📚 Distributed Leadership Matters

Read Distributed Leadership Matters: Perspectives, Practicalities, and Potential by Alma Harris
I have been wondering about the idea of leadership with a little l for quite a while now. I first came upon Alma Harris’ distributed leadership in an article within ACER’s Teacher magazine. This then led me to Harris’ book Distributed Leadership Matters.

What stood out was the focus on conditions of learning and trust, rather than particular actions and attributes. Coupled with Disciplined Collaboration, Harris provides something of a vision for empowering staff to lead the change from the ground on up. It clearly addresses the how and why, leaving the what up to you.

Although not designed to replace traditional leadership structures and expectations, it is hard to imagine that things remaining the same. Below then is a collection of my notes and quotes from reading.


Distributed leadership is primarily concerned with the interactions and the dynamics of leadership practice rather than a preoccupation with the formal roles and responsibilities traditionally associated with those “who lead.” This book argues that it is the practice of leadership that is most important if the goal, in schools and districts, is to secure better instruction and improved learner outcomes.

Leadership distribution has to be first and foremost focused upon improving learner outcomes.

It is impossible to imagine how sustainable innovation and change in complex times can be secured without broad-based and sustained distributed leadership.

Professional collaboration can be a powerful routine that effective organizations can deploy to support distributed leadership practice.

The reality is that without actively and purposefully distributing leadership within the organization, long-term survival is not guaranteed. Without leadership, that involves the many rather than the few, those in formal leadership positions will continue to be vulnerable and exposed.

Too much of what passes for professional collaboration equates with loose or unfocused professional groupings, partnerships, or networks. While professional partnerships or networks have a variety of uses including knowledge and information sharing, the jury is still out on their ability to directly change learner outcomes for the better.

While there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence about the benefits of networks and networking, in reality, it is hard to substantiate any positive or lasting impact on learners.

Distributed leadership is characterized by high levels of trust, interdependence, reciprocal accountability, and shared purpose (Harris, 2008).

While there are rare occasions when distributed leadership is a by-product of a particularly positive school culture, most usually it happens by careful design.

The fact remains that in terms of a school’s performance, leadership is second only to the influence of teaching and learning on student outcomes

High performance leaders invested heavily in building strong relationships, sharing leadership with others, developing collaborative teams, and generating high levels of intraorganizational trust

It is not just the structure of teams that keeps PBE organizations moving forward, as every organization has teams, but the vibrant nature of the teamwork itself. PBE organizations have cultures of creativity and risk taking. They allow and encourage workers to have freedom and flexibility to innovate and play.

So how do we change what happens in classrooms, where it matters most of all? How do we encourage teachers to move away from normative practice and do something new or different? How do we get teachers to step out of their comfort zone and take some risks? What form of leadership is required to support innovation and change? How do we change professional development so that there is an expectation of a change or improvement in classroom practice?

Many approaches to reform and change are “top-down,” imposed on schools without any attention to building adequate capacity or creating sufficient social capital for the change to work.

It remains the case that most systems have everything they need to raise their performance within the system, but at school and district levels, better connections simply need to be made.

The second lesson therefore is one about capacity building. It points out the need to ensure that at the system and school level, there is sufficient expertise, energy, and resource in place to actually deliver.

A third reason for the failure of so much top-down reform is the reckless and often unprincipled speed of change.
Looking at the best performing education systems around the world, like Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, there is one consistent and powerful common denominator. They all invest in teachers’ professional learning and heavily subscribe to models of systematic professional collaboration

The whole point of professional collaborative learning is to generate new practices, ideas, and knowledge. It is to engage in focused collaboration that will ultimately push the boundaries of professional learning.

The real question should be, what type of leadership do we need to secure the best outcomes for young people, and how do we change our structures to make this happen?

Keeping things the way they are isn’t any guarantee of success either. In fact, it’s a certain way to hold back progress. In the natural world, the absence of change means one thing and one thing only: extinction.

The world is changing, learning is changing, and so should leadership.

The Fourth Way underscores the need for professional learning communities (PLCs) within, between, and across schools that are dedicated to improving the learning of students and adults alike.

Unless there is disciplined inquiry at the core of collaborative professional learning, it is unlikely to make a difference to learner outcomes (Harris & Jones 2012).

His book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki (2005) argues that “diversity helps because it actually adds perspectives that would otherwise be absent” (p. 29).

Rather than waiting for the right individual, the question is, why not tap and realize all the leadership potential that already exists within the organization?

Distributed leadership is best understood as “practice distributed over leaders, followers and their situation and incorporates the activities of multiple groups of individuals” (Spillane, 2006, p.12).

