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6 Leading with a purpose

It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader: the flawless person at the top who’s got it all figured out. … Only when leaders come to see themselves as incomplete – as having both strengths and weaknesses – will they be able to make up for their missing skills by relying on others.

(Ancona et al., 2007, pp. 92, 94)

These days, traditional ‘command and control’ leadership is no longer enough. The world is too complex, organisations are too big and the range of situations in which people might find themselves is simply too diverse for one person to manage. One way of addressing this is through the practice of distributed leadership, sometimes known as shared or collaborative leadership.

The idea of distributed leadership first emerged in an educational context but has subsequently spread to other areas including the NHS and policing. It builds upon the realisation that the leader of any organisation cannot be everywhere and do everything. If you think about a typical school, this makes sense: while the teachers are busy in their classrooms, ‘leading’ their pupils and making decisions about their learning, well-being and behaviour, the principal or head teacher is elsewhere, making sure that the school is properly managed overall. While they might check in from time to time, they cannot and should not be in every classroom, managing and controlling the activities of the teachers. To do so would be unnecessary and, frankly, impossible.

In a similar vein, the constables in a local policing team must be in a position to make real-time decisions based on what they see and understand on the ground. Their senior officer must be kept informed, of course, but they might be several miles away at the local police station, dealing with a myriad of other pressing issues. They cannot simply step in to engage with every question that arises on the street corner.

So what does distributed leadership mean in practice? As Dr Alma Harris, a leading educationalist and theorist, explains:

Distributed leadership is primarily concerned with the practice of leadership rather than specific leadership roles or responsibilities. It equates with shared, collective and extended leadership practice that builds the capacity for change and improvement …

When distributed leadership works well, individuals are accountable and responsible for their leadership actions; new leadership roles created, collaborative teamwork is the modus operandi and inter-dependent working is a cultural norm. Distributed leadership is about collective influence – it is not just some accidental by-product of high-performing organisations.

(Harris, 2014)

But what are the practical implications of this for leaders seeking to develop a greater degree of distributed leadership within their teams or the community? Harris continues:

In very practical terms, to be most effective, distributed leadership has to be carefully planned and deliberately orchestrated. It won’t just happen and if it does, there is no guarantee that it will have any positive impact. Letting a thousand flowers bloom is not distributed leadership.

The implication for those in formal leadership roles is that they have a key role to play in creating the conditions for distributed leadership to occur. They have to create the opportunities for others to lead.

(Harris, 2014)

Beyond creating the opportunities for others to lead, as Harris suggests, leaders must be sure to create an effective team culture which supports a distributed approach to leadership. Key to this is the establishment of a clear purpose and an effective team culture integrating critical practices such as empowerment.