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A new view: distributed leadership
HGSE Professor John Diamond

"Distributed leadership" is the latest educational buzz word, but what does it mean? HGSE Associate Professor John Diamond, former director of a major 4-year study on distributed leadership, states, "It's not something that you do or don't do. It's a useful analytical frame that can help you understand leadership activity in your school or district." In this brief written summary and audio excerpt with accompanying slides from a recent class presentation, Diamond clarifies why this latest term offers a powerful new view for school leaders.

Professor Diamond has co-edited a new book on this topic: Distributed Leadership in Practice (Teachers College Press, 2007).

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A distributed perspective serves as a new conceptual frame, explains HGSE Associate Professor John Diamond. "It helps us understand leadership practice and how leadership practices might work more effectively in the context of schools." Diamond debunks popular myth, stating, "It is not a type of leadership or a style of leadership. It's not a model of leadership. It's not something you place on top of a school and say, 'Now you are doing distributed leadership.'" A distributed perspective, he explains, is "thinking about the situation as an integral part of the leadership context; it is an integrated view of leaders' thinking, their activity and behaviors, and the situation."

According to Diamond, the distributed perspective focuses on leadership activity. In an organizational context, leadership activity might be trying to sell a vision in the context of the school or trying to transform the instructional practice in particular classrooms within a school. "It is the activity that we are trying to understand," explains Diamond. "Think about the constellation of people who are involved, how the context shapes what happens with that activity, and how artifacts might be an integral part of that activity. The distributed perspective is integrative thinking about all of those pieces and on leadership activity itself."

Diamond describes the roots of distributed leadership as an outgrowth of activity theory and distributed cognition. "Activity theory is about how an activity system works," he explains. "Think of the cockpit of an airplane – the people in the cockpit, the instrument panel, the people who are trying to help the plane land - and try to think about the activity of landing the plane not as something an individual person does, not as something the instrument panel does without the people, not as something a pilot could do without the air traffic controller. Try to think about the whole activity system." This, notes Diamond, is comparable to what is meant by leadership activity.

"With distributed cognition, on the other hand," states Diamond, "we are trying to think about how sense making is stretched over social interaction and artifacts in an environment." The context and social system matter, he explains. "Distributed cognition suggests that people's thinking and actions don't happen in a vacuum. Thinking happens through social interaction and interaction with the environment. These impact how the leadership activity happens." According to Diamond, distributed leadership integrates these central ideas from activity theory and distributed cognition.

So what is distributed leadership? "We think of leadership as an influence relationship – the ability to influence the practices of others in ways that bring about a 'major change in form, nature, and function of some phenomenon,'" states Diamond, citing studies by Leithwood, Begley, & Cousins, 1994 and Bennis & Nanus, 1985. However, distributed leadership moves beyond trying to understand leadership through the actions and beliefs of single leaders. Diamond stresses, "It is constituted through the interaction of leaders, teachers, and the situation as they influence instructional practice. Distributed leadership is a powerful way to understand leadership activity in schools in more complex and interconnected ways."

By Susan Henry, doctoral student in Learning and Teaching at HGSE.

Lessons in Distributed Leadership

Copyright © 2009 The President and Fellows of Harvard College