Distributed leadership is concerned with two things: The process of leadership—how leadership practice occurs within the organization Leadership activity—how leadership is enhanced, extended, and developed

Distributed leadership does not mean everybody leads but rather that everybody has the potential to lead, at some time, depending on expertise and experience;

To be most effective, distributed leadership has to be carefully planned and deliberately orchestrated.

If distributed leadership is viewed as inauthentic or as simply being used as a subtle device or mechanism to manipulate others, it will be destined to fail. If so, there will be no point in trying again as those within the organization will, quite rightly, be reluctant to engage.

Essentially, if formal leaders create the time, space, and opportunity for colleagues to meet, plan, and reflect, it is far more likely that distributed leadership will be viewed as genuine and will be sustained.

A distributed model of leadership focuses upon the interactions, rather than the actions, of those in formal and informal leadership roles.

Distributed leadership involves two elements—the leader-plus and the practice aspect.

The differences between high performing and low performing schools can be attributed to different degrees of leadership distribution

Distributed leadership is not intrinsically a good or a bad thing. Like any form of leadership, it depends upon the situation and context and how it is enacted.

Much depends upon how distributed leadership is understood, deployed, and framed.

It is important to be clear about intentions and expectations as, when not adequately explained, distributed leadership can be easily misconstrued as delegation or even subtle coercion (Hatcher, 2005).

While failure in the sporting, business, or, indeed, educational world is not uncommon, the response to failure is what defines outstanding and exceptional leaders.

The real issue is not about finding extra time but in using the existing time more productively.
learning collaboratively depends on trust and authentic interdependence. It depends on generating social rather than individual capital.

Social capital is essentially concerned with the norms and networks that support and facilitate collective actions for mutual benefit

While relationship building is important, relationship building with purpose is far more likely to secure productive and positive change.

While it may be true that two heads are better than one—if the two heads think the same, then collaboration will yield relatively little.

The quality of an organization, that is, its efficiency and its effectiveness, comes down to one thing and one thing only: how far and how quickly you trust others within the organization.

Building collective capacity implies that people take the opportunity to do things differently. They opt to learn new skills and to generate more effective practice together through mutual support, mutual accountability, and mutual challenge.

For professional learning to have an impact, then systematic and sustained professional collaboration is needed

Where teachers work in self-managing teams to develop goals, curricula, instructional strategies, and staff development programs, students can achieve at higher levels.

The implicit assumption is that attending courses equates with professional learning and that by participating in these events somehow professional practice will change. Now, without question, there are some good courses, powerful programs, and effective professional learning sessions. But the return on this large-scale investment, in the form of improved professional practice that leads to better learning outcomes, is still highly questionable.

There is still far too much professional learning without impact. There is still too much professional development that makes little, if any, difference to the classroom.

If a “learning conversation,” whether in the guise of mentoring or coaching, is to really change practice, it will require much more than simply sharing or processing ideas or questions through mutual reflection or discussion.

The job of a PLC can be summed up in three words: “improving learner outcomes

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a passion for something they do and learn how to do it more effectively as they interact regularly and learn together.

The core idea behind professional learning communities or teams is that they operate as a catalyst within an organization to secure change and improvement. They have a central responsibility for generating new ideas and practices so that organizational outcomes improve. They can also drive change at scale.

Developing leadership capacity, particularly at scale, does not happen by default but has to be purposefully crafted, designed, and carefully implemented.

If we are serious about changing things in schools and districts rather than simply rearranging them, then it is imperative to invest in the most powerful forms of professional learning (PL), i.e. those that make a difference to student learning.

Within effective PLCs, professionals work together in a collaborative way, with an emphasis on mutual inquiry, interrogation of data, and scrutiny of evidence in order to establish a specific focus for the PLC to address.

Professional learning communities provide opportunities for staff to look deeply into the process of instruction and to learn how to become more effective in their work with students.

Teachers can only become more effective in their own practice through disciplined collaboration and inquiry.

The central role of the leader in a professional learning community therefore is to provide pressure and support, to ensure that the group works effectively, and to ensure that there are outcomes to show as a result of their collaboration

In professional collaboration, the learning belongs to the group; it is a collective enterprise.

The main challenge for formal leaders who want better performance and better outcomes is to actively build the leadership capacity within their organization, so that productive change and continuous improvement can become a real possibility. To build the leadership capacity within their school, formal leaders need to harness the collective will, skill, and leadership of all those in their organization in a carefully sequenced way so that the organization, as a whole, benefits

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