January 17, 2022
Is Distributed Leadership the Future?

Dr Rozhan Othman

Senior Fellow

We have to look at the past to discuss whether Distributed Leadership is the future. Specifically, we have to look back at the pivotal work by Burns and Stalker on the notion of organic systems. Their work was published way back in 1961. But like many new ideas, it took time to make its way into mainstream management thinking. It was more than 20 years later that their ideas became a part of the mainstream conversation in management and leadership.

We have to look at the past to discuss whether Distributed Leadership is the future. Specifically, we have to look back at the pivotal work by Burns and Stalker on the notion of organic systems. Their work was published way back in 1961. But like many new ideas, it took time to make its way into mainstream management thinking. It was more than 20 years later that their ideas became a part of the mainstream conversation in management and leadership.

Burns and Stalker’s work examined electronics firms in Scotland in the late 1950s. Among the key ideas put forward by Burns and Stalker is the distinction between mechanistic and organic systems. The former is common in bureaucracies and manufacturing operations where the emphasis is on creating efficiency, stability and predictability. Activities are highly routinized, stability is the key concern, relationships are very hierarchical and leadership is pretty much top-bottom.

Organic systems on the hand are common in knowledge-intensive organizations where creativity and the use and development of knowledge is critical to value creation. These organizations embrace change and dynamism and cannot be led using high routinized SOPs, top-bottom leadership and hierarchical management.

More recent work by Benner and Tushman also contributed to this discussion when they highlight the difference between exploitation and exploration in technological innovation. Exploitation is concerned with making use of existing technologies through more efficient process management. Achieving this involves variation minimization. Exploration is about seek discontinuous innovation by searching and developing new ideas. This involves variation maximization. Variation minimization and variation maximization has different imperatives. They are driven by different dynamics and have to be managed and led differently.

In mechanistic systems where variation minimization is key, knowledge, power and authority is concentrated and controlled at the top. Decision-making is governed by a norm of authority of hierarchy. In organic systems knowledge and expertise is dispersed. The emphasis on variation maximization in organic systems requires consultative communication to bring ideas together, synthesize knowledge and technologies to create value and decision-making is governed by a norm of authority of knowledge.

These two approaches have led to considerable rethinking about the role of leadership in organizations. Whereas early thinking about leadership is leader-centric, more recent discussions have sought to develop a more follower-centric approach to leadership. Leader-centric approaches as embodied in the notions of charismatic leadership, transformational leadership etc makes the leader the centre of gravity in organizations. In leader-centric theories, there is considerable focus on issues like leader personality and traits.

More follower-centric thinking about leadership has sought to shift this centre of gravity by reconceptualizing the role of leaders and make followers more like partners in the leadership process. Ideas associated with this move includes the notion of servant leadership, democratic leadership, participative leadership, collective leadership, social exchange theory on leadership and more recently Distributed Leadership. This shift in the centre of gravity requires that leaders be more consultative, have the willingness to be influenced by followers, provide room for participation and accept the norm of authority of knowledge.

A key idea in Distributed Leadership is that the exercise of leadership is an emergent process and is built on relationship-building. Leadership is not just about being inspirational or structuring task or delegating assignments or being people-centred. Spillane argue that leadership is generated by the leader-follower interaction. It is more about the pattern of relationship that leaders develop with their followers. Spillane offers a typology of leader-follower relationships that can emerge with Distributed Leadership.

The follower-centric approach argues that followers have a mental model of what are appropriate leadership behaviours and what are inappropriate behaviours. Followers assess their leader behaviour and decide whether they accept the leader’s influence attempts. Leaders who behave very differently from the followers’ mental model will encounter difficulty gaining their support and commitment. This can present a problem in creative work where task performance is not just about complying with rules and SOPs.

It is important to point out that Distributed Leadership does not deny the role of leaders. Like many other theories and conceptions of leadership, Distributed Leadership also accept the unequal nature of the relationship between leaders and followers. In organic systems, the dispersed nature of knowledge and power simply make the leader more dependent on her followers and this reduces the leader-follower inequality. Thus, the form of communication, norms governing decision making and the way leadership is exercised should reflect this. This is also important for followers because creative work requires flexibility and adaptation. They need leaders who can adapt fast and who are not insulated from their followers by layers of hierarchy and rigid rules and routines.

The research on Distributed Leadership started in the field of education. This is probably because of the knowledge-intensive nature of education that makes traditional notions of leadership less effective. There has been more interest in looking at Distributed Leadership in other fields, including in the corporate sector. What Distributed Leadership offers is more ideas on how to lead organic systems beyond that initially discussed by Burns and Stalker. Leaders who lead organic systems but rely on rigid hierarchy, uses instructive communication and concentrates authority at the top will find themselves less effective.

Like many new ideas in management, the journey into the mainstream can be long. Most of the interest in Distributed Leadership has been among academic researchers who tend to be circumspect about prescribing any idea as a panacea. A Google Scholar search shows that 429 articles on Distributed Leadership were published from1980-1999. Most of these articles were related to leadership in education. However, the number of articles on Distributed Leadership published between 2010-2020 jumped to 19,600 articles. This is evidence of growing interest in Distributed Leadership. More recent discussions on this topic has grown beyond the field of education. We can expect Distributed Leadership to move to mainstream discussion on leadership.

Some who are reading this article may be asking “What’s new in Distributed Leadership? Don’t all leaders work with their followers anyway.” The key concern in Distributed Leadership is not just about the presence of leaders and followers but the nature of the leader-follower relationship. Some leaders espoused many socially desirable values but behave in a diametrically opposite manner. They may proclaim that people are the most important assets but will get rid of people when the bottom line is hit. They may say they are open to ideas but behave in ways that show that they think they are only smart person around and will only accept ideas that are like theirs. They may announce they want creative input but are unwilling to try new ideas and will cling to old practices. The notion of Distributed Leadership calls for a change away from these habits. This requires a mindset change.

It should be cautioned that not all leaders will find it easy to adopt Distributed Leadership. Some leaders are fixed in their beliefs and are control-oriented and are unlikely to change their old habits even when they agree with the tenets of Distributed Leadership. Some leaders are too smart for their own good. They can’t see that others may also be smart and have ideas that are different from theirs. In Malaysia, power distance can be a problem. Some leaders actually believe it is important to maintain a certain hierarchical distance from their followers.

One may hypothesize that the ability to adopt ideas like Distributed Leadership may well differentiate between organizations that are more creative and innovation-driven and those that remain hierarchical and compliance-oriented. In a knowledge-intensive organization the centre of gravity is at the centre. Leaders who continue to think that the centre of gravity is at the top will find themselves unable to adapt, have difficulty generating creative ideas and will be thrown off balance in today’s VUCA environment.


Benner, M and Tushman, M. (2003). “Exploitation, Exploration, and Process Management: The Productivity Dilemma Revisited”. Academy of Management Review, 28.

Burns, T. and Stalker. (1961). The Management of Innovation. London, Tavistock.

Spillane J (2006)  Distributed Leadership.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass

Spillane J,  Diamond J  and  Jita L (2003) Leading  instruction:  The distribution of leadership for instruction.  Journal of  Curriculum Studies  35(5):  533-543.  

Spillane J,  Halverson  R and Diamond  J  (2004) Towards a theory  of leadership practice:  a  distributed perspective.  Journal of Curriculum  Studies  36: 3–34.

Tian, M., Risku, M., & Collin, K. (2016). A meta-analysis of distributed leadership from 2002 to 2013 : Theory development, empirical evidence and future research focus. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 44(1), 146-164.

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