accountability

“Great leaders do not create followers, they create more leaders.” Tom Peters

I love this leadership quote. It embodies everything I believe school leaders should aspire to. In education we are faced with so many different challenges, therefore we need great leaders who are prepared to not only develop themselves and their own careers, but to ensure they help create the next generation of leaders as well.

The acid test for any leader is the impact your leadership has on those around you. In a school context there is a moral imperative for leaders to secure the best possible educational outcomes for the young people in their care. For me, this means students achieving great GCSE and A level results while developing into decent, responsible young adults who have sound morals and who can think for themselves. No easy task, that’s for sure.

As such, leading a school is one of the most challenging roles out there in the world of education, but it is also the most rewarding. It requires skill, knowledge, empathy, bravery and huge amounts of patience. It also cannot be done alone.

I recall someone telling me during my NPQH course that headship can be a lonely place and I remember thinking that I really didn’t want it to be, nor did I think it needed to be.

Of course there are times when the weight of responsibility sits firmly on the shoulders of the headteacher, and difficult choices need to be made, sometimes in isolation. However, leadership in education is most certainly, in my view, a team endeavour and the most successful leaders I have worked with have always sought to build leadership capacity within those around them.

In the few years that I have had the privilege of leading a school I have invested significant time and energy into embedding a distributed leadership model to develop sustainable and authentic growth within my leadership teams. Below is my short guide to developing a distributed leadership model in a school environment.

What is distributed leadership?

Distributed leadership is not delegating. Delegation is about getting others to complete your work for you, and this is not a healthy culture to develop with leaders in your school. If leaders constantly delegate, work just gets pushed down the chain of command, causing people who have got less time and earn less money to complete the work. This can result in a workforce resenting leaders within the organisation as their perception of those in power is that they are lazy and don’t work as hard as they do.

The purpose of distributed leadership is to increase the leadership capacity within a school so that the school can improve and grow in an authentic manner, with no tricks, stunts or game-playing. It allows a school to genuinely become a more effective educational institution as a result of leaders within it collectively pulling in the same direction, guided by the same vision and values towards a common set of goals.

Ultimately, distributed leadership is about giving leaders in schools ownership by empowering them to lead their teams and drive forward their strategies that contribute towards the whole-school priorities.

Distributed leadership in schools

So, how does distributed leadership work in schools? There are three key principles to distributed leadership – autonomy, capacity and accountability. Each are of equal importance and all are inter-dependent. How I myself have interpreted this leadership model is illustrated in the Venn diagram:

In a distributed leadership approach, leaders within a school need to be given the autonomy to make key decisions in their areas of responsibility. This autonomy is central to achieving the aforementioned objective of empowering leaders and giving them ownership of their work. They should not be micromanaged, and for new heads, this can be a hard thing to do. Affording members of your senior or middle leadership team this level of autonomy requires huge amount of trust and this is often outside the comfort zone for many headteachers.

However, this trust needs to be earned as it is dangerous to give ineffective leaders full autonomy – therefore the term “earned autonomy” is common.

With this earned autonomy comes accountability. How can you hold someone to account for delivering impact if they do not have the autonomy to lead the strategy? These two concepts are tightly interlinked but there is one key caveat that leaders and especially headteachers need to be acutely aware of: as the headteacher you hold ultimate responsibility for standards across the school and if you truly buy into distributed leadership then you have to accept a degree of shared accountability.

Most of the key improvement strategies across the school are not actually being delivered by the headteacher themselves. It is the head’s job to ensure they are being led well by others and they are having impact.

By empowering others to lead and by investing in your staff by developing them as leaders, there is the inherent risk that sometimes things will go wrong, or they won’t work.

Here, the most effective headteachers enable their staff to reflect, develop and grow so that any mistakes are learned from and that next time success will be achieved. This is a big responsibility and a hard balance to strike. Often, there is insufficient time in schools to allow this failure to occur; students only get one shot at their education and it is our job to ensure they get the best possible deal. Therefore headteachers need to tread a fine line between developing their leadership teams and delivering results.

The final part of the Venn diagram is capacity. If we give our leaders the autonomy to make key decisions without being micromanaged and if they understand they are accountable for the impact of their strategies, then we must give them to tools they need to be successful.

In schools these tools take the form of time, resources and coaching. If we load up our leaders with too many lessons to teach then they will not be able to get their heads above water to deliver their school improvement strategies.
Equally, if we don’t invest in them in terms of their career development or if we don’t provide them with any financial support for key strategies, then how can we hold them accountable?

Crucially it is the relationship with the line manager that can make or break a distributed leadership model. If the line manager removes, or compromises one of the key principles of autonomy, accountability or capacity, then we are only paying lip-service to distributed leadership.

For this approach to be genuine and for it to have the best chance of succeeding, then coaching is central. All schools have an organisational hierarchy with an “appraisal tree”, however if leaders coach those who are accountable to them then we can begin to create an environment where authentic growth of leadership capacity can occur.

Coaching is widely recognised as having high impact in the leadership development of others and if schools are serious about delivering a distributed leadership model, they need to invest time and resource into developing high-quality coaching across the school.

Ultimately, implementing a true distributed leadership approach requires patience, trust and a genuine belief that your school can become more effective as a result of investing time, effort and resource into developing the professional capital of your staff.

  • Ben Solly is principal of Uppingham Community College in Rutland. Follow him on Twitter @ben_solly


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