Moving Toward Collective Leadership

Summer 2021

By Jay Conger, Jerry Larson

JOURNEY_final-signoff.jpgWorking with independent schools through the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, we observed that the highly adaptive schools had heads of school who fostered a collective leadership response. These heads brought those closest to the issue, such as health professionals and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) professionals, along with faculty and parents, into the conversation through collaborative efforts. In contrast, struggling schools were characterized by heads who kept the decision-making process within a small circle of administrators and had to be involved in every facet of their school’s response or by heads who abdicated their responsibility to fully participate. In many situations, the decisions were similar, yet the responses to those actions varied greatly, with the collective leadership model resulting in much less pushback and negative reactions.
This further illuminates the notion that the effectiveness of the traditional hierarchical model of leadership is fading. We see this most recently in the success of student, parent, and faculty networks in shaping their schools’ responses to hybrid learning environments. On a grander scale, we are witnessing remarkable grassroots efforts that harness the power of social media platforms to influence political and social agendas in our communities, states, and countries. Today, a teenager championing a strong cause can leverage digital platforms to play a leadership role in shaping global social agendas. This heightened level of activism is empowering individuals at all levels to demonstrate leadership.
This is a sharp contrast to older notions of leadership as embedded in positions of formal authority, such as the head of school role. Many schools have been slow to adopt a collaborative, or distributed, leadership model, even though this has been practiced at the departmental level for decades. In many ways, individual autonomy in our schools has inhibited a shift in leadership, in part because of the age-old struggle around authority, power, and titles. As schools are forced to navigate major crises such as COVID-19 and social justice, we are beginning to see a more collective approach to leadership.
To understand the distributed leadership model, leadership must be viewed not as a role but rather as a relationship. In essence, leadership is an individual’s ability to form influential relationships with others to promote innovations and drive adaptive change. There are various attributes, knowledge, and skills required for a truly collective model of leadership. Heads of schools can develop these skills as well as cultivate them in their administrative teams, trustees, aspiring school leaders, and faculty members. As such, leaders can be found at all levels of an organization. This might mean a trustee or a faculty member or even a frontline staff member could be the real driver behind a major change. It also includes collectives of students, parents, or alumni emboldened by a strong cause or energized by an event outside the school. This past year has been a testament to the efficacy of distributed leadership, which can dramatically influence a school community in adapting day-to-day operations and responding to major crises. Today’s environment demands distributed leadership to address the inevitable disruptions—in fact, it’s a necessity.

Developing Collective Leadership Agility

It’s easy to assume that delegating more to the individuals on the leadership team is “distributing leadership.” It’s a first step but falls short of genuine distributed leadership. Delegating to the next level is simply a variation on the old hierarchical model—the team must now delegate to faculty and staff to ensure they have a voice in issues that directly impact their work. That said, cascading decision-making is only one dimension of this model; another is greater collective decision-making.
Just over 20 years ago, Jay Conger, along with his colleague Craig Pearce, now at the University of South Alabama, pioneered the early research on shared leadership primarily in the corporate sector. The research showed that this approach ensured that power and decision-making was always delegated to the most qualified individuals in an organization. As a result, problems were more successfully and rapidly addressed. Widely distributed leadership promoted work climates in which people felt free to take initiative and voice their ideas. In turn, individuals experienced a greater sense of personal motivation and empowerment. As a result, their commitment to their organizations increased.
Preeminent experts in distributed leadership Alma Harris, professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Bath, England, and James Spillane, professor of learning and organizational change at Northwestern University, note that distributed leadership has two central tenants. The first is how leadership is practiced in organizations—as a collective, more democratic, shared responsibility. It involves mobilizing experts at all levels of the organization to ensure greater capacity for organizational change and innovation. The second is how leadership is enhanced, developed, and extended. Distributed leadership requires a high level of trust, interdependence, and reciprocal learning.

Model in Motion

Distributed leadership is already in use in schools—as a framework for improving teaching and learning through collaborative teams involving teachers and school administrators. But it’s very much still in its infancy as a leadership framework at the larger organizational level. Some may view distributed leadership as situational, depending on the issue or area of focus. Some assume sharing decisions with the administrative team is distributed. It can be all of those styles, yet it encompasses more of a collective and developmental focus. In a distributed model, there is more emphasis on influencing networks, continual learning, and constructive dialogue rather than on power and compliance. There is clarity in the decision-making process, and those closest to the work may have more influence on decision outcomes.
Think about the people in many of the standard leadership roles in schools today: How long has it been since they’ve been in the classroom? How diverse, in terms of age, gender, race, and socioeconomic composition, is the senior leadership? Today’s heads of school cannot possibly have all the experience, knowledge,
and skills necessary to navigate the complex issues facing schools and our communities. It is time to invite others into the arena, for all of us to be leaders and followers. Distributed leadership is not about abdicating authority or discarding leadership positions, but more about widening our view of what constitutes leadership.
In an effective distributed leadership model, the one with the most expertise leads by building knowledge and understanding, clarifying issues, and identifying potential responses to the situation as a member of a team. In looking at the landscape of how schools responded to COVID-19 or addressing DEI, we found that successful school leaders looked to their health professionals and to outside experts for input and guidance. They balanced external input with their mission, philosophy, and economics.
We see distributed leadership also in the success of student, parent, and faculty networks shaping their schools’ responses to hybrid learning environments. On a grander scale, we are witnessing remarkable grassroots efforts that harness the power of social media to influence political and social agendas in our communities, states, and countries. This heightened level of activism is empowering all individuals to demonstrate leadership.
And as schools seek to empower DEI leaders in schools to help address systemic issues, providing these professionals with support is critical. We’ve already seen that the younger generations will likely be well-positioned to lead us in addressing justice concerns in our schools. Shared leadership can help schools address these economic and social shifts by involving those closest to the issues at the leadership level. According to a study by Deloitte and the Network of Executive Women, Gen Z will be the most diverse generation to enter the workforce. Organizations need to begin preparing for this evolution by addressing policies, procedures, systems—including leadership structures—and the overall organizational culture.

