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Ask Dr. Lynch: What Distributed Leadership Means for Schools

EducationWorld Q&A columnist Dr. Matthew Lynch is an associate professor of education at Langston University. Dr. Lynch provides expert advice on everything from classroom management to differentiated instruction. Read all of his columns here, and be sure to submit your own question.

Dr. Matthew Lynch

This week, reader Henry T. asks:

I was reading an article about distributed leadership, which is a style of school management that I have never heard of before. What is distributed leadership, and why is it emerging at this point in history?

ANSWER:  

Henry, two explanations have been offered for the emergence of distributed leadership. The first is the failure of the “charismatic hero” associated with transformational leadership. The second is that school leaders now handle tasks of much greater complexity. It is not the heroic leader who makes an organization function well, but rather the “mundane,” everyday activities.

Distributed leadership is well within the broader policy spectrum for public services. In a government’s emerging model for public services, we see the three modes of leadership that the government favors. These are hierarchy, market and network. If we overlay the school setup on the government model, then we see where the schools’ “capability and capacity” fits in relation to the network regime of governance, where distributed leadership is positioned.

Distributed leadership is therefore similar to the broader policy process, since government will construct a need, goal or objective that would require both school actors and non-school actors to distribute their efforts between organizations and/or within organizations to achieve this end. It also provides a cultural reference to the official structural similarities of two traditionally separate organizations.

Distributed leadership fits well with the merging or networking of work-based activities according to current trends on inter-agency working in schools; with the joint production of personalized needs and solutions; and finally with the changing workforce. All these efforts seek to merge the professional cultures of different groups.

With the above in mind, the emergence of distributed leadership is not only a reaction to the recent policy shifts; it also reflects changes in contemporary culture. Organizations can no longer control their workers through the so-called rational or bureaucratic structures of the past. Those out-of-date methods inhibit the kind of independent work that relies on solidarity, respect or mutual trust, since all they end up doing is bringing about authority conflicts.

The present focus on distributed leadership is related not to the cultural trend toward taking emotions into account (i.e., transformational leadership), but to a contemporary shift toward the weakening of traditional logic as part of management theory. Organized social structure has thus given way to a “network culture.”

These changes also indicate a shift in the knowledge economy. We have begun to see a form of “socialism” in education (indicated by the use of terms such as “universal education”) and have come to view education as something other than a market commodity. Governments around the world are now keen to implement a policy that ensures literacy is achieved by all, with no regard to social status. The role of the school leader is therefore shifting from economic management to social management.

About Dr. Lynch

Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Langston University and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Dr. Lynch also is the author of the newly released book It’s Time for a Change: School Reform for the Next Decade and A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories. Please visit his Web site for more information.

If you have a question for “Ask Dr. Lynch,” submit it here. Topics can be anything education-related, from classroom management to differentiated instruction.

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