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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Distributed Leadership in the E-Learning Organization


Distributed leadership is often referred to as democratic leadership, which gives an indication of the profoundly non-hierarchical nature of power and authority structures in communities of practice or sub-group task forces that are called upon to realize organizational missions and outcomes. It is a powerful organizational strategy, and one that makes excellent use of the resources - human, physical, and financial - of an organization. Because of its usefulness, and overview and discussion are provided below.

Characteristics of Individuals Within an Organization with Distributed Leadership:

Individuals perceive themselves as stakeholders: Because of this perception, all individual team members are willing and able to assume leadership positions, when needed.

The organizational mission can be achieved in stages: The tasks needed to achieve the mission can be broken down into component parts and distributed to the teams best able to achieve the tasks.

Distributed roles and tasks: They take place in different time zones, places, and under widely divergent conditions.

Leaders have expert (rather than title) authority: Leadership shifts according to need; the leader role generally resides with the person who has expert authority for the designated task.

Vision is a unifying force: A clearly articulated vision which is equally shared among all members exerts incredible cohesive force. It is what allows progress to be made without diverging or going off course.

Collaborative teams formed for specific purposes: The teams have fluid membership, which changes according to the task, the roles, and the requisite talent.

Communities of practice emerge: Although collaborative activities tend to disband, the communities of practice maintain their affiliation long after the task, and often connect with each other in order to brainstorm about future needs and potential collaborative configurations.

I'm a leader now!  meeowww!

Aspects of Distributed Leadership (after Woods, 2004) as applied to the e-learning organization

Analytical concepts: The notion of a vision, mission, and desired outcomes constitute an analytical foundation.

Emergent and dispersed: This contrasts with leadership by a single individuals; distributed leadership is characterized by the constant appearance and/or emergence of leaders, which are not necessarily in a single location, but instead, are dispersed in time and geographical space.

Inclusive, based on contingent status: Participation by team members hinges on organizational need and the importance of the vision, mission, and outcomes. Teams and communities of practice are open and inclusive, rather than rigid.

Formally neutral: The individuals are task-oriented, and political or ideological agendas are considered unnecessary and counter-productive.

Instrumental autonomy: Team members are less constrained by existing teams than in an organization in which leadership stays in one location. They are able to act with autonomy when their actions are perceived to help bring the organization to the realization of its goals.

Functional toward human capacities: Leadership shifts according to specific, finite, task-oriented needs. Individuals may assume leadership for the time that their specific skills, talents, or other attributes are needed, and then may abnegate leadership when that moment of need is over.

Although writers on educational leadership tend to propose competing terms for distributed leadership, and alternatively refer to it as dispersed, collaborative, democratic, or shared leadership, all tend to agree that it is the prevailing model in an environment that is employed in organizations that have numerous tasks to accomplish, and a wide variety of skills and resources.

The e-learning organization benefits from a distributed model because it allows collaboration, creative problem-solving, and innovative product design and resources management in an environment that is characterized by rapid technological change, and swiftly emerging learner demands.

Useful References

Barth, R. S. (2001) Learning by Heart, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Burns, J. M. (1978) Leadership, New York: Harper & Row.

Castells, M. (1996) The Network Society, Oxford: Blackwell.

Court, M. (2003) Towards democratic leadership. Co-principal initiatives. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 6(2), 161-183.

Fullan, M. (2001) Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gronn, P. (2003) Leadership: who needs it? School Leadership and Management, 23(3), 267-290.

Gronn, P. and Rawlings-Sanaei, F. (2003) Recruiting principals in a climate of disengagement. Australian Journal of Education, 47 (2), 172-184.

Hargreaves, D.H. (1999) The knowledge-creating school, British Journal Education Studies, 47 (2), 122-144.

Kets de Vries, M. (1999) High-Performance Teams, Lessons from the Pygmies. Organizational Dynamics, 27 (3), 66-77.

Leithwood, K & Jantzi D. (1990) Transformational leadership: how principal can help reform school cultures, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 1(4), 249-280.

O'Neill, B. (2002) Distributive Leadership: Meaning Practice (Milton Keynes: The Open University).

Senge, P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization, New York: Doubleday.

Spillane, J. P., Halverson, R., and Diamond, J.B. (2001) Investigating School Leadership Practice: A Distributive Perspective. Educational Researcher, April 2001, pp. 23-28.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woods, P.A. (2004) Democratic leadership: drawing distinctions with distributed leadership. International Journal of Leadership in Education, March 2004, 7(1), 3-26.

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