Building Up

For schools to develop a distributed leadership model, they must shift to a more horizontal leadership practice in which people other than those in formal leadership positions are seen as partners. This requires a disciplined approach to collaboration and a clear understanding about how decisions will be made and by whom. The overriding focus, however, remains on the school’s mission, core values, and philosophy and what is best for students. It also requires a heightened emphasis on professional growth and building relational capital, constructing knowledge, talent development, teaming skills, conflict management, and leadership capacity.
What is the process for building a distributed model of leadership at schools? Heads of school must first shift their perceptions of their role. The focus moves from interpreting information and making major decisions to empowering others and, in particular, leveraging teams for problem-solving. Heads remain the ultimate check-and-balance system for decisions, but they need to set the boundaries in which others can take action—strategically, financially, and culturally. The head is the chief promoter of the school’s mission, vision, and core values and must ensure that the decisions that others make advance these things. A greater portion of their workday, however, will be spent coaching and developing leadership talent at all levels of the school. Finding opportunities to deepen heads’ skills in coaching, assessing talent, team building, and managing conflict is critical.
Call out the bright spots of distributed leadership that are already in place, and use them as examples. In formalizing a distributed leadership model, establish a professional learning community with leadership development at the core. To build this culture, it is critical to:
  • develop stronger partnerships with trustees, heads, administrators, faculty, and staff.
  • clarify roles, responsibilities, and how decisions will be made (recognizing fiduciary and policy responsibilities).
  • provide administrators and faculty with professional development opportunities that are based on a model that is primarily action-learning, using issues and projects that arise in your school every day.
  • offer current and emerging school leaders the opportunity to lead an initiative that is outside their primary responsibility, such as redesigning the hiring process, adapting to new technology, participating in a fundraising project, or addressing a pandemic or social justice issue.
  • ask what resources and training is required. (If an initiative is likely to cost more than could be allocated from the operating budget, the project leader will need to involve the chief financial officer and perhaps the school’s chief fundraiser. If there might be a policy change, then the trustees would need to be engaged.)
These opportunities will provide emerging school leaders with valuable experience interacting with operational and governing areas of the school. The head of school will also need to be involved with this action-learning process as a coach and a mentor, building the leadership capacity of their team and the school.

Given the wide and complex variety of issues now confronting heads, boards, and leadership teams, distributed leadership will become the sine qua non for leading independent schools. Harnessing the power of collective leadership will also lay the foundation for the emergence of the next generation of diverse leaders in our ever-changing world, communities, and independent schools.   

What’s Your Style?

Take a closer look at these 10 common leadership styles, and reflect on your preferred style(s). Knowing your style will help you understand how you can implement distributed leadership.
Transactional leadership is best described by thinking of a typical transaction: I give you this, and you do this in return. Transactional leaders dish out instructions to their team members and then use different rewards and penalties to recognize or punish what they do.
Transformational leadership seeks to change or transform the organization or group by inspiring others to innovate. These leaders make improvements and find better ways to get things done by inspiring others and empowering them to own their work.
Servant leadership operates with this standard motto: Serve first, and lead second. Rather than thinking about how they can inspire people to follow their lead, these leaders focus energy into finding ways that they can help others. They prioritize the needs of other people above their own or the organization’s.
Democratic leadership, or participative leadership, runs groups and projects like a democracy. These leaders emphasize working together and actively involve their teams in the decision-making process. They value ideas and input from others and encourage discussion about those contributions.
Autocratic leadership is the opposite of democratic leadership; it is a “my way or the highway” approach, and these leaders see themselves as having absolute power and make decisions on behalf of others. They dictate what needs to be done and how it should be accomplished.
Bureaucratic leadership goes “by the book”—there’s a prescribed set of boxes to check in order to be a true leader. Bureaucratic leaders have hierarchical authority; their power comes from a formal position or title rather than their unique characteristics, traits, or experiences.
Laissez-faire leadership derives from the French term that translates to “leave it be,” which encapsulates this hands-off leadership approach. It’s the exact opposite of micromanagement: These leaders make few decisions and allow those around them to determine their own individual response to an issue or situation.
Charismatic or visionary leadership refers to leaders who have strong personalities and a desire to achieve big-picture objectives. They use eloquent communication and persuasion to unite a group around a cause. They’re able to clearly lay out their vision and get others excited about that same goal.
Pacesetting leadership is similar to charismatic and autocratic leadership. This style describes a driven leader who sets the pace, establishing high expectations and pushing their team to run hard and fast to achieve their goals.
Situational leadership depends on the specific issue, person, or organizational need at a particular point and time. A leader may be directing or delegating, coaching or supporting. From an emotional intelligence perspective, a leader could be pacesetting, visionary, affiliative, coaching, democratic, or commanding.
Jay Conger

Jay Conger is the Henry R. Kravis Chaired Professor of Leadership Studies at Claremont McKenna College and chair of the board of trustees at Dunn School in Los Olivos, California.

Jerry Larson

Jerry Larson is managing partner at Educational Directions and a trustee at The Winchendon School in Winchendon, Massachusetts.