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January 11th, 2017

The Highs and Lows of Distributed Leadership


There are a number of different ways that leadership can be executed, and because each situation is unique and faced with its own set of variables, there is no right answer as to which style of leadership is the best.

Takashi Mitachi gave a TED talk in 2013 on “3 Lessons that Businesses can learn from Natural Disasters.” One of the lessons that Mitachi gleaned from his experience with earthquakes – the natural disaster in question – is “distributed leadership.” It is this style that will be the focus of this post.

The notion of distributed leadership has been known in social science circles since the early 1950’s, yet it was not until the 1990’s and early 2000’s that interest in it started gaining more serious interest and traction.

A theory as to why it has taken so long for distributed leadership to become a more accepted way of looking at organizational structure is that the conventional constructs of leadership, as with any convention, has had difficulty accepting change. The change in this case being that the traditional model of leadership – which focuses on a “heroic leader paradigm” consisting of a single leader at its core – is not the only model of successful leadership.


What is it?

Distributed leadership has two different variations in how it is executed, however, the principle behind the movement – of promoting interdependence and coordination – remains the same.

One camp views distributed leadership as effectively circumventing the need for a traditional leader. In his article, Peter Gronn states that an individual who can perform the essential functions of leadership is not required. Rather, a team of people who are able to collectively perform the necessary functions would work together equally within the organization. In this way “some leadership functions may be allocated to individual members, and a particular leadership function may be performed by different people at different times.” (Gronn, 2002)

In the second camp, authors Ajay Mehra et al. argue that team leaders play a pivotal role in how collective norms are shaped, in helping their teams manage their environments, and in coordinating collective action toward a common goal. So as a complement to the traditional top-down leadership model, with a central leader still in place, individuals at all levels of the organization are empowered to have the confidence to make decisions and to have the initiative to act and take the lead in a project or problem.


Does it work?

As with any practice, there are strengths and weakness in both camps.

For one, it could be difficult to find the right combination of people who work together seamlessly as co-leaders. “Team performance is not simply a matter of having more leaders. It also matters whether or not the leaders see each other as leaders.” (Mehra, 2006) In a large business setting this could be a risky option.

However, if the central leader is not eliminated completely and the right balance is found, having self-contained units reporting regularly to a central leader could free up considerable time for said leader to focus on the overarching strategies and practices of the business. These self-managed teams of equals could also increase productivity through heighten creativity via the extensive collaboration present in this type of system. Google is an excellent example of an organization finding success in this style.

Inefficiencies and redundancies are some of the difficulties that an organization may run into when their employees have authorization to make decisions and take action without consultation from upper management. There must be clearly defined policies and practices that outline who has ownership of a project, and constant communication on when decisions are being made so there isn't a multitude of different solutions being created for a single problem.

When done well, this application of distributed leadership allows for quick, decisive action on the front lines that the core leader may be too far removed from to make an informed decision in time. It also enables the central leader to have time to focus on the large scale decisions that must be made at the higher level regarding the company’s future.


The benefits of distributed leadership can be extensive, but as with any practice, it must be altered to fit your organization. Being able to step back and trust your team and employees allows for more time to be spent on planning for the future.








Sources used for this post:

3 Lessons that Businesses Can Learn from Natural Disasters. (2014). [video] TED@BCG: TED & BCG Perspectives.

Bolden, Richard. "Distributed Leadership In Organizations: A Review Of Theory And Research". International Journal of Management Reviews 13 (2011): 251-269. Print.

Gronn, P. (2002). Distributed leadership. In Second international handbook of educational leadership and administration (pp. 653-696). Springer Netherlands.

Gronn, P. (2002). Distributed leadership as a unit of analysis. The leadership quarterly13(4), 423-451.

Manimala, Mathew and Kishinchand Poornima Wasdani. "Distributed Leadership At Google: Lessons From The Billion-Dollar Brand •". N.p., 2013. Web. 9 Jan. 2017.

Mehra, A., Smith, B. R., Dixon, A. L., & Robertson, B. (2006). Distributed leadership in teams: The network of leadership perceptions and team performance. The Leadership Quarterly17(3), 232-245.