Leading Together-A Case for Distributed Leadership

Many school leaders are advocates of distributing and sharing leadership responsibilities and accountabilities as widely as possible. I am no exception to this. The power of an organisation is its abilty and capacity to take joint leadership decisions for the benefits of as many young people, adults and parents as possible. I have yet to meet the Principal who believes that every decision has to be made by them although I have it on good authority that a number of them exist!

Leading a federation is a complex challenge but one that is made easier when leaders across the organisation take great decisions and ensure that great outcomes evolve. I have a brilliant team of Principals to work with. I am currently working with them to complete their performance reviews which we operate on a calendar basis rather than an Academic year. We prefer the exam outcomes to come in the middle of the process rather than at the end. It gives us time to digest the feedback and then respond to it intelligently.

Leading a team of Principals is different to any other team I have led. They are accountable for what happens to the young people in their Academies. However, the really significant development I have seen emerge in the past 18 months is a genuine sense of collective responsibility for the students in all of the Academies and not just their own. This for me is a collaborative form of distributed leadership.

Anyway…my colleague Dan Nicholls who is the Principal of Bristol Brunel Academy writes a leadership strategy update for his staff every week. This week he wanted to talk about the process and importance of distributing leadership. He opened his blog with two real life examples of how the lack of distributed leadership created catastrophe! If you ever need to find a definition of what we mean by the term, this might be it!!!!

Here are two dramatic examples of where top-down leadership can go horribly wrong and why our strategy of seeking to distribute decision-making, enable others to take control and find improved ways of working, avoids disaster, over-reliance on a few and sustains improvement.

“I ordered the turn too late.”  –  Mr. Francesco Schettino, the former Captain of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground on 13 January 2012 with the loss of 32 lives.

The first example is the Costa Concordia that ran a ground a year ago. David Marquet suggests that the Captain’s delayed decision to change course caused the ship to hit rocks. The leadership culture on board meant that no one acted without the authority or direction of the Captain. Had a distributed leadership culture existed, where decisions are with those best placed to make them, then others at the helm could have ordered the change of course and saved 32 lives. 

…the chance a manger will stop a member of staff’s incorrect order is 86%, while the chance a member of staff stopping an incorrect order from a manager is only 20%. 

Example two, Korean Air Flight 801 flying from Korea to Guam (1997) was going through bad weather and stormy clouds. The captain had committed the plane to a visual landing:

  • First officer: Do you think      it rains more in this area?
  • Captain: (silence)
  • Flight engineer: Captain, the      weather radar has helped us a lot.
  • Captain: Yes. They are      very useful.

What the first officer is trying to do is warn the pilot that it may not be safe to do a visual approach without a backup plan for landing, in case the runway is not visible. Such communication of hinting from first officer to pilot is not uncommon in Korean culture. However, driven by respect to authority and fear of upsetting their superior, the co-pilots allowed the pilot to start a visual landing without an alternative. The plane crashed before the runway became visible – 228 died.

Both examples underline the importance of building flatter organisations, where decision making is moved closer to the action; where staff decide on the best course of action and involve themselves in securing the best possible route towards challenging destinations. In this model the majority create and develop the path in a collective search for improvement. Whilst our decision making may have less dramatic consequences the dangers of top down leadership for stifling progress towards outstanding is real.

  • ·       In  a culture of compliance, when the leader is wrong, the organisation      follows over the cliff
  • ·            Competence cannot rest solely with the leader. It has to run throughout the entire organisation
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One thought on “Leading Together-A Case for Distributed Leadership

  1. Pingback: The Importance of System Leadership | Teaching: Leading Learning

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