Distributed leadership in higher education: what does it accomplish?
The term ‘distributed leadership’ has been prominent in research into educational management for some time. A number of articles have recently questioned the explanatory utility of the concept; in this essay we examine its rhetorical function in higher education institutions. We suggest that it has served to contain and to some extent ameliorate two contradictions in the experience of academics who take on managerial roles or who exert leadership of some sort. Firstly, it may help to make sense of a contrast between their experience of leadership and their sense of what it should be; secondly, it helps to mediate conflicts in the identity-work of being an academic and a manager. Also, placed in the wider context of changes in the cultures of universities, ‘distributed leadership’ may mask the concentration of influence with those who have control of budgets, threats to traditional means of upward communication, and the predominance of academic leadership. We conclude that the term ‘distributed leadership’ draws attention to the large number of actors involved in leadership, and the importance of organizational processes in shaping their engagements, but has limited use as an analytical heuristic. However it has a number of rhetorical functions that make a significant contribution to the ways in which leadership is accomplished in sectors such as Higher Education.
Author's draft; final version published in Leadership. Available on http://online.sagepub.com/
Leadership, Vol. 5, No. 3, 299-310 (2009)