Distributed Leadership: Why the Right Time Is Right Now

Looking to build capacity and community within your school? Time to give distributed leadership some thought. Here’s a look at what it is, what it looks like in practice, and questions to guide your implementation.
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Blog date
9/26/23
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We’ve discussed this data point from the Wallace Foundation before, but with the school year in full swing, we thought it was important to mention it again: Leadership is second only to teaching among in-school influences on student success. What you do matters, and we’re happy to remind you of that.

Filling the principal role with strong leaders like yourselves is the first step to raising the collective leadership capacity in our schools. The next step is to create the kind of leadership model that can magnify your leadership while also fostering a teaching and learning environment where students thrive.

Rather than the traditional story of the superhero principal who has all the answers—and can also do it all—the most successful schools are taking the opposite approach: flattening their leadership structures and distributing the school’s strategic work, creating additional opportunities for leaders, teachers, and staff to work side-by-side on shaping instructional strategies and initiatives that strengthen their school’s vision

One of the best ways to build leadership capacity in your school and create community in the process is to consider a shift to a more distributed leadership model. So, we’re taking another look at the concept of distributed leadership—getting clear on its definition, giving a few examples of what it looks like in action, and providing questions to guide your own implementation.  

One of the best ways to build leadership capacity in your school and create community in the process is to consider a shift to a more distributed leadership model. 

First, a review of distributed leadership

Many definitions abound around distributed leadership. A more technical definition describes it as a range of flexible approaches to school organization, management, and operations that expand the traditional conceptions of leadership. This includes both formal and informal shared decision-making for schoolwide priorities. 

There’s also this more practical definition from New Leaders alum Beulah McLoyd: “To me, ‘distributed leadership’ really just means encouraging teachers to do what they do best—and empowering them to challenge themselves to do it bigger and better. Every teacher brings leadership qualities to your table—from expertise to experience, to innovation and vision. All those qualities can be leveraged and encouraged for your students’ benefit.” 

McLoyd’s definition stresses a critical component about distributed leadership—it’s much more than simply delegating leadership responsibilities. Distributed leadership is a partnership where teacher leaders and others get the support they need to level up their leadership know-how, and everyone learns and thrives in the process, including you. 

Distributed leadership is a partnership where teacher leaders and others get the support they need to level up their leadership know-how, and everyone learns and thrives in the process, including you. 

Instructional leadership teams (ILTs) or site-based leadership teams are the most common forms of the distributed leadership model, as they’re both tasked with addressing school-level practices. That said, there are plenty of teams within schools that can be examples or possess elements of distributed leadership, including grade-level and department teams, data or inquiry teams, or teams for a specific initiative. It shows up anytime the leadership capacity of the adults in your school community is being increased and amplified. 

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What does distributed leadership look and feel like?

Now that we’ve talked about distributed leadership in theory, what does it look like in practice? Two stories from New Leaders alumni provide some great examples:

Navigating tough decisions, together

When New Leaders alum Claire Fisher was a new school principal in Oakland Unified School District, her first challenge was navigating a budget challenge due to a sunsetting grant. Small class sizes were a hallmark of her school, but without the grant, that might need to change. Teacher layoffs were on the horizon.

After quickly doing her homework, running the numbers, and getting clear on the situation, Fisher found there was no easy answer. She knew she had to engage her staff in the decision-making process. “At the next staff meeting, I laid out the numbers,” she said. “I had to make the budget crisis palpable enough so they’d feel empowered enough to find the solution.” 

After weeks of rigorous discussion, Fisher and her team arrived at the solution: they unanimously voted to increase class size so they could reach more students and continue to provide expert instruction. Sharing in the decision helped everyone take more ownership of the outcome. 

Co-designing professional development

For New Leaders alum Cristina Segura, distributed leadership came in the form of designing and implementing a “just-right” professional development calendar with her teachers. 

To begin the process, Segura hosted a Saturday session to bring teachers together to talk and plan. Her goal was three-fold: have her teachers reflect on the PD that was most important, identify instructional strategies that needed to be prioritized, and create a plan that built the capacity of both new and experienced teachers. 

“Having the teachers in the room was super powerful,” Segura says. “In the past, what I heard was ‘we’re given the PD calendar, but we don’t know the why.’ Now their voices are included.”

How do you get started with distributed leadership?

Creating a new leadership system in your school might feel overwhelming—especially if your school has long subscribed to a more traditional leadership approach. Here are a few reflection questions to ask yourself and your teacher leaders as you start to shift to a distributed leadership model:

  • What’s our “culture readiness” level for distributed leadership? Consider your current school culture. Is there an emphasis on inclusivity and collaboration? Is there a high level of psychological safety, where teachers and staff feel safe and supported giving and receiving feedback — not only with leaders, but with each other? Trust is the foundation of distributed leadership, along with an openness to learn and take calculated risks.

  • What’s our “implementation readiness” level for distributed leadership? Here’s where it’s important to talk frankly with your teachers and staff. What kind of decision-making would distributed leadership help to achieve? What systems and processes would you use to plan the steps required to meet these goals? How would the structure of the team work best—and who are the best teachers and staff members to tap for this expanded leadership team? Giving your educators voice and choice in this process can help them feel like even the process of implementing distributed leadership is something they can have a perspective on.

  • What distributed leadership approach best suits our school and team? There are a few different approaches to distributed leadership, so it’s important to think about how it will work within the context of your school. Specifically, think about whether your distributed leadership model is evaluative vs. non-evaluative. An evaluative approach expands the pool of educators who are trained and responsible for contributing to the evaluations of other teachers within your school.

    In a non-evaluative environment, the focus is placed on observing and learning from one another. On an instructional leadership team, this collaboration can take several forms: informal peer observations, instructional rounds, or scenarios where ILTs and teacher leaders are trained to observe classroom practices and coach their peers for instructional shifts.

  • What are our distributed leadership goals and metrics? Regardless of which approach might be right for your school, it’s critical to have a structure in place where everyone on the team understands the overarching goals and metrics that make up your distributed leadership implementation plan—and their role within the team. 

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More school leadership = increased influence on student learning

Leadership is one of the most significant school-based influences on student learning—and for that reason, it’s worth exploring what a distributed leadership model could look like in your school. Distributed leadership encourages teacher leaders, staff members, and the adults in your wider school community to consider the ways they can have intentional and positive influence. The more people who see themselves as leaders in your school, the more that impact will cascade down to students. 

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